There is no fact of life harder to face, or conceptualise, than its ending. Since I lost my mother last year, I’ve been struggling for ways to guard against the fact she will never be a phone call away, that strong, vital voice of reassurance. There’s the regret that I should have treasured her more when she was here, made more time to be with her before she was taken away. But even still, I can only find gratitude for the slideshow of our shared moments, flickering warm inside this body she created. I appreciate her now at a distance. It’s a feeling of disconnect that’s hard to get used to, but I have the perfect mirror for how I feel in the flowing snapshots of anime.
Princess Mononoke, the lightning flash that first stunned me with the fierce grace that anime could be capable of, is an even more painful tale of mending, belonging, learning to coexist with nature’s cruelty rather than fighting against it. Motherless, fatherless, the demi-goddess of beasts San finds solace with wolves who doubtless love her, but cannot be a surrogate for the human bonds she lost. There was too much grief in humanity’s destruction of her beloved nature for her to stay, she thought. But if her hurts and those of the earth were to heal, she must heed the call to stand and face them.
Her world as she knows it collapses to enable new life. She watches and mourns for the loss of her mother Earth, no longer in denial of her human soul and the mortality of all things. The truth remains, mankind was where she began and where she will always be needed. It was simply too much before, to claim that frailty and take action; easier to claim to be inhuman and bury the grief.
Feelings of inhumanity have become oddly apt in reaching the core of the catharsis I need. Black Butler’s progeny of power, the earl Ciel Phantomhive, has been followed by death’s shadow since he was left orphaned, his parents burned to ashes along with the family home in an act of malice. The manor was rebuilt, and so Ciel defied death to revive his father’s toymaking empire, and take on the mantle of Queen Victoria’s guard against supernatural forces.
Taking what he feels to be his failing with him in every step, he walks numbed even when loss strikes his family once more. The funeral for his aunt Madam Red, his mother’s sister, is heightened from a drab recitation to a scandalous splendour with Ciel’s late arrival. He lays her scarlet dress over her still, pale form, the white gown chosen for her unbecoming to the “passionate red” with which she left her mark on the world.
I know that vivid colour well, and the bruise it leaves in absence. Ciel has lost his last close tie to his mother’s love, but he meets it with an aura of pride. His lack of tears, or any outward display of mourning is the same that’s brought me some guilt since my mother’s death. At her funeral, I remembered her with a smile. I don’t often cry for her. I worry that I am some demon who didn’t love her enough. But I see and feel Ciel’s hidden grief as my own.
I am familiar with loss in my family, so it’s unsurprising that I can find so much empathy with Ciel’s attitude towards it. Too early in his life, death became its guiding principle – he treats it as such. He harnesses the force of his grief to provide his forward momentum, imagining his every act being a step towards avenging his parents, finding who killed them. That same necessity, not in vengeance but leading my life in a way that would make my mum proud, is also what keeps me steady. We are not demons. We’ve simply learned to coexist with the other side.
It’s been a comfort to regard this closeness to the other world as a power. It will take some getting used to, but the more I accept and learn to admire it in myself, the stronger I’ll be. The Ancient Magus’ Bride’s Chise lives with the horror and majesty of the spirit realm without the benefit of loved ones to anchor her to the mortal plane. The bright phoenix of love and compassion she becomes when she finds the one who accepts her, the magus Elias, shines out the truth that leaning on his care is part of finding balance in her life as it’s come to be. She learns to release weary souls through peaceful passing, letting all her pain go through another being who needs her magic. But this won’t always be enough. She drains her restricted life force in pouring her love away in full flow. She must eventually own her losses and work to become independent. Otherwise, she will become chronically dependent on the ones who advise and keep her.
More than being strong for myself, I have a responsibility to resist giving into despair, in part for the sake of my daughter. In some ways, that prospect is more fearful than death. Without her grandmother, I must be a brighter light. Like Chise, I still rely on the affirmation of love from others. A certain comfortable fear in the weight of inner darkness, eased by companionship, dampens our power. Greater than the fear of losing one person I’ve loved, is its after-shadow of fearing being left alone. But anime is awash with series about friends being young, vulnerable and silly, and walking each other through it with the pleasant distractions of everyday worlds of adventure.
I’m looking forward to going on adventures with the girls of A Place Further Than the Universe, because I’m anticipating them showing me all I could accomplish with help from the bright souls I know, and might still come to meet. It’s frightening, standing at the signpost to a new life path, knowing it’s where you need to go and faltering. But Mari wants so deeply to make her youth mean something, and Shirase has an even deeper need to reach Antarctica. Her mother went missing on an expedition there, three years ago. She’s held on to the hope that she’s still alive out there, somewhere. She’s clutched tight to the dream of going out into the biting wastes to find her, waiting and knowing her daughter wouldn’t leave her there alone.
Even moving ahead with my life bereft of my mum feels like an unmapped journey across an unforgiving landscape. I want to move on, and yet I don’t want to feel I’m forgetting about her. Shirase’s improbable destination is almost uncomfortably close to how I imagine my way through the rest of my life, leaving footprints on unmarked territory until I may or may not see her again. But there’s a feeling that the destination isn’t the key to Shirase’s search for comfort, but gathering the friends and laughter to spark greater adventures her mother would want her to have.
Little lessons like these are all starting to mean something more. The courage to be something she would be proud of is even in choosing to brave the small stuff I’m scared of. My mother loved adventures, her life was full of them. I can take her wild spirit into myself, just by stepping out into life on my own. Loss makes us see our futures differently. It leads us down new paths. It challenges us to take the best of those we’ve lost and bring them with us in all we do, to do right by them. Loss is a calling. An incentive to action, to explore where we were afraid to before. Surely, nothing could be harder to face than losing a loved one. That ironic optimism, when we can seize it, makes us braver.