By: Marisa Sloan
Traditionally, the word “dystopia” evokes a panoptic, authoritarian government subjugating its citizens with machinery, or orchestrating their lives through mind control amidst environmental degradation. Yet the murder, abuse, and trauma born out of dystopic regimes begin with internal violence, the murky well of human thought, rather than the systems themselves. Without the universally torturous emotions of rage, guilt, and fear among other metaphorical demons, we would not be galvanized to wreak havoc upon the world—or ourselves. Therefore, to understand the consequences of our emotional interiors, we must externalize our feelings rather than harbor them in the private, cavernous dystopias of our own minds. The Japanese animated television series Mononoke conceptualizes psychological dystopianism as such by concretizing emotions through mythological, folkloric plays of morality.
In classical Japanese demonology, supernatural beings are referred to as mononoke, which represent the “translation of vague unreasoned fears into carefully individuated monsters” (Foster 11). In essence, mononoke are human emotions incarnate. Mononoke draws on this influence by featuring Kusuriuri, the protagonist, who travels along Edo Japan exorcising monsters elicited from negative human emotions. Kusuriuri functions as an audience surrogate as he probes the histories of those afflicted with mononoke, peeling away their layers of self-deception to diagnose the emotional malaise plaguing their souls.
The first storyline features a former brothel of deceased prostitutes, who were forced to abort their children by the inn’s proprietress. Grief, and resentment, from the spirits of the mothers and their unborn infants sharpen to a vengeful edge in the form of mononoke: garish spirit babies. The homicidal mononoke morph into a crimson orb and threaten to consume everyone in the room, especially the proprietress, whose mild guilt has nurtured their potent form. While the mononoke’s life-threatening fury has transformed the inn into a dystopian house of death for its inhabitants, the mononoke’s wrath is birthed from angst—the unborn children’s desperate desire to be born and loved. Additionally, this confrontation between the guilty and the innocent in a closed space alludes to the singularity of personal suffering. Ultimately, no one can experience individual distress to the extent that we feel it from the prison cells of our own heads.
Another series of episodes features Kusuriuri and other passengers held captive on a boat in a sea of mononoke, who have been conjured by the guilt of the ascetic Genkei. To emphasize the connection between the ocean and human emotion, Kusuriuri commands, “Never look at or think about the dark sea which exists within yourself,” which alludes not only to how humans self-deceive to evade their own culpability, but also to the self-contained dystopianism of intimate burdens (“Sea Bishop, Part 3”). During Genkei’s adolescence, his sister took his place as a sacrificial offering to the gods. His guilt and anxiety over retribution have culminated in a tentacled beast of shadows, his internal purgatory manifest, prepared to deliver him to a water grave. Once Kusuriuri slays the mononoke harvested from Genkei’s soul, the monk appears as he did 50 years ago. This physical transformation from caricatured senior to attractive youth exemplifies how our transgressions can cast a perpetual shadow over our lives, morphing us into ugly, self-loathing beings.
Mental dystopianism is again emphasized in the tale of Ocho, a depressed woman denigrated by her husband and his family, who she married into to please her social-climbing mother. After enduring emotional abuse for so long, she ostensibly murders her victimizers. However, a vision of her mutilated, blood-soaked body reveals the true nature of her killing spree. Kusuriuri places a mirror to her face and asks, “Ocho, who did you kill?” (“Faceless Monster, Part 2”). This moment of reckoning signifies that Ocho’s imprisonment has always been within her own mind; her decision to fulfill her supposed filial obligation to her selfish mother has resulted in the renunciation of her own happiness. Therefore, the graphic vision of the murdered husband and in-laws in actuality metaphorizes Ocho’s self-suppression, her spiritual suicide. Within the walls of Ocho’s imagined prison cell, Kusuriuri says to her, “If you think you’re trapped, this place becomes a prison. If you wish to stay, it becomes a castle,” as a testament to the subjectivity of internal dystopianism (“Faceless Monster, Part 2”). Thus, the tale of Ocho exemplifies that a life lived exclusively for others, intertwined with self-abnegation, is as agentless and therein joyless as one of government-imposed restriction.
The overarching message of these fantastical folktales is that we foster our own psychological dystopianism through the unbridled force of our emotions. Unfulfilled desires and unresolved traumas are like demons ravaging our minds, poisoning our thoughts and self-perceptions. Kusuriuri’s execution of mononoke with his katana signifies that the only hope we have for our spiritual selves in the wreckage of our mistakes is to reconcile the original dystopian regime: the human heart.
Konaka, Chiaki, Ikuko Takahashi, Michiko Yokote, and Manabu Ishikawa, creators. Mononoke.
Toei Animation, 2006.
“Faceless Monster, Part 2.” Mononoke, season 1, episode 7, Toei Animation, 2006.
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. University of California Press, 2009.
“Sea Bishop, Part 3.” Mononoke, season 1, episode 5, Toei Animation, 2006.