Whether it’s a tattoo, a partner, a report card, or anything really, there’s nothing that fails to elicit panic when you try to show it to your parents. You worry if they’ll enjoy it, or if they’ll think less of you for liking it. Fear of judgment and shame can forge strong prison bars inside hearts and minds.
My parents have never quite understood my enjoyment of anime and manga, or anything fantasy-related. They tolerated it, and I think my mom was fine with me doing something with friends that wasn’t drugs, but when it came to anything involving ki blasts, gravity-defying hair the color of candy, and monks with swords of light plasma, it went right over their heads.
Not their faults, really. They grew up behind the Iron Curtain—most modern pop culture has roots in a time they have very little knowledge of (except for music: my mom digs The Beatles and The Rolling Stones). My family was never really well-off enough to have video game consoles, and there wasn’t a computer in the house until my sisters were starting high school. My siblings and I are all nerds to some extent, but while my eldest sister and I share a love of board gaming, Star Wars and Doctor Who, I’m the only person in the family that’s watched DBZ, let alone attended an anime con or cosplayed.
My dad always said he thought “cartoons” were just for kids.
I’m sure that sounds familiar to most of you.
Through high school and most of college, I just ignored him. But right around my senior year, when I started attending cons more and more, it got to me. Sure, at ACen I saw young kids, but I also saw their parents in InuYasha cosplay; I saw panelists, voice actors, people around my parents’ ages, all clearly loving the energy, the creativity, the material.
I couldn’t drag my dad to a con, and while my mom was never going to be an anime fan (though to her credit, she got over her shock at the variety of cosplay that streamed through Rosemont every May) I could at least open their eyes a bit more. There was only one thing, in my mind, that could do it. There was only one person who’d elevated anime high enough to be recognized by the Academy Awards people: Miyazaki.
Naturally, my first thought was Spirited Away, the film that won said Oscar. But there’s one problem: it’s family-friendly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted my dad to see something that wasn’t for all ages.
I wanted something darker, bloodier, something where villainy is more a matter of perspective than stark black-and-white, even more so than in Spirited Away.
So, the day before Christmas Eve, while my other sister was visiting, I showed them Princess Mononoke.
I was expecting my mother to fall asleep in the first 30 minutes, which she did. I expected my sister to either doze off, or completely tune out; she did the former. I also expected my dad to make some kind of comment about how the film was stupid, as he did with most any film not to his taste (read: Polish and/or action or action comedy and/or featuring Jackie Chan or Clint Eastwood).
I’d watched Princess Mononoke once before, and liked it. I was expecting to enjoy watching it again, and I did.
I didn’t expect the shame. I didn’t expect to remember a lesson I’d nearly forgotten.
For those who haven’t seen the film, minor spoilers ahead (also: watch it. NOW). In medieval Japan, Prince Ashitaka is poisoned by a boar god who attacks his people’s lands. The boar god was corrupted by an iron ball; it left a wound which festered with rage and hate, his form covered by demon maggots. Ashitaka was forced to kill him, but in doing so, the god cursed him with his corrupting touch, which would soon kill the prince. He learned that a potential cure could be found to the west, where the boar had come from, though it meant he’d have to leave his people behind forever. He eventually came upon Iron Town, where its master, Lady Eboshi, was cutting down the forest to get at the iron-rich sand and make guns. Complicating the matter was the reason for the ecological damage: her smelters were former prostitutes, her gunsmiths lepers, and all around her was war. But no matter what her motivations, to the apes and boars and wolves of the forest, she was the enemy. She had to be stopped, permanently.
Eventually, San, the adopted daughter of the wolf god, aka the titular Princess Mononoke, attacks Iron Town, and tries to assassinate Lady Eboshi. But the Prince, his eyes (if not his arm) unclouded by hate, gets between them. See, the wound was killing him slowly, but it was also giving him superhuman strength. As he stuns Lady Eboshi and San, his wounds are revealed. But he feels no shame, no hatred. He’s met with both sides, and knows their individual pain and pride.
He addresses the crowd of people. I’d seen the movie before, I knew what would occur. Now, though, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. Because when Prince Ashitaka begged the people to leave the forest in peace, he awoke something in me that I’d nearly forgotten.
I looked around the room. My sister was dozing, my mother’s head bobbing in her half-awake state. But my dad was sitting in his chair, rapt in the movie. I don’t know what went through his head, then. But I know what was going through mine.
Shame. Regret. Sadness. And resolution. But that’s a tale for another time (soon, I promise).
It was fairly late in the evening when the credits rolled. We cajoled my mother to get up, and as per usual, on the fifth “come on, Mom, get up”, she went off to bed. She’d woken up in patches and snatches, and said she’d liked the movie. My dad was fairly quiet, but he made similar noises of satisfaction.
My sister thought it was weird. To be fair, she was always a lost cause.
A few days later, after the insanity of the holidays had abated, I asked my dad what he’d thought of it. While he said he’d liked the film, he still thought it was something for kids.
Keep in mind, while Miyazaki usually intends for kids to enjoy and learn from his films (this film being one of the few that is intended for a more mature audience), Princess Mononoke has a scene where Prince Ashitaka, after being ‘roided by the Hatred Maggots, shoots an arrow so hard it cuts off a man’s arms.
This is also a movie, again, where some of the heroes are lepers and former prostitutes. I say that not in judgment, but as an illustration of the weight of some of its themes. I didn’t know what a prostitute was until middle school (I was a sheltered child—if only 11-year-old me could see me now).
My mother chimed in from the other room, stating that everyone could learn from what the film had to say. Dad agreed.
“But why,” I asked, “do you think this film is for kids?”
“Because it’s animated,” was his reply.
My extended family was present at this time, and my uncle (roughly of-age with my dad) concurred.
The reason why, I think, people from my parents’ generation think that all things animated, whether Disney, Miyazaki, or Studio Trigger, are for kids, is because that’s how they were raised. In those days, especially in communist-controlled Poland, the only programs featuring animation were children’s shows. My uncle, in voicing his agreement, mentioned Bolek i Lolek, one of Poland’s most well-known cartoons.
There was nothing wrong, inherently, with kids’ shows. My parents and relatives wouldn’t have bought VHS tapes (yes, *gasp*, I’m that old) of The Lion King or Aladdin if they were complete crap. And both my parents agreed that Princess Mononoke had some vital messages to teach. But the movies were just that: for kids.
To my dad, who was literally raised on a farm and has little to no interest in modern pop culture, it doesn’t matter that the characters in Family Guy drink or have sex: it’s animated, therefore for kids.
I know, it sounds insane, even to me—and I grew up with the man. But after watching Princess Mononoke, I think I’m starting to understand where he’s coming from. Or rather, I think I know how I can start to understand.
My dad learned through his parents, through the culture around him. In the same way, the culture around me almost made me lose sight of what Ashitaka was trying to tell everyone.
What we hear, what we read and see, all of that helps form who we are as people. Some things we take in and believe; others are rejected from the core of our being. Beliefs, ways of thinking, prejudices: all of that derives from our environment and the people in it. Yes, humans have innate fears, likes and dislikes that come from our unique genetic code, but learned behavior is a significant part of our identity.
In our travels through life, we will learn from many people. Some of them will think like us, some of them won’t. The things in our lives shape us, but they can also harden us.
Eboshi and the animals were two sides of the same coin: individuals trying to live lives of happiness and peace. But they stood at opposite ends of the struggle. It took the sacrifice of the Forest Spirit, with all the gravity that such a loss meant, and the deaths of hundreds on both sides, to end it.
The animals did not understand the pain of Eboshi or her village; Eboshi wanted better lives for the people under her care, to prove that even those society deemed worthless could topple the gods, conquer the land, and damn the consequences. And in their war, their anger and pain touched lives far beyond the boundaries of the battleground.
The animals saw their home, their sanctuary threatened; the residents of Iron Town just wanted to be treated with respect, like normal people.
If they’d just stopped, they could’ve realized how close they really were. The animals didn’t care if the human with the gun was clothed in bandages or armor, it was still a human with a gun. Iron Town was the outcasts’ home and sanctuary.
If both sides had just taken a break to talk, to realize how much they had in common, maybe the Forest Spirit wouldn’t have died. Instead, the residents of Iron Town could’ve banded with the denizens of the forest to fight against the Emperor’s samurai.
All those people who’d been spat on by society would be respected; the creatures would be able to defend their homes against invaders. Instead of breeding hate, they might’ve fostered peace.
In the end, I’m glad I showed my parents Mononoke. No, I didn’t change their minds much regarding anime, but I got a chance to understand where they’re coming from. I may never be able to completely change their minds; at this point, it’d be liking trying to change the curve of the Mississippi. But I can at least try to get them to understand where I’m coming from. And I’m okay with that.
Maybe I’ll try Cowboy Bebop next...