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Metamorphosis is Cool, But it's Also More Than That...

How transformations are a key part of storytelling in Latin literature and Japanese anime.

Disney’s Princess Tiana turns into a frog. Reincarnation after death is a key belief in some religions. Werewolves are some of the most notorious creatures in European folklore. The idea of metamorphosis, or human beings transforming into a different form, is one that we are completely fascinated with, and it shows up in various contexts and cultures.

“No form is fixed. Nature, the innovator of things, refashions new shapes out of old” (Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book 15. 269-279, trans. McCarter)

The Latin writer Ovid wrote an (extremely long) epic poem called the Metamorphoses, where he retold the history of the world as described in Greek and Roman mythology in a captivating way. Through stories of characters changing forms, the natural world and the human world blend into one. This made me think of Studio Ghibli’s anime films. Director Hayao Miyazaki also explores myths, this time from Japanese folklore, and creates beautiful worlds where the characters often undergo metamorphosis. Both Ovid’s and Miyazaki’s metamorphoses are poetic in a delicate yet mysterious way, leaving the reader to ponder about what these transformations truly mean and how they are in conversation with each other. I wanted to dig deeper to understand why this feature of storytelling has stuck over time and what it can reveal about both the ancient and modern worlds. What are the similarities and differences in how metamorphosis is represented by Ovid and Miyazaki? How does metamorphosis help us understand characters who feel lonely or victimized, or are in search of their identity? 

  1. Metamorphosis and Identity

In the Metamorphoses, one of the episodes follows the story of Narcissus who is in love with himself (it’s depressing - he literally spends most of the story staring at his own reflection in the water). Echo is the other main character who fits her name exactly: the goddess Juno cursed her with only having the ability to echo the last few words she hears someone say. Echo falls in love with Narcissus, but he rejects her. In the end, both characters waste away due to unrequited love - Narcissus becomes a flower and Echo’s body withers away until all that remains is her voice. 

“Then only voice and bones remain. Her voice endures” (Ovid, 3.426 - 3.427)

Echo undergoes metamorphosis where she transforms into nothing but her echoing sounds. She feels Narcissus’ rejection so intensely that she becomes trapped in her suffering. Not only does she not get the chance to love and be loved, but she also loses her body. In a sense, she loses the only part of herself that was truly hers, because her voice could only be a repetition of others’ words. Psychologists have used her story to create the term echoism, which is a polar opposite to narcissism. Echoists are so focused on pleasing others that they lose themselves in the process; their self-esteem is destroyed and they alienate themselves from others. We can see this when Echo “cloaks her face with leaves in shame, and dwells in hidden caves” (422-23) after Narcissus rejects and embarrasses her. Echoism is seen as a coping mechanism that comes from a fear of inconveniencing others and not gaining their approval. So in a very literal way, Echo’s metamorphosis helps us understand how damaging it can be losing one’s identity

Painting of Echo hiding in the wilderness
Illustration of Echo from A book of myths (1915) by Helen Stratton

In Mayazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle, the main character Sophie undergoes metamorphosis, losing her sense of identity in the process. Just like with Echo, Sophie’s self-esteem was... not great. After a wizard rescues Sophie, her sister Lettie warns her that he may be the wizard Howl, who is known to steal girls’ hearts. Sophie claims that this would never happen to her because he only goes for beautiful women (8:07).

Sophie telling her sister that Howl is "only after beauties"

To make things even better, a witch curses Sophie by turning her from her 18-year-old self into a 90-year-old version of herself. She becomes much less conventionally attractive, and we see her leaving home and walking alone in a barren land looking for refuge. Through this imagery, we understand the sense of emptiness she was feeling after losing an important part of her identity that Echo also lost - her body. But her transformation also shines a light on her personality. Instead of dwelling on the negative she accepts her situation and appreciates things she used to take for granted. As a natural pessimist I couldn’t imagine having her optimistic outlook - the back pain would get to me.

Sophie as her 90-year-old self, climbing up a hill in a desolate green land

So, Sophie surprisingly becomes a badass 90-year-old. Her new form makes her care less about what other people think of her, so she is less afraid to stand up for herself. Unlike Echo, who disappears into nature, Sophie gets a new body but gets to keep her voice. For example, there is a key scene where Sophie pretends to be Howl’s grandmother so she can persuade the witch Suliman to allow Howl not to fight in the war. She realizes that Suliman is a trickster and defends Howl’s honour, making it clear that she “believes in him.” In this moment of honesty and confidence, she even very briefly turns back into her 18-year-old self. At the end of the movie, when Sophie’s curse is broken and she turns back into her original self, she ends up retaining her grey hair. Her metamorphosis, and all the lessons it taught her, stays a part of her.

Sophie telling the witch that "Howl won't turn into an evil monster" as her older self.
Sophie telling the witch that Howl will "battle the demon on his own" as her younger self.

Overall, while Echo and Sophie both lose their bodies through metamorphosis, Sophie reclaims her identity and fights back while Echo is robbed of her voice and is trapped in her loneliness. 

We also see an interesting play on metamorphosis and identity through the character of Howl. Like Narcissus, Howl is initially presented as a vain man. He transforms into a bird-like creature whenever he intervenes to fight in the war that happens in the story. However, he finds it more difficult to transform back into himself each time he becomes the bird-man. Miyazaki created Howl’s Moving Castle as a commentary against war, so I interpret Howl’s transformation as a metaphor on how war changes people often in irreparable ways. While Sophie’s transformation shines light on the good aspects of her personality, Howl’s transformation focuses on his violence because he has to become a beast in order to fight, and the more he does so the more he becomes that beast permanently. It’s ultimately the love between him and Sophie that saves Howl from losing himself completely, because he has found someone he “wants to protect” (1:34:07). Narcissus, on the other hand, ignores Echo completely (rude) and he gets so absorbed into his narcissism that he stops existing as himself - instead permanently becoming a flower. Both Ovid and Miyazaki use metamorphosis to show that only thinking about yourself, in a weird way, actually makes you lose yourself. Or just don’t ignore women and you should be okay.

Howl as a bird-like creature comforting Sophie

The Narcissus daffodil flower, with a yellow interior and white exterior
The Narcissus daffodil flower

2. Metamorphosis and Exposure 

Another way that Ovid and Miyazaki use metamorphosis is to expose a key aspect of a character or story that highlights a fundamental societal problem. 

Take the story of King Tereus, for example. Tereus was married to Procne but liked her sister Philomela. He then rapes Philomela and cuts off her tongue to keep her from telling others what happened. Philomela finds a way to tell Procne by weaving a representation of the story, and (this is where it gets really gut-wrenching) the sisters decide to kill Procne and Tereus’ young son. And then they feed him to Tereus. I’ll give you a minute to process that. 

In the end, as Tereus finds out that he ate his own son, he chases Procne and Philomela but they turn into birds: “They did fly up on wings! One seeks the woods, one rises to the roof. Their chests still bear the signs of slaughter” (6.710-6.711),

One could think that the transformation, here, is a form of mercy, because the two sisters become birds instead of dying (yay?). There is, however, an important detail that we should notice: Ovid is describing Philomela, locked away in the woods, turning into a nightingale, and Procne becoming a swallow. This differs from earlier Greek versions of the story, where Philomela turns into the swallow and Procne into the nightingale. In her translation of the Metamorphoses, Stephanie McCarter points out that only male nightingales can sing. Therefore, being turned into a nightingale, Ovid’s Philomela in theory remains without a voice. The birds also still have their scars on the chests as “signs of slaughter.” So, in Philomela and Procne’s case, metamorphosis exposes how rape and violence is a cycle - they don’t actually get to escape. Also notice how in Ovid’s works, metamorphosis is deeply tied to the notion that being without a voice results in powerlessness. Only art can transcend this, as Philomela’s weaving is what allows her to tell her story and seek revenge. 

Now let’s take a closer look at Tereus’ transformation:

“He, in his grief and lust for punishment,

quickly becomes a bird whose head is crested.

Where his long sword was, there’s an outsize beak.

He is the hoopoe, and he still looks armed” (6.713-6.716)

image of the hoopoe bird
the hoopoe bird

I remember these lines sending chills down my back when I first read them. Tereus’ transformation reflects his human rage and reproduces it in the natural world, to the point where he even “looks armed”. We can see that transformations in Ovid’s works have a great deal of intention in that the characters don’t just turn into something random; what they become actually exposes a key aspect of their character. Despite the characters taking on a different form, they still carry their stories with them. Philomela and Procne are stuck as prey, and Tereus as their predator.

Ovid’s intentional and carefully crafted use of metamorphosis makes me think about how Miyazaki uses this technique. What is Miyazaki trying to expose about society with his use of metamorphosis? Well, let’s take a break from child eating and turn to Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away. It centers on the character Chihiro, a young girl around the age of ten, who along with her parents stops in what seems to be an abandoned amusement park on their way to the new city that they are moving to. Chihiro’s parents spot a stall that is filled with warm delicious-looking food - but no one to buy it from. So they just dig in. And they really dig in, filling up multiple plates to the max.

They try to reassure Chihiro by telling her that they will pay for the food whenever the shop owners get back - her dad makes it clear that he’s got “credit cards and cash” (9.02). But Chihirio feels the creepy vibes so she protests, telling her parents that they will get in trouble. Well, she isn’t wrong - her parents end up turning into giant pigs. 

Chihiro's mom telling her to take some food because "it's so tender"

Chihiro looking frightened as her parents have turned into giant pigs

Chihiro’s parents’ metamorphosis exposes their greed and gluttony. I mean, they couldn’t even wait five minutes to see if someone would come to sell them the food. When a fan of the film tweeted Studio Ghibli asking for further explanation of this transformation, they replied with a letter explaining that it represents the greed that dominated Japanese society in the 1980s. Domestic demand was at a high, leading to excessive easy borrowing and speculation. But then it all burst. As the real estate and stock markets collapsed, Japan plunged into the Lost Decades of the 1990s and 2000s, during which the country experienced a severe recession. Miyazaki therefore used the metaphor of human beings turning into pigs to illustrate how greed changes people for the worst, and these effects stay with them. You can draw a parallel in how both Ovid and Miayazaki use metamorphosis to discuss broad, complex, and even painful issues. Miyazaki comments on the impacts of greed, while Ovid uses metamorphosis to show that sexual violence has permanent impacts through the story of Procne and Philomela. 

Going back to Spirited Away, one character that goes through a more unique transformation is one who also has a unique name: No-Face. He’s a lonely spirit that dwells by himself until Chihiro lets him into the bathhouse that she is now working for (long story). Since she actually paid attention to him, he became obsessed with gaining her attention and approval. For example, in order to fill up a bath with a special herbal mixture the workers need a Bath Token, and No-Face steals one and gives it to Chihiro when she needs it. She is very appreciative of this, but he then steals a lot more tokens that she rejects because she only needed one of them. No-Face's tendency towards excessiveness continues as he discovers that gold is valuable to the spirits in the bathhouse. So he absorbs a corrupt frog spirit and adopts its nature, demanding a luxurious bath and huge amounts of food that the bathhouse workers give him because he can magically create endless amounts of gold nuggets. This is where his metamorphosis occurs, as he becomes a monster version of himself. He grows, and grows, and grows - and eats more yummy spirits. He offers gold to Chihiro, but she rejects it every time.

Chihiro telling No-Face that she does not want any gold and he is holding up a lot of gold nuggets and offering them to her

No-Face as a monster about to eat two bathhouse workers

There are countless ways that you can interpret No-Face, but I see his transformation into a monster as a metaphor that exposes the effects of loneliness and rejection, as well the problems that arise when societies value material items over compassion and kindness. He gets attention from the bathhouse employees when he shows his ability to produce gold, but this quickly gets to his head and we see the recurring theme of greed making him become evil. Spirited Away has been interpreted as a commentary on the dangers of capitalism, and No-Face’s transformation definitely exposes the harms associated with overconsumption and materialism. His greed in demanding huge amounts of food corrupts him to the point where he eats spirits, and his story shows the uselessness of material things for real connection because the one person he wants a true connection with, Chihiro, is not interested in his material gifts. However, No-Face turns back into himself and gets a happy ending with Chihiro’s help.

One of the most illuminating things that I took away while reading Ovid and Miyazaki together is that the use of metamorphosis has changed over time. The effects of metamorphosis are more permanent in Ovid's poems, where characters often change forms towards the end of the story and are locked in their current (usually very bad) condition. Miyazaki’s characters change forms at various points in his films in a more fluid way, carrying the lessons they learned with them. The way I see it is that metamorphosis is a narrative device that is compelling for the reader - it makes them think deeply about the characters, whether it is a first century AD author or a modern Japanese filmmaker using it. However, in order to have continued to be used successfully throughout time, literary and cinematic metamorphosis has had to change and adapt to different cultural contexts and types of storytelling. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so in the future. Let’s mentally prepare ourselves for all the stories where humans become robots. 

So we’ve talked about metamorphosis as a device that helps us explore characters' identities and exposes key aspects of their stories. What if I told you that there is a character's transformation, in Spirited Away, that does both things at once? Let me introduce you to Haku. He is a river spirit, so he has the ability to transform into a dragon-like mythical creature, and he helps Chihiro to navigate the bathhouse rules. He is truly lost and sad - the bathhouse owner Yubaba is only able to control him because he does not remember his actual identity. At the end of the film, Chihiro gets a vision and remembers that she fell into a river when she was younger, but that the river had now been drained for construction. This was Haku’s river. His name is actually Kohaku, the name of the river, and he had saved little Chihiro by carrying her to shallow water after she fell. In this beautiful scene (watch it here), as soon as she tells him about her vision, Haku’s dragon form begins to disintegrate and he turns back into his human form - he is finally free from the oppressive bathhouse. 

This transformation exposes the harmful effects that humans have on the environment. The natural world, represented by the Kohaku river, is forgotten and destroyed for materialistic development like construction. Haku makes us reflect on how harmful this is - it’s a lot easier to empathise with the destruction of a river when a human-like spirit is attached to it, and we see that he was left homeless and lost. But Haku’s story also highlights how crucial it is not to forget your true identity, despite all the change and transformation that you will encounter. Forgetting his name, along with his background and home, made him easy to control and trapped him. Chihiro had to show true inner strength to prevent this from happening to her as well and to free Haku. I hope you’re repeating your own name right now.

Chihiro riding on Haku's back in his dragon form, telling him that the river was drained

So what’s the point of all of this?

To me it shows that different types of art are always in conversation with each other throughout time and across cultures. Ovid generally uses the literary device of metamorphosis at the end of each story, and it does a beautiful job of replicating human suffering and harmful societal norms in the natural world. This imagery spoke just as much to the Roman elite as to a current 20-year-old undergraduate student. Miyazaki takes a similar approach but with different outcomes. His characters also carry their marginality in their transformations, but they tend to learn new lessons and eventually transform back into themselves with new values in mind - things like love and compassion. Maybe Miyazaki’s works help us to see how the ancient world was more brutal than the world today, because his use of metamorphosis is more optimistic than Ovid’s. Or maybe Ovid’s works provided a basis for further exploration of the use of metamorphosis by artists such as Miyazaki. Transformations can either trap characters, free them, or expose societal issues - but their impact on readers and viewers is always profound and timeless.

About the Author

Sirine Messaikeh

Hi! My name is Sirine and I'm in my third year at UofT doing a double major in Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (CCIT) and History. My interest in Classics stems from my continued love of reading (Percy Jackson will always be the best book series). I'm enjoying my journey of acquiring experience in Communications, Design, and Research (add me on LinkedIn!) but otherwise you can find me taking pictures of the deer on campus at UofT Mississauga.

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