Hello, everyone. I am Ithaka. And this is Sponge, a podcast of absorption and reflection in the process of returning to or becoming our most unreal selves.
The theme for today’s episode is this: If there is something to be found in emptiness, can such an emptiness be truly empty? What does it even mean for something to be empty? That is something I absorbed from—and I will try this French pronunciation only once—“La jeune fille sans mains,” English title, “The Girl Without Hands,” directed by Sébastien Laudenbach. I do not know if I pronounced the director’s name correctly. If I did not, my apologies.
Spoiler alert, everyone. Spoiler alert. “The Girl Without Hands,” directed by Sébastien Laudenbach, is a fictional work. In this episode, there will be spoilers. If you plan to watch “The Girl Without Hands” and do not want spoilers, do not listen to this episode at this time.
The summary, for this movie.
Quote, “In hard times, a miller sells his daughter to the Devil. Protected by her purity, she escapes from the Devil who, in revenge, deprives her of her hands. So begins her long journey towards the light… but in spite of her resilience, the Devil devises a plan of his own.” End quote.
Please note that there will be mentions of blood and gore in this episode, for the purpose of discussing the plot of the movie. That said, visually, this is a gorgeous animated movie. And it’s done in a style that is, as the theme of today’s episode implies, quite… empty. If the screen is the canvas, then, well, color does fill the canvas, sort of as a layer of wash. A very thin layer, almost translucent. And such a wash may be black, green, blue, all kinds of colors. But other than that, other than this clear idea that there exists a canvas, what’s within the canvas remains quite sparse. What’s within the canvas is so sparse that, if you were to consider the movie frame by frame, without continuity of movement, it may be difficult to figure out what’s being depicted.
Because, what’s being depicted is done so with very few dots, lines, and surfaces. How the viewer can put together what’s being depicted is not by the movie actually depicting what’s to be depicted; rather, there are pockets of emptiness that nevertheless convey meaning through the movement of the pockets of emptiness—it’s as if… room to move, as in, free space, in other words, that part that isn’t me but the part which by not being me, allows me to go there… that emptiness is what’s being depicted.
Emptiness cannot be perceived when there isn’t something to contrast it with, as in, non-emptiness, fullness. I ponder about this these days, because, during meditation I address various emotions as they arise. And once they are heard, they disperse. And then comes an emptiness. And for a while, I stay there.
Afterward, I recall that emptiness and wonder about two main things. 1) Had the emotions not been there, and had they not left, thereby creating a contrast between their presence and absence, would I have recognized the emptiness as emptiness? And 2) Is this emptiness truly empty, if I can find something in it? What does it even mean for something to be empty?
Because, this emptiness isn’t empty in that it’s a complete nothing. Actually, even this word, “nothing.” Or the word “void.” What do they mean? If they mean something, how can they be nothing or void? Or am I interpreting the meaning of the word “mean” in a weird way?
There is a profoundness in the emptiness that can be reached after the heard emotions depart. Actually it’s more profound than any fullness.
But even fullness. One cannot recognize fullness without the contrast of emptiness. We don’t usually consider the earth full of air, even though it is, at the altitude that we live in. We’re surrounded by the air all the time, but we don’t perceive it, we don’t recognize it unless we measure our surroundings with an instrument that isn’t us, because the air is so full of air.
So… yeah. Last episode, the theme consisted of a few statements and some questions. This episode, the theme is just questions. And if I could provide answers to these questions, I would be considered the awakener, the healer of the human soul, the enlightener—something along those lines. But I am not, so I just ponder. I just consider these questions.
At any rate, this movie, “The Girl Without Hands,” is visually gorgeous and throughout the entire movie, the way the creators depict time and space is so… elegant. Just a few brush strokes. That’s it. Through that very strictly limited presence, they convey a whole lot of absence. But that absence isn’t necessarily the lonely kind or the deprived kind or the lacking kind. It could be perceived as such, but that’s because of the story, and stories are full of notions—by the creators, by the viewers, and by the characters within the story. But the actual frames of the movie and both the presence and absence depicted in them—that presence and that absence simply is. There is no loneliness, no deprivation, no lack. There is also no excess, no waste, no overflow.
Everything just is.
x x x
This movie vaguely reminded me of “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” from Studio Ghibli, which is an animated movie that was also mentioned in episode 7, titled, “By showing its true colors, a story unfolds.” This was a written segment, from back when I thought Sponge would be this… collection of every way I ever absorbed anything, which would inevitably include not only audio, but also something purely written. But since then, it turns out that that one written segment is so unpopular, compared to the other episodes, that I am not motivated to create another episode that consists only of writing. It seems that audio people really like audio—which sounds obvious, but I thought maybe, because the short film discussed in that episode was in the public domain, people might wanna see some screenshots. People did not. At least, most people did not. They want audio, it seems. Most people want an audio episode more than screenshots of a movie.
Anyway, that’s not the point here. In that written episode, I mentioned “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya.” It’s not done in the usual style of Studio Ghibli, which I love, by the way. Oh, Studio Ghibli. The visuals, the music, their movies are just… they tend to have one overarching style and that creates a world of their own. Studio Ghibli is based in Japan, but their style, it’s… it’s Japanese but it’s also simply Studio Ghibli. The characters speak Japanese but the world that they depict isn’t Japanese and, the way I interpret their movies, there are no attempts to Japanify anything. The creators are Japanese, mostly, I presume, so yeah, something Japanese will exist in the world-building of Studio Ghibli’s movies. But their world exists beyond the realm of this physical world. The fantastic fantasy world they create is beautifully unreal and more real than anything in the tangible reality of ours.
But, as I said, “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” is not done in that usual Studio Ghibli style. It’s more Asian than other Ghibli movies, for the lack of a more cultured adjective. It’s Asian. It’s everything the average person associates with Asian drawing styles: brushstrokes with black ink and plenty of emptiness.
Meanwhile, “The Girl Without Hands” is a French movie. It has nothing to do with Asianness. Nevertheless, this French movie reminded me of “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” and the notion that Eastern philosophy is characterized by the appreciation for emptiness, more so than Western philosophy. I think this may very well be the case, as in, the reality, the truth. That said, I wonder if that’s become the reality/truth partly because the West happened to be the side that wasn’t invaded and butchered in recent centuries.
By which I mean that, the colonizing side can more feasibly cover up what used to exist in previous times. Meanwhile, the colonized side is forced to jump from its present to another present, as defined by the colonizing side. The colonizers consider the present of the colonized outdated. What the colonized consider to be the present is the colonizer’s past. Or so the mainstream history goes, according to the idea that history is written by the victors. So, my impression is that the colonizers try very hard to be perceived as the future of the colonized’s outdated present. The colonizers drag the colonized from the past into the future, thereby putting the colonized, finally, into the present as defined to be ideal by the colonizers.
As the colonizers do this, they put away their own past. This makes me wonder just how much of this notion that “the West doesn’t appreciate the notion of emptiness as much as the East” would have been real/true, had the act of putting away of the past been less effective. I mean, is it really the case, or was there a time in the West in which there was more appreciation in the void, in the nothing? We all come from the same roots, they say. At some point there must have been more similarities.
And, to briefly add to all this: I realize that Japan itself was on the colonizing side. So, Japan and its representation is fascinating—its self-representation as well as external representations; its combination of high-tech image and adherence to the past.
I’m translating a book called “Noir Urbanisms” right now, from English to Korean, and there’s a chapter on, quote, “what one observer has called the ‘doom-laden dreams’ of Japanese popular culture,” end quote. So, that chapter in that book specifically talks about the Japanese representation of doomsday scenarios, through science fiction and fantasy, and how that is in turn a representation of the so-called reality or truth of Japan. In such “doom-laden dreams,” quote, “Tokyo has fallen victim to earthquakes, tidal waves, fires, floods, cyclonic winds, volcanoes, alien invasions, supernatural curses, viruses, toxic pollution, all nature of giant monsters, robots, and blobs, and, needless to say, every imaginable form of nuclear explosion.” End quote.
So. Representation. Super fascinating. Representation, as defined by Oxford Languages is, or, one of the definitions is, quote, “the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.” End quote.
Yeah. There is probably no way for a human being to depict anything in a way that isn’t merely a representation. It’s depicting something “in a particular way” or “as being of a certain nature.” We see everything through us; the world is our own reflection. So, how could we possibly not put some kind of interpretation in anything?
Actually, it’s unfair to say that something is a mere representation or mere reflection. That’s all we perceive anyway. Truly, I do not know what it’s like for someone with color blindness to look at the sky. I can attempt to know, by looking at manipulated photographs, but I will never actually know what it’s like. So, then, given the minute differences in everyone’s physiology, will I ever know what it’s like for anyone to look at the sky, even if they don’t have color blindness? What if their color palette is richer than mine? How would I ever know what it’s like?
How does anybody know if philiosophies in certain parts of the world are more appreciative of the concept of emptiness or not? The idea that Western philosophy deals less with the concept of emptiness than Eastern philosophy—is that true? Is that real? I do think it will depend on what’s defined as “Western philosophy” and “Eastern philosophy.” You go to Seoul now and you will see less emptiness than in the American countryside, I can guarantee you that, so what’s West and East anyway, and what’s philosophy anyway?
Also, if a thing is empty in one aspect, it seems that it tends to make up for that emptiness in another aspect. In the same way, if a thing is full in one aspect, it seems that it tends to make up for that fullness in another aspect.
For example, “The Girl Without Hands” happens to be way emptier, in terms of visuals, than “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya,” in that there are fewer things being depicted as the object. The characters consist of a few brushstrokes, for example. Meanwhile, when you look at the background coloring, you could say that “The Girl Without Hands” is fuller than “Kaguya.” Kaguya sort of leaves the background be, the way we’re used to in Asian paintings. “The Girl Without Hands” tends to fill it with color.
So. Emptiness and fullness. They can only be perceived through contrast anyway.
Also, speaking of representations, once upon a time, before Sponge became a podcast at all, I wrote the following as a written post.
Quote, “The allure of animation is that the things you couldn’t possibly choose as a creator (if you were to work with real humans) can be chosen, can be fine-tuned in the animated world.
“I’m talking about the world and what it looks like, quite literally. Not just the laws of physics, such as “Oh, in this world, people fly.” It’s more than that.
“For example, if you decide that in your animated world, people’s eyes will take up half their faces, then that’s the world they live in. None of the characters will suddenly shout out, “But this isn’t what real people look like!”
“The concept of “the real,” that fragile definition, will be what the creators make it to be. The creators are the gods.” End quote.
And, at the time, I didn’t think about this, but now, after watching “The Girl Without Hands,” I’m thinking: eliminating this much of what we perceive to be concrete in our physical realm; eliminating all this flesh, this bone, this substance—and still being able to convey meaning in a way that we in this world of concreteness can understand? That’s full power.
Through elimination, the creators of “The Girl Without Hands” became the gods of that world to the extreme. Watching this film is like “Look, I eliminated this much, there are only these few dots, lines, and planes, and you still get what I’m saying. Take that!”
It’s quite amazing. And from the viewer’s viewpoint as well: we the viewers get so much power from filling the blanks. In this emptiness, there is a kind of fullness that reality, that thing that we consider to be the default full state, cannot give us.
Another way in which this movie adds fullness is through its rich soundscape. I have the feeling that without this soundscape, the film might have felt too empty and not very entertaining, and entertainment is critical. Having fun in one way or another is critical, although the word “fun” is as complicated as the word “emptiness.”
And before we talk more about the emptiness in this movie, let’s talk a little bit about the plot, because unlike the calming effect of the visuals, the plot is somewhat grotesque. To repeat the summary from earlier, quote, “In hard times, a miller sells his daughter to the Devil. Protected by her purity, she escapes from the Devil who, in revenge, deprives her of her hands. So begins her long journey towards the light… but in spite of her resilience, the Devil devises a plan of his own.” End quote.
Technically, the miller did not sell his daughter to the devil, knowingly. The devil tricked him. The miller initially thought that he was doing something good for himself and his family. He wanted some gold, and why not? He was starving. His family was starving. He didn’t know he was trading his daughter for gold. After getting some early gold, he even prepared a new golden room for his daughter. It’s not like he absolutely didn’t care about her.
But then after that, after he gets used to the gold, he does readily follow the devil’s instructions. And one of the ways in which he does this is by making his daughter dirty.
And at first, I thought this was another typical story of oh, virginal purity or some such other bullshit, but no, this devil here, I find him funny. He means it literally. He needs this girl to be dirty, literally. Like, smelly dirty. He wants her to not take a bath. So, only when she smells so bad that they can smell her from below the tree in which she hides, and only after there are flies buzzing around her, the devil comes to collect her.
And this father character, who initially didn’t know he was selling his daughter but now definitely knows, he lets the dogs guard her on the tree, so she cannot come down to pee or wash. It’s so weird. It’s such a weird story. And those dogs actually attack the mother, as in, the miller’s wife. They kill her. They basically eat her up. It’s grotesque, this story. Then, when the devil comes to collect the girl, the miller cuts the tree with an ax.
Things don’t end here. So, this girl, who is now dirty and smelly, cries. And as she cries, she uses her hands to wipe some of her tears. The problem is that her tears are too pure. So the devil tells the miller to cut off the hands of his daughter. Because, he can’t take the parts of her that are pure.
And the daughter readily offers her hands to the miller, saying, quote, “Father, here are my hands. Do as you will. I’m your daughter, I don’t want to cause you misfortune.” End quote.
Note that this is the English translation of the French dialogue. And I got the translation from MUBI, where I watched the movie.
Anyway, the daughter offers up her hands to the miller. And the miller proceeds to cut them off. See, I think it’s great that the creators chose such a visually empty style, because, just listen to this story. Imagine if this had been illustrated in a fuller fashion. Then we would’ve gotten friggin’ “Sin City.” And in case you didn’t watch Sin City, it’s based on the comics of the same person whose comics led to the movie “300.” “Sin City” and “300” have a very similar style, which is basically blood, gore, lots of action and body parts, including the cutting off of all four limbs, while the dude whose limbs are being cut off is grinning.
Anyway, I like “Sin City” for reasons different from the ones I like “The Girl Without Hands.” And the plot of “The Girl Without Hands” could very well have suited a visual style like that of “Sin City” and “300.” The ending is sort of happy, but hey, we can make a happy ending work with blood and gore. But the creators did not choose to do that. They chose a very calm, very empty visual style, so that as the daughter’s hands are being cut off, I sat there, watching, and went like, “Oh, urgh, but oooh, that kinda… looks pretty?”
After the cutting, there’s still a problem. The girl cries on her stumps. Friggin, at this rate, the miller would have to chop off her arms, and then the title wouldn’t be “The Girl Without Hands” anymore; it would be “The Girl Without Arms.” Or, hey, what about “The Girl Without a Torso” or “The Girl Left With No Body Parts Whatsoever”?
Fortunately, the devil’s purpose is to take the girl, not to butcher the girl. It seems that he was fine with sacrificing her hands, but doesn’t wanna cut off her arms. So, the devil leaves the girl with the miller, for now.
This is when the girl tells her father, quote, “Miller you are, miller you will remain. All the world’s gold doesn’t make you a lord.” End quote.
See, she doensn’t even call him Father anymore. And it’s not like she actually believed what she said when she told him that he can take her hands because she thinks as her father, this guy can do whatever he wants with her hands. No. She had hoped that if she offered the hands, he would decline. She expected him to not cut them off.
But this miller dude is too stupid to see that. Ya know, he can blame the devil all he wants, but see, the devil, just like everything else in this world, is but a reflection of oneself. The only reason the devil can manipulate the miller is because there’s already something of the devil in him. But the miller dude is too stupid to see that, so he did cut off his daughter’s hands, taking her offer literally.
I’ll mention the last sequence of the film at the end of this episode. For now, back to the theme: If there is something to be found in emptiness, can such an emptiness be truly empty? What does it even mean for something to be empty?
The dots, lines, and planes in the movie are so sparse and simple, if someone wanted to replicate the individual frames of this film, they could. However, the decision that went into designing each frame to make it just so that there’s enough emptiness and enough fullness for the viewer to form a picture, quite literally—that’s not something that would be easy to replicate.
There is so much trust in the viewer, in this movie. So much trust that the viewer will be able to form the picture.
And so beautiful is the fact that the devil character is a shapeshifter. So shapeless, formless, he is. Smoothly, he moves from frame to frame, becoming something else. All our preformed ideas, a.k.a. memories, aid in figuring out who he is—superficially. But even after seeing what he is at this very moment, we don’t know who he is.
This made me think about what we know, or what we think we know, about this physical world that we call real. From moment to moment, we are shifting. Our cells are never the same from second to second, or we would die. Even dead things shift. If dead bodies were to remain static, nothing would decompose. Even dead bodies vibrate and change.
And watching this movie, it’s like listening to a singing bowl meditation track. You’re supposed to listen to the sound until it disappears, and in that emptiness there you find awareness, the entity that does the observing—although, those words, too, seem to be defined and used so differently from person to person.
At any rate, I don’t listen to singing bowl tracks often, but I’ve tried them. And this movie reminded me of them. The lines on the screen appear and disappear. And when they’re gone—still, there is something there! It’s so fascinating. And I don’t mean in a… in a trick-of-the-eye way. I’m not talking about the afterimage. I’m saying, the dots, lines, surfaces vanished—and yet, in those seconds when nothing fills that particular part of the space, I still see something because of what came before and will come after.
It’s a beautiful experience. This allows the creators to depict the passage of time so elegantly. I guess the closest to what it would’ve looked like in a movie with real humans would’ve been a sort of… quick fade in and fade out? But because in “The Girl Without Hands,” the world is animated, and the creators are such powerful and complete gods of this world, it’s almost… there’s nothing to fade in and fade out. It feels more natural than that. We in the physical world, we’re used to time continuity, so when there’s a fade in or fade out, it’s clear that that continuity is being broken. But with this animated movie, it’s… the canvas is so empty. Thus, when a person jumps from one point in time to another, and there is a momentary void as they travel from point A in time to point B, it’s like… it’s like that paper folding that I mentioned in the last episode.
“The fastest way to get from dot A to dot B, in our physical world, is to draw a straight line. The fastest way, if we could bend timespace at will, is to fold the paper. Make dot A and dot B overlap.”
And in this animated movie, the folding of the paper is so natural. So matter-of-fact. And because space can be bent that way, time can be bent as well.
One last thing on the visuals of this movie. The night scenes are gorgeous. They’re depicted in a neon color palette. Purple and pink neon. So magical, so gorgeous, and somewhat trippy. The visuals look like psychedelic art, except, again, not the fully-illustrated kind, which is beautiful in its own way, but the sparsely-illustrated kind, the fill-in-your-own-void kind.
Watching this movie is an experience. Let it sweep over you. The whole time, my mind was full of thoughts about emptiness. Amusingly, with visual work that is more normally full, my mind tends to go empty. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, if “The Girl Without Hands” were to become the norm, then I would not find much in the supposed emptiness of its visuals, because there would’ve been not much to contrast it with. So, the normally-full movies that I’ve watched in the past and will watch in the future were what made the emptiness of “The Girl Without Hands” full.
Yeah. This movie felt to me like an artistic representation of the idea that, although we feel solid, we’re actually mostly empty space. But that supposedly empty space is filled with energy…? At least that’s what it sounds like, science-wise? Yeah, I am uncertain about the science aspect of this idea.
But artistically, wow. If one wanted a representation of that idea, artistically, then this movie is one superb representation of that. We are mostly empty but energy is what forms the picture. The energy fills the so-called emptiness.
So, if there is something to be found in emptiness, can such an emptiness be truly empty? What does it even mean for something to be empty?
Meditation-wise, I was curious what others thought about that feeling of fullness that I seem to reach when I encounter emptiness. And various schools of thought and various religions use different words to convey different ideas, but one that resonates with my experience is the theory—or, depending on whom you ask, the truth—that initially, we’re all total and complete love/light. So, according to that, what happens when we remove—or rather, in my view, melt—the layers of emotions, regardless of whether we perceive them to be good or bad, is that the total and complete and original love/light is revealed.
In other words, emptiness is actually not empty, some might say. Total and utter and complete love/light is what is there. But that, on its own, cannot help but appear empty, because that on its own cannot be perceived by us. And that is why we’re on this earth, such theory/truth says. We’re here so that we can perceive the complete love/light that cannot be perceived, had there only existed love/light. We need abandonment to feel love, and we need darkness to feel light. That’s how I understand their theory/truth.
And… I don’t know. It’s difficult to explain. When I am there, it’s less of a… “Oh, light!” As in, it’s not that I feel the light in that moment. In that moment, it really does feel close to there being nothing, because I am not thinking and I am not feeling. It’s more like, before or after, I note from the absence of the emptiness that emptiness was there. It’s difficult to explain. Maybe one day I will be able to explain. Or maybe this is something that can only be experienced. The word “feel” feels quite… limited. Partly it’s my limitation, partly it’s the limitation of human language overall, and partly it’s the limitation of the English language, which isn’t ideal for describing a state where doer is doee, or where there is no doer or doee at all.
Anyway. Yeah. As to the last sequence of this movie: after her hands are cut off, the girl leaves the miller, her father. Her mother, remember, is already dead, eaten by the dogs that her father set loose. So the girl has nothing to lose. She sets off, she meets a prince, the devil keeps trying to collect her, bad things happen, but she overcomes the trials. She has a child, she raises him alone, she plants lots of seeds and grows trees, she gets help from the river divinity.
And at the end, very amusingly, the devil just gives up. I found this hilarious. This devil is kinda cute. He’s like “Argh, to hell with it. You’re such a nuisance. I give up.” And then he goes away.
And the girl saves her prince. She saved him from the devil.
And I liked the last dialogue between the two of them.
“You saved me,” the prince says.
The girl says, “I’m no longer the one you left. I’ve forgotten how you were. But you are in front of me. I want to discover who you are… who you will be.”
The prince says, “Let’s go back to the castle.”
To which the girl says, “I don’t want to. And I don’t want to stay here. I want to go away with you… to find a home. Come.”
Yeah. With this movie, it’s so easy to see how literal the girl means it when she says “I’m no longer the one you left.” We, the viewers, can physically see her vanish from the canvas. We saw it multiple times. There are moments in this movie where the girl isn’t there at all. Frame by frame, there is just emptiness. From before and after that moment, we think we know she is there, but is she there, at such moments?
And, when she says “I’ve forgotten how you were,” this, too, we can literally see how this could be. It’s not in the sense that the girl has amnesia or she’s suppressing painful memories. It seems to me that truly, she forgot. She let go, because there was nothing of him to remember. He, just like her, is but a blinking frame. Sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s not. She can choose to remember what he did to her—which was a whole lot of misunderstanding that wasn’t his fault, it was the devil’s trap—or she can choose to completely forget him—as in, utterly abandon him—or she can somehow, magically, know that he is him, and yet have forgotten who he was. To be precise, how he was.
I don’t know what the exact French line says, but this is very interesting. She didn’t forget him. She forgot how he was.
And so, when she says, “You are in front of me,” that observation is pure. Unlike the previous time they were together, neither of them is bringing in the miller, the devil, the war, the deaths, notions about what should and shouldn’t be. Her simple statement, that he is in front of her, is pure. And so, she says, “I want to discover who you are… who you will be.” And unlike the prince, who wants to go back to the castle, this girl—who, by the way, magically recovers her hands at the end of this movie—she knows that they cannot and should not go back to the castle. Neither can they stay where she was hiding before the prince came to find her. They need the emptiness that fills this movie. They need a blank canvas. And this love that they find at the end, they found through the abandonments. Her having her hands back can happen because she had lost them.
And now, they need to find a home. So, “come,” she says. And so, they go.
And that is all for this episode. Thank you for listening.
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You can find a link to the full transcript in the show notes. Also, visit ithakaonmymind.com to find out more about everything else I do, besides Sponge.
Stay true, everybody.
- “La jeune fille sans mains (The Girl Without Hands)”
- “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (film)”
- Studio Ghibli
- 007 ⌨️ By showing its true colors, a story unfolds.
- “Noir Urbanisms”
- Animated wonder
- “Sin City”
- 035_The present vanished into the past in the future.
- Why Physics Says You Can Never Actually Touch Anything
- Mattia Vlad Morleo – Reflected in the River
- Evert Z – Flow like a River
- Dialgo – A Train on a River
- Alon Peretz – Ode to My Grandmother
- Mattia Vlad Morleo – By the River
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2023 Ithaka O.