Sunday, June 22, 2008

Princess Mononoke

Trevor invited me to contribute to the blog, so I thought I’d just write about some meaningful experiences I’ve had with some films...

Miyazaki has so many valuable things to offer on issues of war, gender, the environment, and spirituality, and I think its especially important that he’s offering these insights to specifically to children. Let me just a couple of spiritual lessons that Princess Mononoke is helping me learn.

I love that our protagonist, Ashitaka, is engaged in moral struggle in which he must navigate two warring ideological opposites. I was kind of disappointed the other day when I looked at AFI’s top ten animated films list and saw that Disney held every place. Not that Disney isn’t great (Finding Nemo and Dumbo are pretty stellar), but I think that the standard formula for children’s melodrama—employed almost without exception by Disney—is to pit hero against villain…period. In Mononoke, Ashitaka (and the viewer) sympathizes with both Sen’s primitive spiritualism and Lady Eboshi’s Enlightened secularism. And this is a conflict that is not unfamiliar to us (in the Old Testament, current ideological battles between left and right, and even the “war on terror”). Eboshi seeks to end the reign of the gods, but she also plants gardens, cares for the leprous and releases prostitutes from their bondage. The forest gods are noble, spiritual beings, but can be violent and overzealous—boars blindly charging into battle.

I think that if we’re ever to resolve the real-world conflicts to which the film alludes, we’ll need to adopt an Ashitaka-ish perspective. He starts his quest just to rid himself of the demon that’s slowly killing him (created by Eboshi’s attack on the gods), but his motivations become more selfless as he seeks to mediate between the warring groups. Our own spiritual well-being may, rightly, be our first priority, but I think that engaging in these moral battles—with both sympathy for and a healthy skepticism of both perspectives—may be a key to greater spiritual growth.

8 comments:

DCL said...

Thanks for this. Because they are complexed and multi-layered, Miyazaki's films remind us that real life decisions are not as simple as portrayed in Disney's Hero vs. villain pantomimes.

Trevor said...

Benjamin,

Great post.

I know that this wasn't your main point, but I wonder if you could expound a bit on the 'Old Testament' ideology of hero versus villain.

While I'm trying to think of exceptions, and I can't, I wonder what specifically you see there.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Benjamin,

You make some really great points here. I like this film, too.

I think that the type of complexity you're describing in approaching good and evil is useful to children (and all of us) by itself, but even more useful when paired with the polarized "Disney approach." While the one teaches us not to see people in black and white, the other helps define the elements that blend together to make the gray. I think young children especially need to be taught the characteristics of good and evil in a way that makes the difference, as well as the superiority of good obvious. That's what Disney has done really well. But kids also need (especially as they grow older) to understand that people can't be lumped into "good" and "evil" categories, which I think is your point about Miyazaki's approach.

You hit it on the head when you referred to "real-world conflicts." The forces of good and evil are present in these conflicts, but the people involved almost never personify these forces.

I think we face this issue a lot as Latter-day Saints. Christ made it clear, as did Lehi, that there are two powers that entice us. The eternal battle is as polarized as Disney makes it look. But I think it's too easy to look at someone who, for example, peddles pornography (a clear evil) and say "That man is evil," when it's really just his act. We are enticed, and any given decision we make may be influenced by one, the other, or both. Regardless of our actions, our worth and divine potential remain the same. We need to separate the influencer from the influenced, because a single act rarely places any person entirely on one side of the coin or the other. In order to keep this separation, we need the dual perspective.

Benjamin Thevenin said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I think that Adam makes a good point about making sure that we help children understand 'good' and 'evil.' I don't mean to say that this distinction doesn't exist, just that the embodiment of these moral polarities in characters (over and over) may unfortunately contribute to a false judgment of people (and not their actions). After all, only perfected beings are perfectly good and sons of perdition are perfectly bad. The rest of us are trying at various levels, and I think that that this majority is underrepresented sometimes. As for the Old Testament, I guess I was just thinking that the moral clarity depicted there is so stark. We sometimes mischaracterize Lamanites as bad and Nephites as good, but the record of these peoples shows huge moral complexities in both of these groups. Jesus's outreach to the poor, the sick, publicans and sinners in the New Testament seems to acknowledge this complexity also. But a lot of the prominent stories from the Old Testament--Cain and Abel; David and Goliath; Daniel; Sodom and Gomorrah; Israelites and the Egyptians; nations being ordered to destroy nations--emphasize this division between good people and evil people. This distinction (like in the Disney movies) is helpful to a degree. But maybe if we talked more about Noah's drunkenness, David's lasciviousness, the Israelites' murmuring and drifting, and the complexity of Adam and Eve's decision to partake of the fruit, we would be a more compassionate people, more understanding of the smoking, drinking, struggling but trying, real children of God.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

"I don't mean to say that this distinction doesn't exist, just that the embodiment of these moral polarities in characters (over and over) may unfortunately contribute to a false judgment of people (and not their actions).

Youre right and, as you say, this needs to be pointed out more often. I've been having conversations elsewhere in the blogosphere that are about how we can unintentionally allow our children to r

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Sorry, I hit a button by accident.

I was saying that we can unintentionally allow our children to receive some very subtle messages that can become very difficult stumbling blocks.

I particularly like your point about repetition of these messages, Benjamin, because it's the oversaturation with the Disney perspective that leads to the danger you describe. The Miyazaki approach causes kids (and us) to think more carefully.

Some people have told me that it's unrealistic to expect this from kids, but my experience with my own kids (the oldest of whom is four) is that they want to think about things. They like to understand and explore. We should nurture that while they are young by exposing them to media that will help their minds to expand, and not simply occupy their attention.

Paul H said...

Hello All,

I hope I'm not imposing and if I am I apologize, but I've been following these posts for a while now and I wanted to share some of the thoughts I've had as I've read all of the well communicated ideas here.

After all, only perfected beings are perfectly good and sons of perdition are perfectly bad. The rest of us are trying at various levels, and I think that that this majority is underrepresented sometimes.

This is probably one of the most concise, well reasoned, accurate ideas I have heard in a long time. I've always found that it's especially easy to disassociate oneself from an internal (an even external) examination when the most extreme examples are used.

the Disney perspective that leads to the danger you describe. The Miyazaki approach causes kids (and us) to think more carefully.

While I agree that Disney sometimes falls prey to the oversimplification of problems I believe that film, for all its wonderful qualities and potentials, isn't the most effective way to stimulate, teach, train or nurture children. A father who quietly takes a son to the home of a shunned or ostracized family and shows love and compassion as a diligent home teacher will teach that son more about the importance and worth of every individual than any film could. The same goes for a mother who teaches a daughter to respect every individual (including herself) through selfless service.

We should nurture that while they are young by exposing them to media that will help their minds to expand, and not simply occupy their attention.

For me there's nothing more grating than hearing someone rail against "the media" without any specific example during Sunday School or Sacrament. However I understand the urge to. As a constant consumer of every kind of media available I'm becoming more and more convinced that a carefully selected amount and type of media for our children fortified with real-life teaching moments is probably the best way to go.

I'm well aware that I'm not injecting any new and groundbreaking idea or concept and that this blog is about film so I apologize for my intrusion. I just for some reason felt the need to share.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Paul H,

We welcome your and everyone's comments here. Thanks for sharing, and please do so again.

I hope you didn't think I was railing against "the media" in general. I was just pointing out the obvious: that it comes in all kinds and we should only choose to partake of the best. We should also protect our children in this regard.

As to your other point, I appreciate it. I don't think any of us would advocate using film as a substitute for parental teaching and example. Nevertheless, kids will be exposed to movies. Using them actively to enhance what we're doing as parents is, in my opinion, a better idea than letting our kids be acted upon by them without helping them understand what's happening.