Animation has an affinity with shape-shifting, to the point that even saying this is cliché. Since one of the first theoretical texts on animation, Serguei Eisenstein’s Notes on Walt Disney, the ability for objects to change forms at will has always been considered essential to the medium. That’s what Eisenstein called “plasmaticness”: the fact that animated objects and characters aren’t made of real matter, but rather of a sort of “plasma” that’s perpetually open to alteration. This is why animation has always been understood through the lenses of fairy tales, fantasies and phantasmagories.
It also explains why, although it’s not the most plasmatic of animated works, Disney’s Pinocchio can be considered one of the most fundamental works of and on animation. Pinocchio is of course about the process (or magic ?) of giving life to inanimate beings. But it is also about change: from an inanimate puppet to an animated one, from a puppet to a little boy, to a donkey and back again.
This can be understood at two levels. First, that Pinocchio’s shape is not definite, but constantly under threat of being modified. The terrifying donkey transformation scene is here to remind us of that: anybody can become something else, especially our protagonist who’s already an in-between – something intermediary between the organic and the inorganic. Were he to become too naughty, his punishment awaits him; on the contrary, were he to be good enough, he would receive his reward.
However, there’s another deeper level. What’s modified when Pinocchio changes is not just his appearance: it’s his nature. In other words, there’s an essential difference to being an animated puppet and a little boy: these are radically different things and Pinocchio can’t be both, he has to be one or the other. If not, he would be content staying a live wooden puppet and wouldn’t try to become a little boy. But he has to, because he is still incomplete. Although his shape does change when he finally becomes human, the shift isn’t that important: that’s because what Pinocchio is after isn’t shape-shifting, but a change in essence. The same applies to the donkey metamorphosis: what’s frightening isn’t just the grotesque vision of an uncontrollable body which changes on its own, but the danger of losing one’s humanity.
Pinocchio’s worldview is therefore one where appearance and essence are the same: to change one’s nature is to change one’s shape, and vice-versa. What’s so interesting and challenging in the movie is its ability to focus on the states when Pinocchio is both (human and non-human), or none at all. This confusion between external shape and internal nature is probably emblematic of animation: after all, isn’t the greatest quality of an animated work to be expressive, that is to make external and visible all of its internal, invisible aspects?
What interests me here is the fact that, if this is the case, one cannot be two things at the same time: Pinocchio can’t be both a little boy and a puppet. He has to go from one to the other, in sequence. If you go even deeper, you could say that being a boy and being a puppet are mutually contradictory – the only thing that makes the continuity in Pinocchio’s case is, precisely, magic.
In that aspect, this kind of shape-shifting rests on another, more fundamental, archetype, although it hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever been adapted to animation: that’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There may not be many common points between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Pinocchio, but both share the common view that it’s impossible to be two things at once: you’re either Jekyll or Hyde, but you can’t be both. Indeed, the two are just the two sides of a same coin, but these sides are mutually exclusive and cannot exist at the same time. One has to disappear for the other to emerge. And if both have to die in the end, it’s precisely because their shared body cannot support the contradiction: the two natures are so much in conflict that they end up destroying each other.
This case, when a being is able to change shapes but where a change in shape implies a change in essence, is what I’d call metamorphosis, as distinct from transformation. Etymologically, there’s no difference between the two, except that the first is Greek while the second is Latin. But usually, both mean the same thing. However, the two exist, and it would be a pity not to make use of both. In animation, therefore, I’d call metamorphosis any substantial change, that involves the very nature of the being that changes. Transformation, on the other hand, is purely on the surface: it changes the appearance, but not the essence.
The clearest example of this is the first and most iconic Japanese transforming heroine: Cutie Honey. In her recurring catchphrase, Honey says two very interesting things. The first is: “Sometimes I am X, sometimes I am Y, sometimes I am Z, but my real identity is the warrior of love, Cutie Honey!” Although Honey transforms and takes on various different shapes, none of these changes what or who she is. There is a “real” Honey behind them all, and they are just guises she temporarily takes on: not different identities, but just modalities of her original one.
The other central recurring sentence that Honey repeats is, in Japanese, “かわるはよ”, usually translated as “I’m going to change”. But without a kanji, it’s hard to tell what exactly she means by that. The verb (かわる) kawaru, can be written in different ways that all relate to a change, a shift or a transformation in a way or another: there’s 代わる, which means taking turns, 変わる, meaning to be altered or different, and finally 替わる, that is to take place or to switch with. The last kanji interests me the most, because it’s the one used in the expression 着せ替える (kisekaeru), which means to change clothes. In other words, although it is distant, there is in Honey’s transformation the idea that what changes isn’t her identity, but simply her clothes, that is simply her external appearance.
In that, the magical girl series that has best understood the implications of Honey’s character in regard to transformation is probably Cardcaptor Sakura. Indeed, Sakura never changes shapes and there is no transformation (henshin) sequence. Instead, she is transformed by her friend Tomoyo who makes, by hand, each and every one of Sakura’s costumes. Sakura remains who she is – if any changes happen, it’s from the outside, because of Tomoyo’s gaze. This is radically different from metamorphosis which fundamentally comes from the inside, as it is the inside (the essence) that changes first, and the outside only follows.
This inside/outside dynamic can also lead, in the case of transformation, to apparent paradoxes. Indeed, the transforming magical girl is often no different from the super hero, whose characteristic is precisely the double identity. No one must know that Bruce Wayne is the Batman, just as it must stay secret that the idol Creamy Mami is in fact an 8-years old girl. But this is very different from the cases of metamorphosis: in these, you’re either Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde. There is no alternative. Whereas it is precisely the nature of transforming heroines to be many things at the same time: Honey Kisaragi and Cutie Honey, Yû Morisawa and Creamy Mami, Usagi Tsukino and Sailor Moon.
Because of its affinity with shape shifting of all kinds, animation is often believed to be the medium embodying freedom of imagination and the possibility to take on all kinds of identities. This isn’t completely wrong, but by introducing the distinction between metamorphosis and transformation, I want to nuance things a bit, and show that they are more complex than the simple “plasmaticness” introduced by Eisenstein and endlessly reintroduced and reinterpreted by animation studies.
Metamorphosis and transformation aren’t two aesthetics, or two different philosophies of animation. Rather, I’d say that they are two approaches to the question of identity through animation: what is identity, how and why can it change? In metamorphosis, the object can become anything, but this is not a cumulative process: rather, it happens in succession, as each different shape/identity revokes the previous one and is, in turn, fated to be itself revoked. The consequence of endless mutability is endless self-contradiction and the absence of any definite form of identity. On the other hand, transformation doesn’t believe that visual appearance determines identity. It therefore sees identity as a process of accumulation, in which each different shape is but an alternative one, an interchangeable guise that the object can change at any moment. But what it entails is then a duality between the “true” and the “false” identity, the real and the apparent, the inside and the outside.