Song of the Sea Review: Why Animation Is An Important Medium For Oral Tradition
“My first memories are not so much of things as they are of words that gave shape and substance to my being and form the world around me”- Anna Lee Walters (Pawnee/Otoe writer)
Song of the Sea was released in 2014 and it was directed by Tomm Moore along with his team that brought The Secret of Kells. Song of the Sea is a beautiful story about family trying to cope with grief and loss that ultimately takes them on a journey with mythological creatures found in Irish oral tradition. In the beginning we see one of the main protagonist, Ben being given an ancient shell by his mother that has been passed down through generations. Ben listened to the Song of the Sea through the shell, and then the animation graces the audience with a sequence of spirits surrounding the family. This depicts that the human realm and the spiritual realm are not separated from each other, but in fact are interconnected.
To me that scene sets the tone for the entire movie because after that sequence the mother disappears after giving birth to her daughter Saoirse who unlike her brother was born with the gift of the white sealskin coat and as result has a very deep connection to the spiritual realm and the sea.
As I mentioned before in Song of the Sea, Ben uses the stories and songs his mother taught him in order to guide himself and his little sister on their journey home. There is a scene in the film where Ben encounters the ‘Great Seanachai’ who is the guardian of Irish oral tradition. The Great Seanachai carries immense knowledge that has accumulated since time immemorial through his hair, which covers the entire area that he inhabits. It is through this encounter, and using the hair of the Great Seanachai, that Ben is able to confront his past suffering in order to move forward both with his life and save his little sister. A scene like this is a beautiful example of how stories and songs passed down from our elders not only guide us, but also teach us essential lessons we need in order to get through life. After this scene Ben meets more spirits, but the difference is he is able to handle them with much more ease and perseverance.
The great aspect about Ben’s character is that since he is the carrier of the stories and the songs, it is also his duty to teach them to his little sister. Saoirse is an interesting character who has always been aware of the gifts she had as a Selkie. She always utilized them in order to connect with the wonders of the spiritual realm. The Selkies are the gatekeepers of spiritual realm so if the gates need to be open, Saoirse must sing her songs.
Interestingly enough Ben is afraid of the of sea due to its connection to the disappearance of his mother and by overcoming that fear he slowly starts to accept the spiritual world around him. Even though Ben is clearly overwhelmed of his new understanding of the world, he uses the stories and the songs his mother taught him so that that he can guide both himself and his little sister through the spiritual realm.
Unfortunately the resolution for Saorise storyline is the only flaw I have with the movie because I think it does a disservice to the theme about celebrating the gifts given by the creator (along with the other themes about the interconnectedness) between our world and spiritual realm. While I understand that they were trying to emphasis the theme about “letting go” of loved ones, I still feel it does not do justice to the main themes of the movie.
Why did I decide to use Song of the Sea to discuss why animation is important for oral tradition? Since all of us are very familiar with Japanese animation I could have easily picked out rare gems in order to discuss this topic. However, I decided to pick this particular film because I feel it is the perfect example of how more people from other countries are starting to utilize mediums like animation to both share their oral traditions and retell the stories in a way that fits a modern day context.
Before learning how to write, people listen to sounds and touch their surroundings in order to better understand their environment so that they can communicate with others. It is through sounds, syllables, drawings, and vocabulary that help shape languages. This enhances and informs our understanding of the world around us. Oral tradition has been around longer than the written word, and despite the rapid changes that go on in the world, oral tradition continues to carry knowledge and distinct histories pertaining to the different societies involved with those stories.
Our elders are usually the first people whom impart stories to us when we are young. Sadly as we get older, we often do not listen and take them to heart like when we were younger. So the question a lot of the elders ask is: how do they continue to tell these stories to the youth who want to engage in other forms of mediums? In recent years, animation has slowly become a new way to relay these stories because unlike live-action movies, animation allows the narrative to invoke imagines of a worldview pertaining to distinct cultures and societies.
Despite my one criticism about “letting go” of loved ones overshadowing the major themes of the movie, the film Song of the Sea really encompasses the importance of stories from our elders. This is why animation is a vital tool to further enable their work and ensure stories are passed down through the generations. The final line said by the Ben’s mother, “My son remember me in your stories and in your songs, know that I will always love you” reminds me of not only the reason why I decided to write this article, but also it is a powerful reminder of the love our ancestors had for us and continue to have for us through the continual passing down of their stories.