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.
I love your analysis. It’s got me wondering if romance novels generally use the heroine as a shortcut for putting the hero in a peaceful context (or vice versa). And it has me thinking about whether or not that’s a good thing.
I didn’t even think of this in terms of hero/heroine (LOL- for once!), but that’s such an interesting idea. Without really sitting and thinking about it, I’d say instinctively I like stories where they create the wrong context for each other to begin. Or maybe just that they see each other in the wrong context. I think you’re right though – for the proper HEA they have to create a context where old wounds can be healed, happiness can happen, etc. Can you think of any books where the hero is this context for the heroine, rather than the other way round? And is it maybe that the “wrong” context is necessary to shake a character up, and make change possible?
The Ugly Duckling trope comes to mind (eg The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie). And the idea of the hero seeing the heroine in the wrong context goes well with plots where the hero essentially *saves* the heroine from whatever terrible circumstances she finds herself in.
And is it maybe that the “wrong” context is necessary to shake a character up, and make change possible?
Yes, this can work, too, although I find myself more drawn these days to stories where the catharsis occurs when the h/h realise that they’ve been living in the wrong context all this time. A kind of Sleeping Beauty awakening.
Astute observation about Miyasaki ‘villains’!
Your point about Loki is one I realise in many of my tellings of Norse myths… Loki is, of course, a Trickster archetype, a character who, like you say, is neither good nor evil but often subject to the circumstances he finds himself in. Tricksters are both funny, foolish, wise and whimsical but they are also often tragic. They are problem characters, always in a liminal state. In Loki’s case, as you say, he is quite literally between two worlds. Loki constantly swings from being very useful to a thorn in the side of the gods but its towards the end of his story, and indeed the story of all the Aesir and Vanir, that has so much resonance. Why does he get so angry at the gods? Why does he barge in and insult all of them in such an acidic, bone-cutting (often hillarious) manner? Then there is his punishment, very Promethean but with the added feature of his wife, Sigyn. Now Loki has several wives (the most famous being the monstrous Angrboda,) but Sigyn is with him towards the end, trying to spare him the agony of the serpent’s venom. She is barely mentioned in the Sagas but I make her a more major character, one of the few characters who understands Loki’s complex character. Maybe her sympathies are misplaced but she sees the man/god/jotun that he was and can, at least partly, understand his position. In my version, the gods have become arrogant (but for Odin) and self-assured in their position. They remain comfortably in their halls while middle-earth is a hell for mankind. It is the gods hypocrisy which Loki comes to despise. If you look, Loki becomes darker and darker in spirit as Ragnarok draws closer. I can’t remember where I read it, but I remember a piece where Odin asks Loki what changed; how did he become so bitter? Loki darkly alludes to how he has travelled the whole of middle-earth and seen nothing but cruelty amongst mankind. At first he laughed at it, made light of it, but then, one day, he saw a woman who had been burned ‘to her heart,’ and he found that organ amongst the smouldering remains of a fire. “After that,” he said, “Sweet laughter was as bitter to me as the ashes of that fire.”
Could Loki have been different? The classic conundrum of Judas comes to mind. Jesus had to be betrayed for the Salvation of mankind, so how far can Judas be blamed? It is interesting to note that so many of the key elements of the story of the Gods actually hangs on Loki and his decisions, possibly more so than any of the other Aesir/Vanir…
woh, how cool! All my Loki info comes from the movies/comics/fics. *hangs head in shame* I love the idea that he – the complex being between worlds – affects/understands events more than anyone else. I also love the idea of him married to monsters! The protagonist of The Siren is described by her Dom as a monster – when he tells her to beware knights in shining armour. That’s such a powerful image, too, of a woman burned “to her heart”. So many great images/ideas! Looks like I’m gonna have to read some of the actual myths about Loki.
I should record some of my tellings… I keep meaning to. I think I might do a ‘Loki Cycle’ at some point and try to tie the whole story together…
that sounds awesome! Lemme know if/when you do.
…I always see The Comedian in ‘Watchmen’ as a version of Loki.