The word monster comes from the latin monstrare meaning to demonstrate and to warn.
There’s a protean red-black goo monster in Tears of the Kingdom called Gloom. It’s humongous, part lava, part blood, part fire demon. Sometimes it takes the shape of viciously strong human hands with eyeballs inside them. Gloom seeps and spreads like oil, and sometimes we must tunnel through it like bloody guts or a birth canal. It’s a serious enemy. Damage done by Gloom can be permanent, and when it attacks, it’s legit scary.
“Blob monsters” like Gloom are a trope in Japanese fiction, and if we look deep into the materiality of it, we might learn something about ourselves. Gloom resonates with a long history of magical other-worldly substances, and it activates parts of the brain that recognize and resonate with important worldly referents like excrement, tar, blood, and lava.
From a materialist perspective, physical substances shape our mental conceptions of all monsters. They’re part of the material mind, and at the same time, our minds and monsters shape how we relate to worldly substances; it’s a feedback loop. I often repeat what archeologists and cultural historians say, that we think through things, that we not only imbue sticky fluids with meanings, but that the physical stuff itself leads our imaginations in certain ways. Lava, tar, blood, and poop inspire and lead the mind—and the Japanese designers’ minds—to develop blob monsters like Gloom.
As does historically significant events. The wiggling red maggots at the beginning of the game resonate with Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Those hands reaching out become the ghosts of people who burned to death in Tokyo, and the people who melted to death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their skin sliding off of their bones. See drawings from survivors of Hiroshima here.
Now I’m thinking of the phenomenon of ectoplasm and paraffin-wax molds supposedly modeled around materialized “spirit hands” during seances. Check out Leslie Keene’s Rice University talk about this. (Most of them are fake, what folklorists call “ostension”, but like crop circles, some are still unexplainable. Maybe subtle entities who live one dimension next to ours—ghosts, aliens, fairies, djinn, who knows—when the conditions are just right, can reach into our world.)
In his book Entangled, archeologist Ian Hodder (2012) uses the term resonance to describe the process by which, at a non-discursive or pre-verbal level, a subtle “coherence” occurs between substances across domains in historically specific contexts. We can call it ‘metaphorical thinking,’ or an unconscious neurochemical resonance between parts of the brain, ‘free-association,’ morphic resonance, or just memory, and now we know physically it all flows in spiral patterns and attractor basins around the brain. There is no denying that the formal, sensual qualities of things get bundled together and ‘mobilized’ within systems of value and meaning. Analyzing art is becoming a detective and exposing these unconscious resonances.
For example, Japan is obsessed with poop (there is extensive scholarship about this), and so our scatological reddish-blown Gloom is, on some level, that. But here, instead of being celebrated as it is in emojis, toys, pedagogy, children’s literature (“Everyone Poops”), games, agriculture, and daily life, it’s the most feared and dangerous substance of all. Cute Unko has an evil twin, Gloomu, who permeates and leaks out of the world itself.
In theory, we humans simply can’t handle the fact that our bodies produce one of the most disgusting, putrid substances in the entire universe, and so we ‘shadow project,’ and our monsters look like our poop.
Artists help us ‘internalize the external,’ and bring to expression the repressed desires and emotions of a community—externalize the internal. Symptomatic readings of Gloom shine light onto the Japanese psyche. For example, sometimes the goo-monster appears as a ransacking suicidal rage created from personal and group anxiety, as we see in Satoshi Kon’s magnum opus Paranoia Agent (2004). Other times, it’s demonic worms animating god carcasses, as in Princess Mononoke (1997). The Gloom scene at the beginning of Tears of the Kingdom resembles the beginning of Princess Mononoke, down to the music. Both his and Ashitaka’s arms gain power. (Interestingly, the name Ashitaka is in katakana as a foreign name (he’s not Japanese, he’s Indigenous), but in Chinese kanji it could translate to Bright Tomorrow (lit. sun moon sun), or Leap (lit. foot high) 足高 、明日か). Leap sounds like Link. Gloom sounds like Gloomy.
Gloom “speaks” to us, in-forms us, as feces and as something even older, another dangerous sticky substance: tar. I wonder if this video game trope resonates with something like The Tar Baby, one of the most famous fables of all time. Basically, Rabbit’s been eating Fox’s food (both are tricksters), so Fox makes a humanoid doll out of tar as a trap. Rabbit encounters the fake person and gets angry when it doesn’t respond to his greetings. Rabbit punches the doll and gets stuck, and the more Rabbit fights the pitch-black tar baby, the more entangled and stuck they both become.
Fox can hear and smell the struggle and returns, thrilled his trap worked. Rabbit says, “Please, Fox, you can skin me, eat me, torture me, I deserve it, but please, PLEASE, don’t throw me in the bushes!” Fox does exactly that, tosses Rabbit into that thorny bush that helps Rabbit cut through the tar and get away.
Like Gloom, tar punishes. People used to get ‘tarred and feathered’ as a form of torture. The Ku Klux Klan used to host tar and feather parties. Tar was used as police technology under slavery. Tar also preserves, especially the bones of trapped animals. It must have been terrifying to run into a tar pit in prehistory. They were, like our ancient predators—big cats and bears—an interspecies source of anxiety. It’s in our genes to be afraid of tar pits. As alphas, tar is also a powerful protector. It’s armor. In Genesis 11:3, it’s used as a glue and new technology. The tar sealing the ark helps save and preserve all life. In Exodus, Moses’s mother covers the wicker basket with tar and pitch and then releases the precious bundle into the Nile. Futurist Michael Garfield points out that “black goo” is now the radar-scattering black paint used on spy planes. As asphalt, it’s a reminder that we paved paradise “and put up a parking lot.”
This exact kind of shape-shifting goo appears in Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland (1989) as The Nightmare King who bubbles up from the shadows. It looks like the Mindflayer in Stranger Things (2016), and the clown-like henchmen in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and the emotionally insecure, rampaging No Face In Spirited Away (2001), and the shape-shifting alien in The Thing (1982). In Princess Mononoke, it’s a wrathful substance inside the Forest Spirit that floods the world with death, once again revealing how ‘insides’ are always bigger than ‘outsides’ — a theme also seen in the ethereal worms that animate the gods’ carcasses. “Everyone! This is what hate looks like!” The ooze burns Ashitaka’s arm, like Dilophosaurus’s fictional black spit in Jurassic Park (1993), or the dream-like substance surrounding Pennywise in Steven King’s It (2017).
Excretory Gloom doesn’t follow the rules we expect liquids and solids to follow. Instead, it behaves more like black-goo, or like demonic hands pushing into materiality from beyond.
Gloom resembles Enmu from Demon Slayer: Mugen Train Arc (2020), the most-viewed anime of the 21st century. Enmu appears as more of a dark purple goo, but takes the shape of hands covered in eyes. Eyes in hands also resonate with the thousand-armed, eleven-headed Senju Kannon Bodhisattva, who lives like a God in the Japanese religious imagination. Many-eyed gods are found in almost every cultural tradition, and the hand-and-eye motif is found in Mississippian art, the Pacific Northwest “Healing Hands” formline design, and Jewish Hamsa Hands.
Lastly, Gloom looks and behaves like lava, which occupies a special place in the Japanese imagination. In fact, Japan’s emergence story is a myth-time bukakke that involves self-hardening “onogoro” lava-ejaculate that falls out of Sky Father Izanagi’s magical “spear.” Perhaps part of the power a red-black goo-monster wields over the Japanese imagination has to do with its resonance with an even older metaphor for the self: lava.
According to H. Byron Earhart’s book Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, some Japanese people believe they can be reborn inside Mount Fuji’s lava-coated ‘Womb Caves.” The top of the mountain may be where First Father touched down, but Mother comes from the inside. Earhart explains that it is common to associate features of the great volcano with parts of our human anatomy. One of these caves is the mythical birthplace of Konohanasakuya-hime, the deity of Mount Fuji, and mother of all humans. She “lives” inside the volcano, next to her “placenta,” and her body-mind is somehow a complex matrix of lava and cherry blossoms—her name means Blossom on a Cherry Tree, and she is the goddess of volcanos. In winter, her heat retreats into the mountain, and in spring it comes out to bloom the cherry trees and then descend into the rice fields where it congeals into rice and, by extension, the Japanese body and soul. There are local festivals to celebrate and reenact each of these stages. They usually involve teams of half-naked men carrying portable shrines used to catch the goddess before she can run away, and escort her back into the mountain.
We also read about lava, cherry blossoms, rice, and the soul in two important Japanese religious texts: the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. In the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu sends her grandson, Ninigi, our First Father, to use his heavenly seeds to transform the hardened lava world. He plants rice, and then falls in love with the Lava-complex herself, Konohanasakuya-hime. Together they give birth to humans, who eat the rice, grow like flowers, and then rapidly bloom and fall like cherry blossoms. (See Death by Cherry blossoms for how this mythic narrative leads teenagers to become kamikaze “oka” cherry blossom pilots).
Maybe it was a mistake, and Ninigi should never have mixed his divine bloodline with such a fleeting flower. According to the Nihonshoki, this meeting is one reason why our precious human lives are cut so short. We’re half cherry blossom! But it’s also why we get art and knowledge. Cherry blossoms are associated with beauty, graduations, sexuality, sake, and spiritual unions.
The union between these two rustic beings, Prince Rice and Princess Cherry Blossom, who is also Queen of Lava, is the Japanese version of original sin. It’s also a deep map of our place in the universe. Contemporary artist saint Anish Kapoor (2003) fills a room with dark red wax and calls it My Red Homeland.
See Cartographic Japan.
Monsters reveal. Gloom therefore is a kind of interface, node, hieroglyph and hypersigil who performs like a mythical language as well as a video-game monster. What do you think? What does the red-black goo monster remind you of?