I recently rewatched Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. It’s been about ten years since I first sat in a dark lounge room in Marrickville and was thoroughly perplexed by the film. The story is set within a strong Japanese context – it takes place in a bath house for the spirits after all, spirits that don’t exist in Western mythology – so that in itself is disorienting. The first time I watched it I didn’t understand the context of it at all, so the narrative started to fall apart.
But there’s a subtler reason as well. The storytelling is pervaded by what I can only assume is a Japanese sensibility – or else it’s the unique genius of Miyazaki. His baddies are particular for being undone – made harmless and absorbed into the greater family. He doesn’t tell stories about destroying evil. He tells stories about a person overcoming adversity and discovering their own strength.
The way he undoes evil – so that it’s a generous, gentle thing – is quite simple. None of his characters are evil at all. They are simply in entirely the wrong setting.
Take No Face, the unnameable spirit that Chihiro accidentally lets into the bathhouse. He offers people (okay, so most of them aren’t people, but let’s try and keep this simple) exactly what they most desire in return for assuaging some hunger even he can’t name. Before long he starts stuffing bathhouse patrons into his mouth, and he grows larger, more deformed, more disgusting, more HUNGRY with each bite.
Instead of killing him, Chihiro leads him away from the bathhouse, into the quiet countryside. She understands that it’s the bathhouse that is bad for him; it makes him mad. He’s harmless, when he’s not overstimulated.
The genius of this is twofold.
1) The baddie is a fully realised character that remains consistent throughout the story. Because it’s not the character that changes to suit circumstance but the circumstance that affects the character, we can understand and believe in their turnabout. What a great way to create sympathy for an antagonist.
2) Chihiro shows a unique brand of courage and insight when she takes No Face away from the bathhouse. He’s an awful beast who will most likely eat her – but she shows compassion instead of fear. This is the turning point for her character – the moment she choses to be strong, and to have faith in herself – and I’d say it has just as much impact as if she’d killed the spirit. Actually, why am I being so careful? I’d say it makes her admirable and surprising, and has much more impact.
Miyazaki does this over and over again: The evil witch in Howl’s Moving Castle who becomes the Grannie to their rag-tag family; Nausicaa who makes the great, open-hearted sacrifice to stop the enraged Ohmu.
I’ve been reading some Loki fic, and rewatched Thor tonight. I wonder if context is part of what makes Loki such a great villain; he will never be in the right context. He doesn’t belong in Asgard, because he is their enemy-king’s son – and he doesn’t belong on Jotunheim, because he’s been raised to hate their kind, and hates their blood in his own veins.
It’s a good recipe for inner pain, I think, pulling a character out of context. And perhaps a great one to deny them any context where they can be at peace.