The Mythology Behind the Shape of Water
The Shape of Water was another terrific outing by Guillermo del Toro, a film that simultaneously delivers on being a fantastical tale while also operating as a powerful allegory for societal alienation. It is, undoubtedly, the director’s most adult film. Yet despite being his most emotionally mature picture, del Toro drew from his frequent themes to create the world of Elisa. It is a fairy tale and it is deeply imbued in Hispanic mythology and folklore, not too dissimilar from Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and other films in the director’s oeuvre. While many are attributing the film’s biggest inspiration to The Creature from the Black Lagoon – which is fair considering Guillermo’s profound admiration for the horror classic – a few words have to be spoken about the one folk tale I believe inspired The Shape of Water more than many care to know.
Yacuruna is a folk tale that some Hispanic children are cautioned about when growing up – especially if they live in a country in which the Amazon river runs through. The tale itself originates from the aboriginal Amazonian belief that fish-men - or mermen for a classier label - sit at the mouth of the river and possess human-like qualities. They hail from gorgeous underwater cities comprised of crystal palaces and pearls aplenty. The beauty of their world makes for a challenging cautionary tale, since their actions and appearance are anything but.
Yacu translates to “Water” and Runa to “Man” in the Quechua language often heard in Latin American countries such as Bolivia. The Yacuruna’s biggest power is the ability to transform into attractive men, often luring women into the river for them to never be seen again. They utilise aphrodisiacs to reel potential prey in. Yacuruna are paraded as Gods, creatures of royal significance, and were often worshipped by the aboriginal tribes through the Amazon. They kidnap women, traveling on black crocodiles and carrying boa snakes as necklaces. When locals go missing, Yacuruna are often blamed; children are often cautioned to avoid playing outside.
The Yacuruna possess powers related to Shamanism – in layman’s terms, they can heal open wounds and critical injuries. This is where Guillermo’s monster movie comes into play and why I believe it to be the director’s most profound depiction of monsters. As aforementioned, Yacuruna are regularly deemed to be horrific, predatory creatures. It is rare that you hear any Yacuruna tale that leaves you wanting to hear more. Del Toro has spent his career subverting imperfections and monsters, turning the other cheek to show us the tender and beautiful side to what we often perceive to be ugly. It is only natural that Del Toro would draw from a cultural, mythological tale to present a different side to the story.
The amphibian man in The Shape of Water is Del Toro actively subverting the mythology of Yacuruna. The connection may seem weird at first. Perhaps they just look similar? The webbed feet, the slick skin, the tall and languid body. These all point toward a physical connection. But Michael Shannon’s character, Strickland, has a line in the movie that undeniably points toward Yacuruna’s influence on Del Toro’s fairy tale.
“The natives in the Amazon worshipped him as a God.”
Not only is there a reference to the natives of the Amazon – a place where the Yacuruna are believed to reside in - there is also a reference to those who worship them as Gods. Many of the Iquitos tribe in Peru are historically believed to have worshipped Yacuruna due to their abilities to heal.
Del Toro also equips his creature with healing powers akin to the Yacuruna. The Amphibian Man heals Giles’ open wound, as well as reviving Elisa in the film’s beautiful finale. What plastered a smile on audience’s faces (at least mine) was knowing that Yacuruna often led the women they seduced to their underwater kingdoms which actively flips the melancholic tone of The Shape of Water’s ending to one of sheer happiness. To know that there might be a Happily Ever After for our two head-over-heels characters is one of the sweetest implications Del Toro drew from the Yacuruna myth. Rather than adhering to the predatory and dangerous inclinations of the creatures, we are instead presented with love.
When Elisa’s gills begin to glow, it is yet another nod toward the Amazonian tale. Yacuruna possess the ability to gradually transform their other halves into one of their own. That may have potentially been the start of Elisa’s transformation. To follow this line of thinking is to equip the film with an uplifting tone rather than one of inherent sadness since there are multiple theories of a potentially devastating implication by the time the credits roll. If one follows the Yacuruna myth in conjunction with Del Toro’s tale, then perhaps this film is the first time the director has greeted us with a “happy” ending.
By utilising the tale of the Yacuruna as a vessel, Guillermo created one of the most beautiful fairy-tale romances that storytelling has blessed us with. The subversion of the imperfect, horrific monster works to solidify the film’s commentary on xenophobia, racism and fear of the other – it replaces judgement and hatred with acceptance and love. To have a mute woman, a person of color and gay man band together against the system in the name of love is unheard of in cinema. These characters are never the butt of a joke, nor are they paraded as walking stereotypes. They exist as humans first; sensory beings yearning for acceptance.
The same can be inferred with Amphibian Man. Rather than terrifying the women in the story, there is a natural attraction between them. Del Toro transforms Yacuruna from a predatory, violent creature to a being akin to us. It hears and it feels. By actively subverting a myth that has existed for centuries, the director is knocking downs walls and breaking barriers; by doing so in this day and age, by setting this folk tale against our own political climate, Del Toro is ensuring that a conversation is had about the importance of love and how it can trump hate.