Sunday, 9 October 2011

Spirit of the Oak Tree: Early Research

I've recently been concentrating efforts on the story-side of my film, but this post will be covering some very early development of the Spirit of the Oak Tree.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
My initial inspiration for the Spirit, was from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoké (1997) because of the physical representations of these spirits and Gods as animals instead of humans and how they interact with people. Japanese culture is rich with these kind of spiritual connections and manifestations so I'll be looking to their depictions of spirits to begin with.

My main reason for not developing a humanoid spirit is because I believe an animal is more relatable for a child and human spirits have been done countless times before. Furthermore, I want to avoid comparisons to Disney's Fantasia 2000 (1999) as there is a very iconic 'mother nature' spirit depicted as a young woman with flowing green hair in the "Firebird" sequence at the end of the film. This could easily become too heavily borrowed from in my designs, so I'm avoiding it as early as possible by attempting a more animal design.

The spirit from Fantasia 2000, (1999) this is not a design I wish to use as
reference as it would become too derivative!
There is also a website, The Totoro Forest Project which enlists artists to create Totoro-inspired artwork to auction to save the original forest that inspired My Neighbour Totoro. There is much visual inspiration and reference to be had here.

There is artwork from all sorts of celebrated artists coming together for the cause. Here is an example of the artwork that is relevant to my film.
Will O' the Wisp by Greg Couch

After further investigation, I discovered various Japanese legends that describe spirits and Gods that take the form of animals. For example, Yōkai (meaning spirit, demon or monster) is a type of Japanese shape-shifting spirit that can take the form of a Kitsune (among other creatures), which is the Japanese term for fox, and is often translated as fox spirit.

This piece of artwork illustrates 100 Views Of Edo - 118. Fox Fires on New Year's Eve at the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji; "Fox Fires on New Year's Eve at the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji, a woodblock print by Hiroshige from his "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" series." It depicts a Japanese legend that at the Shinto Oji shrine, there is an old tree (the 'Garment Nettle Tree') at which all the trickster fox spirits (kitsune) of that province gather once a year at night, bearing torches to light their way; at the meeting they receive their orders for the up-coming year. Interestingly, one of the two trees can still be seen. (Source)

I also researched the Kodama spirits from Princess Mononoké, that often inhabit trees. These spirits are not so much animal, but are little white humanoids with circular heads they shake and rattle. The second image below depicts the spirit as an old man.

Kodama from Princess Mononoké (1997)

Kodama from the Gazu Hyakki Yakō(1781) by Toriyama Sekien
Apart from Japanese folklore, I'm also exploring Greek and Celtic culture and myths to find the best sources for my spirit. The Dryad of Greek myth means a nymph of an Oak Tree, again very relevant for my spirit. The only difficulty is that these Dryad's are nearly always humanoid, so it will take more research to find any suitable.

The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan
As for celtic imagery, I discovered a design called the Celtic Tree of Life by Jen Delyth. It's shows the tree's branches connected with the roots to depict an endless circle of life. It's only about 20 years old, but I also found a nice image with an acorn below the tree.

This is the beginning of my research for the Tree Spirit, more to come soon!

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