Human identity is as complex as it is fluid. Contrary to what many seem to believe, identity does not exist in a solid state within the mind. There is no person who you ARE, so much as there is an image that you have of yourself, comprised of all the things that you know about yourself from how you’ve interpreted your experiences. As people develop a sense of self, most try to reflect that sense through their actions, and often interpret themselves as reflecting it regardless. In other words, after a certain point, a lot of what affirms our identities is simply confirmation bias. We have our own idea of who we are, and so we seek to reconcile our thoughts and actions against that image of ourselves by analyzing and justifying our actions in ways that coincide with our self image.
What actually forms our identities, however, is our interpretations of our experiences. As we have experiences and then reflect on them, we develop opinions and interpretations which shape our personalities and worldviews. The more that we experience, the more context we bring with us into interpreting new things, because we have shaped a frame of reference out of our interpretations. However, what this means is that our identity is really just a summary of what we’ve been through and our thoughts regarding those experiences. As such, it’s entirely possible for our identity to change and evolve as we keep having new experiences, and re-interpreting our past experiences in turn.
A lot of psychology is about contextualizing ourselves by way of our past. For instance, if I were depressed, I might look at my past and try to figure out what experiences may have given me the frame of mind to feel that way. I chose experiences which seem to logically lead to the right conclusion, and then that line of reasoning informs my identity. However, it’s possible that I might later recontextualize the very same events as something that lead to my happiness if I become happy later. It’s sort of like how we say that we wouldn’t change anything about our past, because all of it lead to becoming the people we are today. But we’re only saying that because we identify with our current self. If things really had been different and we’d come out as a different person, we’d still be saying as that other person that we wouldn’t want to change anything about our past. If I were blindsided by a realization today which completely changed my worldview and recontextualized my experiences, it would alter my sense of self, no matter what I think.
In Garan no Dou, Shiki becomes hollow. Her sense of self parishes when she wakes up after a two-year coma, during which one of her two personalities was killed. Shiki had always identified with her duality as two different Shikis within one body. With the loss of one personality, she loses her identity, and finds herself empty. Her memories no longer seem to lead up in a clear line from who she was before to who she is now. It would be like if you went to bed a fervent and passionate Christian, but when you woke up in the morning, you suddenly had no faith whatsoever. It’d be impossible to reconcile what you previously knew about yourself against what you have become–and without something new to identify yourself with, you would lose any idea of who you are.
Aozaki Touko is a woman with a fluid identity. She doesn’t have any one version of herself which she considers to be the real version, but is able to alternate between different selves depending on the situation. Everyone necessarily does this to some extent, as once again our selves do not exist in a solid state within our minds, so much as they do react to the context of a situation by processing information against past experiences. Most of us do have some sense of consistency within our thoughts and actions, but we can act completely different depending on the situation. For instance, at home, my brother Victor has a short temper, is lazy, and spews vulgarity–but when working on a film set, he’s friendly, takes charge of the situation, and exhibits professionalism. It’s not that he’s consciously trying to be someone he’s not in one situation or the other–his brain simply interprets those settings differently and reacts accordingly, creating multiple versions of his personality. Touko is able to switch between her different modes deliberately and consciously, which is a powerful tool to have.
I can relate to both Shiki and Touko in this case. While I’ve never had full-on multiple personalities before, there have been versions of myself which I’ve deliberately tried to suppress and kill. The version of me who was a depressed and lonely crybaby–the version of me who is terrified of other people and what they think–the version of me who is lazy and doesn’t give a fuck about anything. It takes a conscious effort to be sure that I never fall into any of these modes, and that those modes slowly become erased from my sense of self.
Through therapy, medication, and self-reflection, I taught myself how to eliminate the version of me who would buckle under pressure and become depressed, by constantly forcing myself to change out of that mode as fast as possible. Nowadays when I get depressed even briefly, I can do something as small as change the music I’m listening to and completely kill the transition into that version of myself. It’s gotten to be so rare that I feel depressed at all that I don’t even identify with depression anymore in the slightest. I’ve learned how to switch on my professionalism and drive just by thinking about what needs to be done and convincing myself to slip into that mode.
In this way, I’ve sort of taken control over my identity. I’ve decided on a certain way that I want to identify myself, and I’ve contextualized my past and present, and governed my reactions, so that all of them work in helping to fortify that identity. Touko muses towards the end of the film about how lucky Shiki is to be completely empty, because it means that she gets to build her identity from the ground up. Because of this, Shiki can carefully build an identity which suits her, and contextualize all of her experiences as she sees fit. Up until the film’s end, she didn’t seem to know how to place her memories of Mikiya, but in the final scene, she seems to make a deliberate decision about what he means to her and how he fits into her life. She does the same with regards to Touko when she decides to come work for her. She determines her rationale for why the other Shiki sacrificed himself, and decides what kind of person she wants to be.
There’s an interesting symbolic undercurrent in this film about the nature of influence as well. Because Shiki is hollow, all sorts of thoughts, represented as sort of spiritual monsters, are trying to invade her body. This is a metaphor for how, as we shape our identities throughout our lives, we are constantly absorbing elements of our surroundings into ourselves. Or rather, a lot of the thoughts of those around us, such as our parents, friends, and society, are forcefully pushed inside of us, until we are filled with the ideas of others, contextualized against one-another within ourselves. Touko seems to equate self-actualization with the ability to determine what kind of person you want to be and forcibly contextualize all of your experiences into something that creates your ideal self.
The hospital setting works especially well in this film, as there are few things which can disturb your sense of self more than suffering a major injury or illness. Being stuck in a hospital pulls you out of your life–it takes you away from everything that you associate yourself with, and as time wears on, injury and illness can slowly come to define you. After all, if you spend two years in a hospital, you would not likely identify as a student anymore as much as you would identify as a patient. Hospitals are a place where the sense of self withers, and where you can easily forget about the person that you were, or were on the path to becoming, until you finally get to be that person again later.
For this video I’d like to try something a little different and pose a question to you viewers in the audience. How clearly do you have a sense of who you are? Do you think that your actions are typically consistent with how you see yourself? Is there a person that you want to see yourself as, and if so, how are you taking steps to become that person? Alternatively, do you have difficulty reconciling the person you see yourself as against the person that you want to see yourself as? Personally, my sense of self has always been kind of loosely defined, but in recent times I’ve been trying to create a firmer sense of self and take actions to reflect it. However, I often have difficulty reconciling my tendency towards callousness, manipulation, and wastefulness, against my ideals as someone who cares about others and the world around me. I’ll be interested in hearing about your sense of self in the comments below. Tomorrow night, we’re moving on to Mujun Rasen.
Second time going through this and I’m still amazed at how effortlessly this reads. Awesome work. I always appreciate these sort of posts that act as not only a reflection of the work, in terms of thinking about it from points of view I may not have considered before, but also a reflection of the self and in looking at how I think and the way I live my life from different angles that seemingly lend themselves quite easily to epiphanies – even though it was spelled out for me by someone else.
It’s really satisfying stuff and I’m tremendously glad you wrote this. I greatly appreciate it.