To change yourself is to lose yourself and yet, transformation is an entirely necessary part of living. Everyday we grow and learn and experience and the world changes around us. Those who stay the same get left behind.
It isn’t really a wonder that so many stories focus on the notion of transformation, growth and change. Because we live, we are constantly in a state of flux and the one lesson everyone learns growing up is that sometimes changes are hard.
Because I’ve been watching Land of the Lustrous, which has Phos’ transformation both physically and as a character at the centre of its narrative, this topic has been on my mind a lot so I wanted to have a bit of a look at how anime has dealt with transformation. Then I realised that it was way too broad a topic to look at because literally everywhere I looked I found examples that would be worth discussing. So instead I’m having a quick overview of some examples of characters who have undergone transformation and looking at what they’ve lost in the process of their changes.
Starting with the more superficial physical transformations found in magical girl stories, I thought about using Sailor Moon as an example, but then I realised a far more literal example existed within Shugo Chara. This boppy little series features Amu, a girl who doesn’t believe her inner character matches her perceived external character and so wishes to become more true to herself. Imagine her surprise when she finds and then hatches three guardian characters who literally transform her into a different kind of character.
For Amu, the initial experience is one of humiliation. As Ran, the cheerleader, does a chara change with her at school leading to Amu confessing to the Prince of the school during assembly and being publicly rejected, Amu flees the scene. She rejects that this could be part of her character and doesn’t want anything to do with the eggs and their annoying inhabitants.
And yet, with Ikuto shows up to steal them from her, she risks her own life to claim them back, surpassing her own limit and performing a full character transformation allowing her to survive the fall and the launching herself into the air to experience a freedom she never knew existed.
Basically Amu’s transformation forced her to give up something and that was the image she’d been projecting of herself at the school. It hurt and was painful (and being a pre-teen girl she assumed humiliation was on par with the end of the world) and yet she came out the other side newly transformed and stronger. However, her transformation being externally imposed is temporary, whereas the fear of facing the kids at school is longer lasting. It isn’t until much later in the series where Amu accepts that the Guardian Characters are a part of herself and a part she longed for and begins to accept those elements of her personality.
Still looking at heroes of a sort, I thought touching on Midoriya from My Hero Academia might be in order. Now Amu was wishing for a transformation and her wish brought it about, however in Midoriya’s case he could have wished forever and it wouldn’t have changed his reality. He was born without a quirk and was not going to get one. This in itself had a massive transformative effect on Midoriya as he grew strong in so many other ways. Bullied and heckled by others at school, while Midoirya certainly developed some ‘quirky’ behaviours such as mumbling to himself and generally being a little bit shy at putting himself forward, he continued to think and learn about heroes and their powers and strategies. He didn’t allow his quirkless nature stop him from moving forward even if his dream seemed well out of reach and unobtainable.
This in itself could have been a fascinating story about the child who worshipped a hero and then had to come to terms with never reaching the dream to which they aspired. We see it in Midoriya’s face as a child when he realises once and for all that he will never get a power. That is a crushing moment and could have been the defining moment of his life is he’d allowed it to be and not reforged himself.
But that isn’t the end of transformation for Midoriya. He meets All Might, his hero, and at first learns the harsh reality that sometimes heroes that we worship aren’t exactly the flawless visions we have of them. Yet, he is not discouraged. Inspired anew by the experience, despite how it turned out, Midoriya then rushes into same Bakugou when he sees him in trouble.
All Might, having found what he was looking for, wants then to pass his power to Midoriya but understands Midroiya’s body can’t handle it. This is somewhat different from most kid get super power stories in that in this case it isn’t just ‘have some power’ but the kid is asked to work first. To build up their body and to prepare to receive teh power. Fortunately the sequence is mostly a training montage but we see the lengths to which Midoriya will push his body in pursuit of a dream that he should have put aside quite some time ago but hadn’t.
Then he gets the power.
Dream achieved, right? Well no, because then we would have no more story. As Phos will attest, just gaining power isn’t enough. You need to know how to use it and your body needs to understand how best to use it, its limitations, and more importantly, how much you can use without breaking yourself. That last one is particularly a problem for Midoriya. Despite the training he did in preparation, there really isn’t a way to prepare a normal boy’s body to safely contain all of that power.
Time and again we see Midoriya break under the weight of his own power. Each time he learns a little more and gains a little more control, but the process has been painful and not without longterm repercussions.
Along the way, Midoriya has lost the dream of one day being a superhero. Instead, he lives the reality of training to make that dream his own and despite disillusionment at some of the institutions, he continues to strive to make the dream real knowing full well what it has cost him and what it will continue to cost him as he transforms himself into the vision he has of an ideal hero.
Lastly we move to Phos and the reason for this post from Land of the Lustrous. As the youngest and weakest of the gems, she was ridiculed, left out, given no purpose and she desired change. Yet, unlike Midoriya, Phos had no real drive to begin that change herself (sorry, using her for ease of writing, I know Phos is technically genderless). For Phos had accepted the reality of her situation and that was that she was weak and incapable. Wanting more was one thing, but actually trying to change anything was too hard or too much.
Yet, the motive for change was still there and we see that in her small act of rebellion when she enters the sea. It ends badly for Phos and yet it is the catalyst for change (both figuratively and literally). Her legs destroyed and replaced by a different material, she gains power, and yet it still isn’t enough as she learns in her first real battle. The fact that a small physical change has occurred isn’t enough yet to give her what she needs.
That longing to continue the transformation is exposed by the ice floes which leads to the loss of her arms the the inclusion of gold and platinum in her make up. While the loss of her legs was unfortunate, the loss of her arms is devastating. Her memories are irrevocably lost as is a part of Phos’ personality. This change is clear almost immediately, but becomes far more prevalent after we see the loss of Antarcticite. Phos becomes almost unrecognisable as both the physical and emotional transformation have taken her so far from where she started.
For Phos, gaining strength is the literal surrender of who she is and the material she is made from. Her body now an amalgamation of materials is far stronger than it was, but how much of Phos remains? That is a question that needs to be answered in the next couple of episodes because it has become clear even Phos realises what she has lost is never going to be recovered.
It is hardly a definitive post about character transformation but it is a good starting place for considering what it means to be transformed and to grow. What are some of your favourite character transformations from anime?
Thanks for reading.
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