How The Swan Princess Demonstrates that Lies are the Foundation of Evil

Last week, I accidentally posted the bio for Medieval Otaku, a wonderful blogger and friend to our site, in anticipation of his post this week.  Rather than an error on my part, please consider it tease for this guest post! 😀

Medieval Otaku is run by a bookworm inflamed with a desire for learning and for God.  The study of foreign cultures, literature, and history eventually led to him discovering anime, which hooked him with the remarkable richness and beauty of its stories and is likely to remain a strong hobby of his for decades to come.

This morning, I took a rather pleasant break from Japanimation and a stroll down memory lane in watching The Swan Princess and The Secret of NIMH.  Anime stands as my favorite medium for cartoons, but Americans have produced some truly wonderful full length feature films.  The different ethos presented by the above movies was refreshing to see—in the similar way that I found serious anime refreshing in that they channeled an ethos reminiscent of ancient Rome.  Watching these two films caused me to realize that I missed seeing this ethos played out in story and that I  had perhaps recently started to lavish the most praise on anime bearing a more Western character.

The Swan Princess 1

At any rate, I should like to point out what The Swan Princess has to say about the nature of evil and ask a few questions about what the Japanese reveal about the topic.  The Swan Princess saliently brings home the point that evil is built upon lies.  We see this most clearly in the character of Rothbart, the evil enchanter and shape-shifter who attempted to usurp Odette’s kingdom while she was still a baby.  Rothbart fails in his attempt, Odette’s father banishes him, and, when Odette turns 20, kills her father and abducts her.

The Swan Princess 2

His idea revolves around marrying Odette so as to legally assume the throne.  Interestingly, he claims that he realized that usurpation was not the correct way to gain a kingdom, because people will contest his claim on a throne gained through unlawful means; but, he fails to make the connection that neither should he insidiously gain the hand of a woman!  To do so would supplant love with lies as the basis of their relationship.  Bitter enemies cannot share the same bed!  His magic itself becomes symbolic of lies.  For example, he constantly changes the scenery when visiting Odette, as she remains spellbound to a lake, by changing a dreary forest and ruins into a bright, beautiful garden as he comes bearing a bouquet in golden armor and finery.  He does not understand how Odette can keep refusing him each time and thinks that simple persistence and false promises should win out.

The Swan Princess 3

Yet, though Rothbart has little character to recommend him, he does not strike one as utterly vile.  (Perhaps, I’ve read too many histories of usurpers, and animus toward the class has weakened.)  St. Augustine wrote that evil has no substance: it cannot exist separately from that which is essentially good—everything in being, simply by being created by a purely and infinitely good God incapable of evil, is good.  Those beings whom we call evil, whether they be men or demons, are evil in that they will evil, not that they were evil in their creation; hence, St. Augustine refers to them at one point in his Enchiridion as “evil goods.”

The Swan Princess 4

And so, one feels a bit of pity for Rothbart: despite his ambition and arrogance, he might have been a great man if only he acknowledged the truth and allowed the truth to lead him to doing the right.  Certainly, he has an entertaining personality when not crushing Odette’s hopes.  It seems like he had at least two chances to repent: 1) when banished, he ought to have realized that he was in debt to Odette’s father for sparing his life and not sought to do him any more harm; and 2) when he called Odette out for her trying to deceive him into believing that she wanted to marry him, he ought to have realized the falsity of his own position.  Instead, he reverts to his former model of usurpation.

MSDSWPR EC008

Rothbart does not even seem upset that Odette lied to him, as if falsehoods were so part of his universe that moral outrage concerning them is impossible.  Enmeshed in lies, Rothbart can only go from bad to worse.   But, this elicits pity rather than hatred.  We might wish that Rothbart could only see the heinousness of his crimes and thoroughly repent of them.  Surely, it was pity for the world hurtling itself into the darkness and delusion that brought the Light of the World from heaven to deliver us from our vices and sins.

The Swan Princess 6

Conversely, we do not see the same connection between lies and evil in anime—at least, to my knowledge of it.  This might lie in the Japanese having a more dualistic understanding of the universe, i.e. the view evil as a competing force rather than a perversion of the good.  If a substantial force, then the connection between evil and falsity is harder to draw.

But, what do you guys think?  Does any anime display the idea that evil has roots in lies and non-existence?  What do you think is the general consensus of anime on the nature of evil?

Read more by Medieval Otaku on his self-titled blog.

10 thoughts on “How The Swan Princess Demonstrates that Lies are the Foundation of Evil

  1. One example that comes to mind is the recent Aku no Hana, or The Flowers of Evil. Kasuga gets carried away and ends up taking home the gym uniform of the girl he has a crush on. Then, not wanting to be found out, he “lies” by not admitting what he did. This lets him get blackmailed by another classmate, and from there he’s caught in a web of lies that distort him into something ugly. In addition to the “lie” of not stealing the uniform, there’s also his “lie” in trying to project an image of himself that is different from who he really is, and that also drives him towards the perversity he displays in the show.

    The scary thing here is that Kasuga isn’t some kind of usurper or anyone obviously “evil”. He’s a normal high school boy who wants to live a normal high school life. And yet, because he gets caught in his own web of lies, he starts heading down a path of perversity. It goes to show that becoming evil isn’t something that requires wanting to be a murderer or usurper. It could happen to any of us.

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    1. That’s very true. I’ve been reading the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah recently, and the theme of dishonesty and lying jumps out at one. For the people of Judah, their dishonesty becomes so bad that they can no longer repent, because for all their idol worship, favoring the guilty in the courts, oppression of widows, orphans, and foreigners, and sexual immorality, they refuse to believe that they are doing anything wrong! The final fate of the habitual liar!

      I’ve heard some good things about Aku no Hana, despite the general distaste for the animation style. I’ll have to check it out. But, I have to ask whether you would consider the themes of the show as highly influenced by the West or is it more rooted in the Japanese worldview? From your description, the protagonist’s fall into depravity sounds rather Augustinian.

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      1. I’m not too familiar with Augustine, so I don’t know if his fall is Augustinian or not. From what I can gather, though, I think Aku no Hana could be a direct attack against the Japanese notion of good and evil being opposing forces. (The whole series is an attack against various Japanese societal norms; even the rotoscoping was an attack against expectations of the visual medium, from what I’ve heard…)

        But I would definitely recommend that you check it out for yourself. The other “lie” I referenced earlier is something of a spoiler, so I’d rather not talk about it here, but it is something rather interesting in and of itself. Overall, though, the show definitely has some interesting ideas and is worth talking about, especially with regards to this subject.

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        1. I refuse to acknowledge Aku no Hana as some sort of intentional symbolic depiction of good and evil. I haven’t bothered with the anime but the manga was poor writing with no purpose other than topping the last incident and after that, it’s been stumbling around with how to take it from there. I cannot take it seriously with an author who says “I wanted to write something to murder people’s minds.”

          The themes and ideas are there; I won’t deny you that. However, my response to comments like this is always: go read Kurosawa for very similar content and themes but with a plot, character development, and execution 100x better than this.

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          1. Just wondering, but what do you mean by “Kurosawa”? I can’t find a manga or any other written work by that name, nor can I find any author or mangaka by that name.

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        2. Well, I certainly will try out the first three or four episodes!

          My favorite sly gibe at Japanese culture will always be from D. Gray Man: “Ninety-three percent of the Japanese are demons. Very few human beings are left.” Or something like that. Ouch! >.< One would usually have expected the mangaka to make Japan a haven for humanity rather than devoid of it!

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  2. Hmm… lies in anime…

    The first anime that comes to my mind is Mirai Nikki (aka Future Diary), in which the main character (Yuki) becomes entangled in lies with the main female lead, Yuno (the most infamous of Yandere characters).

    Yuki, in fear for his life and desperate for Yuno to protect him, lies and pretends to be in love with her. At one point he even comments on it that he has “Just told a lie I can never take back.”

    Yuno herself is also entangled in the lies she tells Yuki. She lies about her past, and even modifies her own memories to make herself more like what she thinks Yuki wants from her. Her mind seems to have retreated into a fantasy of Yuki loving her, and despite her knowing it is a lie she rejects reality and chooses to believe the lie anyway.

    Mirai Nikki has a lot of flaws, plot holes, and other problems, but I always found it interesting because it spoke to me as the story of a damned soul.

    I read it in manga form first, which I think is slightly better than the anime. As I read it I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the best descriptions of what it must be like to be damned. A concept that even most Christians don’t want to think about, and even deny is possible. A denial that I think trivializes the grace of Christ.

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