Obasute

Something struck me while going through season 3 of The Walking Dead (which from now on I’ll be assuming you either have watched already or don’t care much about–in other words, spoilers).

The season started with the hero’s pregnant wife, who soon made it clear that she did not believe she would survive the birth of her child. Four episodes down, she died a gory death at the hands of her unwilling midwife who had to cut her open while asking her own son to stick his hands into her uterus to hold the flesh apart while the baby was getting cut out; for those among the audience who were in the kitchen making a pot of tea while that happened, the son then has to put a bullet in his dead mother’s head to make sure that a) she doesn’t turn into a zombie, and b) everybody has understood that he was symbolically killing her. (Yes, this shows makes some very interesting points about survival and things like that, but it doesn’t make them with subtlety)

My first reaction while watching that scene was to be terminally appalled at the way the authors had handled Lori’s character from start to finish. I’ve yet to see more raw misogyny stuffed into one single female character in a generally intelligent TV show, and that’s saying a lot. Then, as I reflected that she had essentially been disposed of after her purpose had been fulfilled (ie. serving as a living incubator), I realised that her fate was not that different from the fate of every father figure who had the misfortune of wandering into an American movie or TV series these past years. Father figures are there for a reason: providing heroes with guidance, until they get tragically killed and leave their sons to take their own fate into their hands and fulfil their destiny, or things like that.

I know it’s supposed to imply that at some point, we’ll all have to become independant and learn to act by ourselves. But intentionally or not, it also implies something much more disturbing: that the only reasons parents exist is to teach their children things, and after they have completed that purpose, they can be discarded. They have no use anymore, no reason to keep existing. And this is how ‘hero’s father’ became an even deadlier role to have in a movie than ‘prostitute’ was in a 19th-century novel.

In fact, this trope reminds me very much of the purported Japanese custom of ‘obasute’, the infamous practice of abandoning elderly people in the mountains and leaving them to die in order to save the food for those still able to work and bear children. But there is one important thing. There are no certain records of that custom ever being an actual practice. Given its importance in Japanese folk culture, one may suppose that obasute happened at least once or twice in history; but if it was ever practised, it was an exceptional emergency measure that was experienced as traumatic, not as normal. In fact, many stories featuring obasute are actually about people refusing it as aberrant. One story tells of a man who pitied his old mother and secretly brought her back to the village; afterwards, his mother saved the villagers from the local feudal lord through her wisdom and cunning. In the end, the story uses the alledged custom of obasute to deliver exactly the opposite message: old people may be unable to work anymore, but their accumulated wisdom and experience is invaluable for the community, and they should be treated with the utmost respect. Interestingly, very similar stories apparently exist in Serbia: like the stories in Japan, they use the alledged custom of killing one’s aged parents to explain that elderly people should be respected, rather than discarded when their bodies weaken.

It’s a bit chilling to realise that our stories tell us the exact opposite: that parents have a use (either giving birth to you or teaching you), and that once they have fulfilled this use, the only thing they can do is die. I know that in a society where people eventually have to live away from their parents and learn to fend for themselves, it might be a fitting symbol, in a very limited sort of way. But symbols always tell more than they intend to at first. Saying that we all have to learn to fend for ourselves is not the same as saying that the people who once nurtured us have no purpose left in the world.

Also, since Hollywoodian heroes often happen to be idiots only capable of solving problems by fighting like tomcats and destroying a couple of cities in the process, maybe having their mum around to spank some sense into them would help. Hey, it all adds up…

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