I’d like to introduce this piece with a tangential anecdote, transpiring in the nascent days of the now hegemonic streaming platform Netflix – back when the service functioned in a manner wherein customers had to order films online and have them delivered to their doorsteps via the postal service.
Back in these now seemingly archaic days, I was once at a friend’s house of whom lived down the street from me, and we were watching an animated film that simultaneously perplexed and captivated my Western eyes. The vibrant colors, blatant Japanese art direction and thematic concerns of nature infallibly caught my attention. This gorgeous visual treat was none other than maverick Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 masterpiece Princess Mononoke – still to this day, among one of my favorite films of all time.
As my interest in film and various aesthetic modes of communication furthered accordingly with my age, I made it a personal challenge to watch all of the most prominent films produced by Miyazaki and the eminently creative minds working in Studio Ghibli.
Rather than continuing to rhapsodize about the beauty of all of these films, I will instead move towards more of the crux of this piece, and I shall do this by honing in on Miyazaki’s 2004 effort Howl’s Moving Castle.
This undeniably charming film, based on a novel of the same name by British polymath Diana Wynne Jones, centers around a young woman named Sophie, cursed by a witch into becoming an old woman, encounters a vain sorcerer named Howl with whom she embarks on a discursive journey to help aid in resistance to an all-consuming war devastating the kingdom.
If you are unfamiliar with the film – or perhaps Miyazaki’s work as a whole — then this all-too-brief simplification of the plot may seem repellant due to its high-fantasy proclivities. In spite of this, it is unwise to ignore or shirk viewing this film because of its oddities and fantastical elements because like legendary director Martin Scorsese once famously said, “Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as 'fantasy' and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life — It’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.”
Anti-war themes are immediately recognizable in the film, as Miyazaki is a self-ascribed pacifist, and the film was partly made to convey his aggravation with the Iraq War and its subsequent invasions. While this is an immensely potent topic that certainly has some parallels with the times we find ourselves embroiled in now, I would instead like to focus on a different theme the film conveys that indubitably has grand potential for implications into various facets of society, and that is the importance and profundity of compassion.
Compassion is a key aspect of life that prominent thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer and the Dalai Lama have discussed ad infinitum, but in spite of these countless philosophical ruminations, the value of compassion seems to have all but vanished from modern society.
I would like to begin this analysis with the provocative empirical claim that having been brought up in a capitalist, post-colonial society than emphasizes the pursuit of personal wealth and profit above all else – even human rights – feelings of alienation and displacement are widely engendered. It is a system predicated about creating competition and “rewarding initiative” by promoting the individual to outwork his or her fellow humans in the means of securing personal fortune.
While champions of this notion will boast that such a societal framework yields illustrious fruits such as “innovation and self-regulating markets,” it is undeniable to observe that this very framework has an extraordinary propensity to foster inhumane levels of alienation and indignation to the fundamental rights of humans.
Modern America’s ruthless form of capitalism encourages its citizens to view every other fellow human being met in one’s life as a mere financial transaction, mitigating and undermining the inherent complexities of one’s life and emotions. This leads the less entrepreneurial to often be subjugated to unjust treatment. It is a system that promotes the exploitation of others in order for the individual to attain more capital – utterly ignoring the importance of communitarian values and the collective good. It buttresses competition over cooperation, and this leads to the ultimate abandonment of the practical and normative value of compassion.
Communities of color face wholly unjust over-policing and abhorrently skewed prison terms, homeless communities, utterly and completely disenfranchised, are targeted for easy arrests and neglected by city councils, and indigenous groups living on the Alaskan coast face utter decimation by coastal erosion caused by climate change induced rising sea levels.
Why have these problems not been wholly addressed? A pragmatist would argue that it simply does not make economic sense to bend over backwards to assuage these issues, but this is ultimately indicative of a complete and absolute abandonment of conventional compassion.
It is often advocated that emotional arguments are intrinsically weaker than chains of reasoning and logic, and while there is some credence to this claim, abandoning emotion altogether can lead to unspeakable abominations against the human condition. Realpolitik and outcome-based practical application has been used time and time throughout history to justify genocides, pogroms and any other concomitant atrocity. While purely emotion-based arguments can at times be equally appalling and amply support cognitive dissonance and bias, emotion ought to be responsibly implemented argumentation because it allows for a practical application for instances of empathy and human compassion.
To connect this back to the medium of film, Charlie Chaplin insightfully spoke in his 1944 satire The Great Dictator that “we think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
Furthering on about the value of compassion, it is necessary to always engage with others in a generous and compassionate manner because it can at times be largely impossible to discern the situation and problems of others.
Another aspect of a competition-based, capitalist society that promotes alienation is that it encourages individuals to judge others purely on their ability to financially succeed or visually create the image of success. This is problematic because it deters people from genuinely opening up to others about any concomitant mental health or familial issue that plagues their respective lives. Successful people, by whichever method one chooses to measure that success, generally outwardly appear to have some sense of stability, and this intuitively scares anyone who may be in a position of suffering to internalize his or her situation because he or she likely fears to be perceived by others as unstable – and thereby in a lower propensity to achieve success or its appearance. This is why acting in a compassionate manner is essential in our society because we are truly incapable of fully knowing what others may be going through because those who are suffering are generally unwilling to reach out for help in fear of judgement.
To further illustrate the necessity of this claim, I would, with profound regret and sorrow, like to provide a more personal account.
In late February of 2018, my mother called me to inform me that my cousin Ben had unfortunately taken his life. This news immediately devastated me. A tragedy of this relation seemed unfathomable and so sudden too. It felt as if the world had shifted on its axis a degree. Ben and I were never as close and connected as I would have liked, but he was one of the most genuinely friendly people I have ever known, capable of conversing at easy with anyone regardless of how different they may have been from him. Ben’s life had been marred by the uneasy conditions that he lived in, constantly facing issues with his immediate family and the social environment he found himself in.
Recurring bouts with substance abuse, social pressure and a recent string of unfortunate events undoubtedly influenced Ben’s decision to take his life, and I would like to use this as a cautionary claim that all of us, no matter how well-connected or financially successful, are a mere few immediate tragedies away from losing everything. From abandoning our will to live, it is so easy to get overwhelmed by the tempestuous courses our lives can throw us through, and for this reason, it is paramount that we approach others with compassion and a loving, supportive and nurturing mindset.
Circling back to Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle, it is important that we engage with works of art such as this that can use whimsical stories of fiction to remind us of the immense value of being good to one another. It is a visual treat of a film that contains a timely and timeless, life-affirming message of compassion. In a 2013 interview of Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki stated, “I wanted to convey that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed.”
Life is worth living – Remember that. No matter what tragedies may obfuscate this.
I would like to conclude with an uncontentious idea from a contentious mind — rapper Kanye West’s simple but nonetheless applicable quote from his 2007 song “Big Brother”:
“If you admire somebody you should go on ‘head [and] tell ‘em. People never get the flowers while they can still smell ‘em.”
In short, tell people you love them while you still can.
Luke Dudrick is currently studying abroad at University College Dublin in Dublin, Ireland for the semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.