My seven-year old and I sat down yesterday and watched one of my favourite films, Princess Mononoke. In case you don’t know, it’s a Japanese animation from Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Spirited Away (amongst others), and it’s, very roughly, about a boy, a girl, an iron foundry and some forest spirits. The owner of the iron foundry wants to kill the forest spirits, or more specifically, THE Forest Spirit, so she can get on with ‘turning this wilderness into the richest land around’. The boy, the girl, and the spirits kinda disagree with her on this.
Towards the end (if you don’t want spoilers, turn away now – but I’ll keep it minimal, and it’s such a beautiful film that knowing the storyline doesn’t actually spoil it at all), when boy and girl watch the destruction caused by the murder of the Forest Spirit (yeah, this isn’t Disney, but more on that later), my son turned to me in some distress and said “I thought films like this were supposed to have a happy ending?”.
Wow. That made me think. Are they? Why? Says who? Happy for who? And does Princess Mononoke even have an ending, or is it more a beginning? It made me think about the films we watch with our children, and how astoundingly different the Disney/Pixar (just as an example) offerings are from Studio Ghibli. It made me realise all over again the huge importance in the phrase underpinning two things I’ve been harping on about quite a bit lately: Dark Mountain, and The Telling: It is through stories that we weave reality.
If our children grow up with stories of good vs. evil, where the good princess (who is completely good) always defeats the evil witch (who is completely evil), and gets a handsome prince (who has even less personality than the princess), and the evil witch meets a sticky end and the good people live happily ever after – if they grow up with that, where does it leave them? I’ve seen the placards: “Nick Clegg – Tory Slag”, “Rob The Rich”, “Hang the Rapists”, that kind of stuff. Black and white, good and evil, life and death. And I won’t even start on the poor-role-model angle, I’m sure there’s plenty of that out there already!
So my seven year old watched a film about a boy, who sometimes kills people (even though he doesn’t want to), and a girl, who really wants to kill people, and even at the conclusion is so angry with humans for destroying her forest she cannot live with the boy, even though she loves him. He saw the leader of Irontown, a woman who oversees the making of guns and the destruction of the entire forest, spirits and all. A woman who also rescues brothel workers and gives them jobs in the foundry, who is loved by the lepers she takes in, and tends to, when nobody else even sees them as human. Ultimately the boy and the girl return the Forest Spirit’s severed head (told you it wasn’t Disney!), and balance is restored – although the mess doesn’t clear itself up; it’s up to the humans to rebuild their lives. It made him think, it made him ask questions. And it made me try to answer them.
We watch a lot of Miyazaki in this house, and from these films alone my children are growing up with stories where nobody is all good, or all evil. Where hard choices and compromises are made, but in the end it’s always about balance. Not winning, balancing. I think we need to look hard at the stories we absorb without realising. Nobody will say “I base my life around Disney princess movies” (Well, OK, some people will, but I’d like to – respectfully - discount those people for the purposes of this argument!),
but just where does our polarised vision, and its accompanying knee-jerk reactionism, come from? Are we not intelligent human beings, born with a thirst for understanding (please say yes)? I’m not being an apologist by any means, but I find it hard to believe that even Tony Blair woke up one morning and thought “I’m going to be evil now. I’m going to get my army to go and kill lots of Iraqi children – mua ha ha”. Don’t the worst evils come from people who claim to be working ‘for the greater good’? As we’re talking stories here, it was Harry Potter who was told “Not everyone bad has to be a Death Eater, ordinary people do bad things too’. OK, let’s take another example: The Catholic Church. Evil, or good? Centuries of cruelty, child abuse, misogyny, even authorised burnings. And also Oxfam, CAFOD, and countless international missionaries working tirelessly and fearlessly to do good, and bring healing and kindness to those who need it most.
Is the evil witch always deserving of a messy death? Is that what we’ve grown up with? I personally believe Ian Duncan-Smith to be in desperate need of an egged face, but I don’t believe he is unequivocally evil. I’m kind of losing the plot here a bit, forgive me. I think I just wanted to flag up that stories get inside us, whether we notice it or not, and they shape who we are, and how we interact with this crazy old world. Heck, My Neighbour Totoro? Kiki’s Delivery Service? They don’t even *have* an antagonist character – not every story has to be a fight.
And I’d rather my kids wanted to be like Ashitaka, or Nausicaa (think Greenpeace, Amy Johnson and the UN in one person. With a pet fox-squirrel. Win.) than Captain America or Cinderella.
In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka is sent from his homeland to find out what is happening to make the spirits so filled with rage. He is instructed, not to kill the perpetrator, not to fight, not even to make things better. He is instructed to “see with eyes unclouded by hate”. Thus he brings about a truce between two opposing factions, who still hold to their own principles, but agree to disagree. If we could all walk this world in that way, I think we’d be getting somewhere.
On a separate note: if you’re after some real heroines, *all* Miyazaki’s main characters are female. And they all kick serious ass, and have the utmost respect for nature. And the films are beautiful. Watch them.