There are moments in time where I find media that speaks to me on a level that I do not understand the importance of it until much later. One might enjoy a film, a book, or an anime and just remember it fondly without much afterthought. What makes something truly special, to me, has always been if I find myself returning to thinking about messages or applying something in my life to what I watched/read. I know that sounds a little pretentious, but I think it is important for us to have lasting messages like that to help us through whatever it is we are going through.
Living with the affliction that tugs me down whenever it feels like I am finally starting to hit a good stretch without feeling like I am sinking is something I have dealt with for what is going on almost seven years now. It has been four years since I hit my rock bottom, and the lasting impact of that is still something I struggle to discuss within my relationships. Even now I still have bouts with depression that get me low. It is a mix of anger for not being able to do anything for others and some stubbornness to sit by that keeps me going and propels me out of there more times than not.
Spoilers for up through the fourth film in The Garden of Sinners series ahead as well as a trigger warning
When I made a “dream list” of anime to talk about, I always wanted to share what The Garden of Sinners meant to me. I wanted to more than anything, but I was afraid. I was afraid my writing was not good enough to do it justice and that my discussions about mental health would come off disingenuous if I wrote about it too much. The truth is, mental health advocacy is one of the defining features of who I am now. Defining who we are is something that has been a subject I struggle with. Our identity- the things we see ourselves in, and what we think makes up who we are- all of that vanished one day. Even now, four years later from my attempt, I am a 100% different person after that happened. I can’t begin to tell you all how much The Garden of Sinners has meant to me from the time I started over on thanks to its main character, Shiki Ryougi.
Kinoko Nasu’s writing style is obviously on-the-nose, so many of the themes and messages in The Garden of Sinners are told instead of shown. Despite this, I still am moved to tears by many of these messages. The one that has stuck with me because of what it did for me in my worst times was found in the fourth film, Borderline of Emptiness: The Hollow Shrine. The events of the second film in the series conclude with Shiki, an individual with (quite literally) a second spirit in her, throwing herself in front of a car in an attempt to take her own life. When she wakes up, she finds out she had been in a coma for two years with no recollection of her past life. In other words, she finds herself to be a complete blank slate.
What is more, she does not want to continue on in this new life. She is at the pit of despair and loneliness and questions if she belongs in a world where she feels nothing or has no identity of her own. A“speech therapist”, Touko Aozaki, begins to show up and speak with her as the plot unfolds. Throughout the film, Shiki continues to question why she is alive and the time she spent staring into a void. It is through this that I found myself drawn to this character in a way I cannot connect with any other written character.
After my attempt, I could not speak to my family. Everyone thought I was still just the same person and that I had a bad night. It was painfully obvious they didn’t know how to react. I felt dead inside and the only other feeling I had was guilt for making them feel bad. So I did the only thing I could do, and returned back overseas to finish my tour. Six months went by, with only small talk being had and my friends saying things to the effect of “you’ve changed” and leaving me, one by one. I didn’t blame them. I did change. I didn’t know who I was anymore and I wasn’t the person they used without wondering what the stress added on would do to me. I was an impregnable fortress that all of their worries and needs were taken care of without a second thought, and for one moment, it came tumbling down. What used to be rooms full of people became just me sitting alone to just my thoughts. Even after I returned to an assignment stateside in Florida, I was isolated. I would spend my days off laying on the cold hardwood floor of my apartment, trying to muster the strength to at least go out for a run or go get a cup of coffee to keep my mind off of things. I danced around the same questions as I stayed there: who was I now, why do I feel so empty, and what is my purpose now?
The real conflict of the film begins as a spirit finds itself drawn to a power that Shiki has. When Shiki woke up from her coma, she discovers she can see the world in a different way (again, literally). Appalled by this, she tried to remove her eyes. Eventually, the spirit finds Shiki and possesses a corpse in an attempt to take Shiki’s body. As the possessed corpse attempts to kill her in her room because of a new power she holds, Shiki initially does not resist. She is strangled and tells herself she did not care. As it continues, she realizes she did not want to die and rejects this, shoving the possessed corpse off of her.
Shiki’s Mystic Eyes of Death Perception, no matter how ridiculous of a name that may sound to an outsider, are symbolic of something beautiful. They’re the proof she is a survivor. They are proof she looks forward and sees the evil of the world in front of her. She spends the whole movie rejecting this new reality (to the point she tries to get rid of them before the hospital staff bandages her eyes). Everything the new power represents explodes out when the film reaches the triumphant moment where Shiki cuts her hair and removes bandages and faces a spirit head-on, with her Mystic Eyes glowing. This evil attempts to kill her, but Shiki emphatically proclaims she will not allow it to have her.
There was one feeling I had, even if it was faint. It was what I could only call “hunger”, but I knew it wasn’t the malicious kind. When I saw the evil of the world, the suffering of others, I felt it. It was a spark. In many ways, looking back, that small spark was the warmth of a desire to live that kept me going. It was a spark that would grow into a flame and become the desire to face the evils of our world head-on with whatever I had in me. It was something that I had decided on, thanks to this film, was my “Mystic Eyes”- I had seen and felt the absolute worst feelings of this world and wanted escape from it. I felt, and still do from time to time, so empty inside. But I had seen and felt something. I see the evil of the world and I find myself gasping for air to face it. I knew it was there, and I was tired of looking away from it. I still feel that emptiness and horrible feeling, but I do not want to run away.
After her fight, Shiki agrees to work for Touko as she says “I have no other purpose anyway”. Then, she collapses from exhaustion and Touko picks her up. It is here my favorite lines of the film, and, potentially, all of anime are delivered. These words were the kind that cut through straight to my heart and woke something up in me when I first saw this film. Touko sighs at Shiki’s collapsed body and says:
I still feel my affliction. It hurts and leaves me in isolation frequently. It feels like I have nothing inside of me, but I know this isn’t true. I continue to take on the challenges of a profession I care about, even if they are mighty. I laugh at the idea people have that I try to be some hero or that I want to be praised for what I do, because all I care about using my voice for is advocacy. As long as I breathe, I want to be there for people who are going through things like I am. I’ve been to the very bottom and can see and feel for people in a way I think much of my education is lacking an understanding of. I know this sounds dramatic, but I don’t think I would have reached these conclusions if it weren’t for The Garden of Sinners. Shiki’s journey from an attempt to facing demons in the moonlight is something that resonates with me. If that is all the more it takes to motivate me to do good, who is to say what is and isn’t a great inspiration?