Welcome to a reflection, where we explore the theme or craft implications of a recently reviewed work. For more like this, follow the reflections tag at the bottom of this post.
We all know the adage, ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Perhaps a more modern and sympathetic saying goes something like this: ‘be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you cannot see.’ In other words, we’re all going through something. For better or worse, we are all shaped by our experiences, and when those experiences are painful, we react to protect ourselves from those experiences. Some people (*author raises hand*) bury their feelings, ignoring them. Some sink into depression. Others lash out.
Despite the flashy, action-packed exterior, The Mortal Techniques series has a bleeding, beating heart. I particularly want to look at the third installment, Spirits of Vengeance, and its multifaceted view of the ways humans respond to trauma.
As usual for reflections, mild spoilers follow.
The yokai, the titular spirits of vengeance, embody the first and most instinctive reaction to trauma. They are nearly-mindless slaves to their emotions, lashing out at all living beings in their insatiable lust for revenge over their violent, wrongful deaths. They destroy any unfortunate soul who happens upon their path, regardless of their degree of guilt. As many of the sentient onryo observe once they are forced to reflect on their deeds, indiscriminate revenge isn’t justice. It’s murder.
The yokai model what is arguably the most unhealthy response to personal trauma: taking it out on others. Furthering the cycle of pain and violence – literal or figurative – does nothing to bring about healing, and only amplifies the wrong in the world. While the yokai cannot help themselves, the onryo most certainly could, as seen by Kira and Crow’s redemption arcs, but choose to continue sowing trauma despite gaining a spark of sentience and self-control.
The human characters in our story show a variety of responses to trauma. Many – most of our villains – choose to respond in a decisively yokai-like manner. They lie, steal, cheat, kill, and oppress. Haruto and friends, however, model different approaches.
Guang does not trust himself to overcome temptation related to his trauma, so he sets strict rules for himself. He follows four oaths, including his vow to never swear, resulting in the cranky old man calling everything under the sun a ‘carrot’ or an ‘onion,’ with vim and vinegar. I can appreciate his tactics. As he explains, the value is not that using vegetables as curses is intrinsically more moral than using conventional oaths, but rather that it reminds him to constantly strive to be a better man than he was as a bandit warlord. Guang’s character arc also reminds us that even if we find healing ourselves, the lasting consequences of self-inflicted trauma through terrible choices are out of our control. He never heals his relationship with his estranged family.
Yanmei, Kira, and Haruto demonstrate the power of redirecting traumatic energy in comparatively positive ways. They each use their past pain – self-inflicted or external – to motivate them to prevent others help others in similar situations. Yanmei, another reformed bandit, teaches the types of orphans her father used to recruit into his gang, setting them up for productive, happy lives. Haruto wanders the earth helping bring yokai to a peaceful eternal rest, preventing the cycle of violence in an extremely literal sense.
Kira, the former yokai turned onryo, is such a compelling character, because of the work she puts in to move past her trauma and choose to live differently. Her journey is far from linear. She experiences peaks and valleys as she struggles to shed the weight of her pain. Even more than the humans, her fall to temptation would be understandable. It’s in her nature, right? Kira’s journey reminds us that we can all be more than we are born to be.
We will have to tip-toe around some major spoilers here… but the ultimate climax in S.O.V. demonstrates the unrivaled power of forgiveness to end the cycle of trauma. All it takes is one hurt person declining to hurt anyone else to bring real peace.
I’m not a therapist, a psychologist, or a priest. I’m just a guy with a blog, scribbling out some thoughts. Spirits of Vengeance is, ultimately, a work of fiction. Its picture of the pain caused by trauma extremely stylized and exaggerated… but beneath the flash and sizzle, there is an underlying truth. ‘Vengeance’ is not an end to violence, only a new beginning, and an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. And sometimes… or, perhaps, most times… it takes a strong, supportive family (blood or chosen) to find the strength to move past our worst impulses.
Don’t be a ‘yokai.’
Thank you for reading. Come back next week to tuck into some delicious new book reviews!
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