It’s an old saying: Every story needs a villain. But if you are a parent to a newly minted child, or even a not so newly minted one, then you are probably aware of the work of the Japanese filmmaker and illustrator Hayao Miyazaki.
And one of the more striking aspects of Miyazaki’s work is the (almost) complete absence of villains in his movies. The characters in his films come into violent conflict with one another and (frequently) with their natural environment; but regardless of the depth or violence of the conflict — and it is often visceral and intense — within the story, what is clear by movie’s end is that, though it might have seemed otherwise at the start, there are no clear-cut villains here. Why?
Because everybody has their reasons.
Even characters that lie, cheat, steal — even kill wantonly — by movie’s end will have been shown to be acting for reasons that make sense to them, and for that reason alone are in a way justified in their actions. And the final justification for any, and all, of these character’s actions seems to be that our environment, both natural and social, requires balance in order to operate properly.
An attempt by the end of each story to strike balance, both between the human characters, and between humanity and the natural world, seems to be a hallmark of all Miyazaki’s films.
The only obvious villain that comes to mind in the entire film oeuvre is the murderously efficient government operative Colonel Muska, from the film ‘Castle in the Sky,’ who by movie’s end — and quite unusual for any Miyazaki movie — is destroyed, killed off by his own plans. And what makes Muska so different from most characters in the filmmaker’s catalogue is that he openly works to pursue his own selfish goals of power and dominance at the expense of family and clan interests.
While I am a big fan, obviously, of Miyazaki’s films, I understand that it might seem an odd fit to be discussing his work in a blog devoted to the everyday work of writing. I mean, the guy makes cartoons, right?
Yet, with only one or two exceptions, Miyazaki’s films are not intended for kids. In Japan, with its long manga (i.e., comic books for adults) tradition, Miyazaki’s films are treated as grown-up entertainments that usually, though only incidentally, feature teenage (or animal) protagonists.
The reason I bring it up at all is that seeing the art of story-telling from such a unique, such an idiosyncratic (even, shall I say, foreign) perspective as Miyazaki’s can shed light on how we as writers create our own characters.
My point, if I have one, is that I’m not making an argument for moral relativism here; and neither, if I had to guess, is Miyazaki. What I’m arguing for is the importance of psychological complexity in the construction of one’s characters and narrative situations.
Critics for centuries have spoken about Shakespeare’s ‘negative capability,’ or his ‘negative vision,’ by which they mean his ability to see inside the minds of his quote-unquote villains and unpack the stunted humanity underneath their evil facades. So too a modern example like the films of Hayao Miyazaki afford writers, regardless of their pet subjects or interests, to build-out three-dimensional protagonists — and antagonists — who, despite the honorable or dishonorable nature of their actions within a given narrative, should still, above all, come across to one’s readers as people first and foremost, in all their imperfections and mistaken assumptions and their foolish, fallible humanity.
For those unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s work, a good place to start is ‘Spirited Away,’ his undisputed masterpiece. While its emphasis on the rituals and cultural importance of Japanese bathhouse culture — not to mention its lengthy forays into magical and spiritual realities — may be extremely foreign to most Western viewers, in the end it is a quite typical Voyage and Return story, in which a pre-adolescent girl comes face-to-face with the Unknown and returns to her humdrum everyday existence visibly unchanged.
And yet, by story’s end, she has become, quite heart-breakingly, a completely different person.
Confronted by the tragedy and vagaries of adult existence, she is no longer the small, frightened, bratty child she was at the start. Touched deeply by the sadness and basic unfairness of life, she has become, unknown to her parents, a young woman.
It is also worth checking out ‘Princess Mononoke,’ a traditional boy’s adventure story that has a worldview quite alien, even difficult to stomach, for your, like me, average every-day environmentalist. Through his use of viscerally extravagant, even disgustingly organic, monsters and fantasy creatures, Miyazaki sketches out a complex metaphor for humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
Judged solely on their actions, almost any character in ‘Princess Mononoke,’ seen in isolation, could be judged a villain at one time or another. But seen as a whole within the greater flow of the narrative, each character comes across as a complex, multi-directed individual acting within a greater cultural narrative of conflict and survival. What we discover, regardless of our rooting interests when the story first begins to unfold, is that everybody, again, has their reasons. And while we might not agree entirely with their reasoning, these character’s reasons are sound, at least insofar as they pertain to their own lives.
Thus no one in the story is a straight-out villain. And yet even though there are no good villains in his stories, Miyazaki’s stories are good. Very good.
NEXT TIME: ‘Canada’ (the latest work from Richard Ford) vs. Japan (in the form of the entire Miyazaki oeuvre)