Exploring the Multiplicity of Meanings in Southeast Asian Cultural Symbols Portrayed in Raya and the Last Dragon: A Semiotic Analysis

Authors: Adjemore Manabat, Khryz Zhamaigne Zabate, Zairah Mae Cañeda, Maria Theresa Panzo (Mindanao State University, Iligan Institute of Technology, The Philippines)
Speakers: Adjemore Manabat, Khryz Zhamaigne Zabate, Zairah Mae Cañeda
Strand: Semiotics and Semiology
Session Type: General Session


This study analyzed cultural symbols of Southeast Asian countries as portrayed in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon that banked on cultural-semiotic approach and Barthesian method of analyzing visual signs. Cultural symbols are innate in one’s understanding of certain cultures across different landscapes and domains, thus, supplementation of knowledge is seen as essential as it grounds the representative nature of culture. With this, the need to study how cultural symbols are represented in the film and how they resonated with the perspectives closely tied to their contexts require are highlighted. The frameworks used in this study – Cultural semiotics on the principles culture and signs and the Roland Barthes’ denotation and connotation perspectives on visual signs – provide two sides to uncover its goal. Both appear complementary because they structurally enrich how a sign is represented and finds its narrative relation to different contexts in our world today. Thus, this study sees to draw implications from symbolic representations of Southeast Asian culture in the film. It also aims to seeks to infer the denotations and connotations in the cultural symbols and visual signs from Southeast Asian culture as portrayed in the film.  Analyses reveal perspectives related to the multiplicity of meanings on the role of female warriors and woman leaders across Southeast Asian cultures that discussed both their cultural and historical contexts, which extend to their role in the time of the pandemic such as their efficiency and their integrity in leadership. These perspectives have a place in the narrative relation to the current circumstances where women are deemed important figures to counter gender-related presumptions. The recurring image of a dragon as a cultural symbol indicated the multiplicity of the rich cultures of Southeast Asian countries which highlight the meanings it bears from the representation in the film, hope, and resiliency, as well as tracing its narrative norms to the old cultural beliefs of Southeast Asian countries such as the symbol of luck in the Chinese culture, the symbol of dread in Filipino folklore, and the retelling of old myths in Thai culture which are all part of those cultural beliefs. Finally, the symbols of art and artistic expression allowed a closer look to the portrayals of art (martial arts and visuals) among the characters and how the creation of art from Southeast Asian culture is embedded to enrich our understanding of cultural symbols through the film.

Keywords: Cultural semiotics, Southeast asian culture, Semiotics, Media studies, Culture