Miyazaki Retrospective: “Spirited Away”

So here we are. The last film of the Miyazaki retrospective, at least up until Miyazaki’s next film comes out. And this movie was saved for last for a reason.

In some ways, it’s pointless to debate Miyazaki’s best film. The man is such a chameleon, who can work in so many varied styles, and is so consistently brilliant, that when you talk about the top of the pile you’re talking about little more than personal preference. I have seen – seriously – “Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “The Wind Rises”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” ALL ranked at number one on some list or another.

With that said – I think it is safe to say that “Spirited Away”, the only Miyazaki film ever to win an Oscar, is the film most commonly cited as Miyazaki’s masterpiece – and not without reason. “Spirited Away” is an astonishing film, absolutely packed with imagination, incredible visuals, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. There’s scene after indelible scene, all underpinned with a metaphysical and philosophical depth that the average director can only dream of, and an attention to detail that’s nothing short of astonishing.

I’ll start off by talking about the dub, something I generally ignore but that is worth being commented upon in this case. All of the Disney dubs are good, and some are even great, but “Spirited Away” is absolutely perfect, easily the best dub job I’ve ever heard. The real coup here is the casting of Daveigh Chase, best known as the voice of Lilo from “Lilo and Stitch”, as Chihiro. Chihiro is a difficult and demanding role, and without an excellent voice actor the character could easily come off as bland, but Daveigh Chase is simply perfect. She nails every aspect of the character, and if not for her brilliant performance the movie would never have worked as well as it did in English.

The opening to “Spirited Away” is one of my favorite scenes of all time. After arriving at a mysteriously empty amusement park, Chihiro’s parents, against Chihiro’s advice, eat piles of food sitting in an abandoned restaurant stall. While they eat Chihiro wanders the park, discovers a magnificent Japanese bathhouse, and encounters a boy named Haku, who warns her to cross the river separating the amusement park from the outside world before sunset. Chihiro tries to leave, but the river is flooded and too deep to cross; worse yet, her parents, having greedily eaten food that didn’t belong to them, have transformed into literal pigs (and in this case, particularly hideous ones), a take on the mythological theme of avoiding the food of the fairies – for a classic example read the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for more modern examples take a look at Ruff the dog in John C. Wright’s “Moth and Cobweb” series, or even Edmund eating Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

The scene where night falls on the park, and the spirits come out for the first time, is a truly stunning sequence, a wonderfully animated setpiece bursting with fantastic imagery. There’s so much to love about this scene – the detailed animation, the fantastic creatures, the score, the way Miyazaki somehow creates a believable fairy world that also comes across as alien and otherworldly, the creepiness of the whole thing, the way he puts us effectively in Chihiro’s shoes and helps us identify with her terror…all of it is simply amazing. And this is the first scene!

This is the hardest of Miyazaki’s movies to work through simply because of sheer originality. If I went through every single reason the movie worked so well, I’d be up all night writing this article. The spirits and fairy tale creatures are fantastic (fans of “Totoro” may recognize the soot spirits used by the wonderful  spider-like character of Komaji), the setting of the bathouse is extraordinarily detailed, the animation is astoundingly well-executed, and the movie simply bursts with ingenuity; everywhere you turn there’s some new feast for the eyes and mind.

Once again, with his handling of Chihiro Miyazaki puts all modern handling of female characters in western animation to shame. Chihiro is brave and admirable, but not in a ball-busting tough as nails feminist way. She is admirable because she never loses hope, never gives up, is kind to those that others shun and revile, and refuses to be deterred from her goals.

An excellent example of this sort of admirable but quiet courage comes early in the film. Haku tells Chihiro to ask the boiler-maker Komaji to help her get a job; no matter what Komaji says or does, she is not to leave until he helps her.

Chihiro goes to the boiler-maker and begs him for help. He ignores her. She begs him again. She ignores her. She takes the time to help his soot spirits bring coal to the boiler, which finally impresses Komaji enough to send her to Yubaba, the witch who rules the Bathhouse. Chihiro doesn’t get mad at Komaji. She doesn’t run away when she sees his frankly terrifying spider-like body. She doesn’t leave when Komaji refuses her. She simply refuses to give up.

Similarly, when she is told to ask the witch Yubaba for a job, the western feminist answer to Yubaba’s refusal and threats would be to challenge her back, or maybe get insulted and try and find some way around her prohibitions. But Chihiro doesn’t do that! Once again, she quietly persists, refusing to leave until she is granted her job, no matter how afraid she gets and how much Yubaba threatens her. Chihiro knows this is her best chance of getting out alive and rescuing her parents, and doesn’t ruin it by acting like a Rey brat.

Later in the movie, when forced to work as, essentially, a slave in the Bathhouse, Chihiro again doesn’t complain about her lot but does the work asked of her to the best of her ability, however unreasonable, and even takes the time to show kindness to spirits and beings that others ignore or hate. Her motivations remain pure; she just wants to rescue her parents. When the spirit No-Face offers her gifts, Chihiro refuses, and in fact she is the only person who is able to use things No-Face gives her without being negatively affected because she is the only one who doesn’t *ask* for his help and doesn’t accept it  for selfish and materialistic reasons.

Two scenes in the movie have become famous in their own right. First is the sad and creepy “ghost train” sequence, where Chihiro rides without speaking on a train to the afterlife surrounded by the silent spirits of the dead. The scene is sad and beautiful, and, as always with Miyazaki, it’s the subtle details that make it; you may find yourself getting bored until your heart skips a beat when you realize that one pair of spirits is clearly a father sitting with his young child, and suddenly a whole history of unanswered questions floods through your mind. The fog outside of the trail, slowly gliding across the surface of the water, is so haunting and gorgeous that your heart practically bursts.

The second famous sequence is the “Dragon Haku” sequence; where the Ghost Train ride represented loss and acceptance, the scene where the dragon form of Haku bringss Chihiro back to the Bathouse represents life and the reviving power of love and kindness; Haku literally carries Chihiro back to the world of the living, something only possible because Chihiro was willing to risk her life and make sacrifices in order to save him. The animation here is – again! – absolutely gorgeous, brimming with energy and dynamism.

There is so much more to say about this film; I’ve barely scratched the surface, really. It is, without question, an absolute masterpiece.

Now, all of that said, do *I* think it’s Miyazaki’s best film?

Actually…no. After a lot of thought, and after changing my mind, I think I still have to give it to “Princess Mononoke”. “Spirited Away” was original and marvelous and beautiful, but “Princess Mononoke” took the varied and conflicting motivations of a changing world – significantly, not unlike the atmosphere of “A Game of Thrones” – and instead of making it either nihilistic sludge or some sort of epic tragedy, made it superversive, and somehow did it in a way that felt in no way like a betrayal of the sort of story he was telling. Miyazaki had a huge cast of characters with their own understandable agendas and motivations that changed throughout the course of the movie, an extremely complex political landscape to navigate through, and some of the best dialogue of any of his films (Lady Eboshi again…”Watch closely, everyone. This is how you kill a god. The trick is not to fear it.”). It’s a marvel he made any sense of it at all.

Epic in scope and ambition, brilliantly executed, and a setting tailormade for tragedy somehow turned superversive…well, when I put all of that together, it’s hard for me to rank it below *any* movie, really, even the great “Spirited Away”.

Does this take away from “Spirited Away”? Not in the slightest. It is a brilliant, amazing, almost perfect film. It is an achievement that no artist but Miyazaki could accomplish. It has earned every single accolade it’s received. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing more than missing out on one of Miyazaki’s best films. You’re missing out on one of the greatest films, animated or otherwise, anime or otherwise, ever made.

Watch it, and if you haven’t gotten it already perhaps you’ll understand why Miyazaki is not just great. He stands on his own – a giant in the field, matched by nobody, perhaps ever.

Watch this movie, and understand how lucky we are to be able to witness his genius.

So I Watched Pirates of the Carribbean 5

I am off to work soon, so quick thoughts (Spoilers ahoy! Be warned…):

  • This was an inferior remake of the first movie. We have:
    • A villain with a personal vendetta against Jack
    • Who was cursed so that they couldn’t go on land and where stuck as undead beings
    • Who need the daughter of a pirate in order to end their curse
    • This daughter of a pirate refuses to believe her father can be anything but a good man. Except he’s a pirate.
    • Jack is going to be executed, except he’s rescued at the last minute by the son of Will Turner
    • We have the son of Will Turner using Jack to rescue someone he loves
    • And it ends after the curse is broken and their newfound mortality is used against the villains. Seriously. It’s beat for beat.
  • The problem is that it isn’t NEARLY as good as the first movie. The villain isn’t as interesting as Barbossa, the reveal of the undead pirates wasn’t nearly as cool and creepy, Jack wasn’t nearly as funny or as necessary to the plot, the story was far too disjointed, and the ending wasn’t as clever.
  • WITH THAT SAID – it’s better than the second and third movie, and at least as good as the fourth. The designs on the villains were very creepy and extremely cool, the actions scenes were fun, and Jack was still Jack, and thus amusing. It was good to see him relegated to a more secondary status, and focus on new leads; Jack is not meant to be a lead.
  • This should be how the series ends. It puts a neat capper on every loose thread from the original trilogy and gives all of our main characters satisfying endings to their respective stories. But I’m sure they’ll shoehorn in a sequel regardless.

So the movie wasn’t bad, per se. But I’m not going to see it again. If I ever want to watch it, I’ll just put on the original and see a better version of it anyway. So it goes.

More “An Unimaginable Light” Talk

You know, I’ve been avoiding responding to criticisms of “An Unimaginable Light” on the grounds that authors shouldn’t respond to criticisms of their own stories directly, but let them speak for themselves, but then I realized…I’m not the author. I’m the editor. And I have every right to defend my authors from unfair criticisms!

Goodreads has set up its own “An Unimaginable Light” page. Let’s see what it shows us.

We have this (these are snippets from reviews, not the full thing:

In some ways, the story is thought provoking, but Wright’s emphasis seems to be too much on the “provoking” side: the characters are designed to elicit a specific response, sexualization and use of force against the female character even more so.

I wonder when people are going to realize – as many people, bizarrely, also missed with Mr. Wright’s previous story “The Plural of Helen of Troy” – that the story is actually *specifically opposed to* oversexualization of female characters? But I guess that doesn’t fit the image in their head of that nutso crazy religion guy Wright.

This explores robot-human relations, very similar to what has been done many times in the last 50-75 years. There’s not a lot new to explore, and the argument posed is not very creative.

If you dislike a subgenre, that’s not an actual value judgment.

Wow. If Asimov’s collected body of work was, in fact, a steaming pile of shit, this story would fit right in. Read solely for the fact that it’s on the Hugo ballot and I want to be an informed voter. No Award definitely ranks higher than this piece of garbage.

It’s fascinating how right up until people explicitly hostile to Wright’s philosophy started reading this story, it was almost universally praised, and by people with no direct connection to the superversives or reason for bias in our favor. Perhaps – just perhaps – these negative reviews are written by people incapable of separating their opinion of the philosophy underlying a story from the quality of the story itself.

Because otherwise I would contend – and I think many would agree – to call the story, and I quote, “a steaming pile of shit”, is utterly preposterous.

The reviewer Marco, seen through the link, is apparently the same guy who wrote a previously linked negative review, given his bizarre insistence that some sort of creationism is being pushed (this is total nonsense; I don’t even think Mr. Wright is a creationist himself, though you’d need to ask him to confirm).

My favorite (ironically, of course):

I felt as though this story was an attack on femininity, beauty, on intelligence, sexuality etc, even though the story was pretending to be about ethics and philosophy.

It’s almost unfathomable to me how any sane person could possibly think this. It is literally a defense – an explicit, stated defense – of every single one of those things. How can you possibly think otherwise? How biased do you need to be going in?

Want to prove I’m off my rocker? Go ahead, give the story a look yourself.



“What’s With the Asimov Obsession?”

I have been accused on several occasions of spending more ink than the man deserves defending the legacy and writing of Isaac Asimov. After all, he’s not superversive, right (he’s not, at least most of the time). And anyway, what’s the point of defending him? He’s not the one who’s been edited out of history like the pulp authors are – in fact, he was one of the hand-picked chosen ones to replace them, and despite that STILL never became as popular as legends like Howard and Burroughs.

So what gives?

Here’s the thing: I’m a fan of Asimov. The man can write. I think this is indisputable; that he has his flaws doesn’t change that. Most authors have flaws, and most aren’t as popular, and haven’t written books and stories as good as, Isaac Asimov. Are there better writers? Of course, but that’s not my point.

So when I see people claiming that Isaac Asimov wasn’t that influential (a preposterous comment) or wasn’t a good writer, I’m seeing pure revisionist history – and I don’t like it. It’s not true and it’s not honest; at best it’s stating your own opinion of the man’s work as if its a fact. I’m not saying you need to like the guy. I’m not saying *I* like the guy. I’m saying that his influence on the field is undeniable, and to honest observers – even those not necessarily fans – his skill as well.

I don’t appreciate revisionist history by anyone, and we shouldn’t be engaging in it just because we don’t like someone.

One last thing – I’ve also been told, more than once, that I spend too much time defending Asimov because he’s an enemy of the superversives. Shouldn’t I be focusing on how he hurt our cause (he did, in some ways at least)?

But it’s simply not true to say that I’ve done nothing to conter Asimov’s negative effect on the genre. In fact, regarding Asimov specifically, I’ve done more than most: I reframed Asimov’s robot puzzles in a superversive context.

And how about that for a response?

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”

And after some break, the retrospective is back! There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is that I had spent a ton of time writing a highly researched and detailed review and history of “Nausicaa”…which got deleted when I clicked on “Publish”, my internet apparently having died. This sapped my enthusiasm for awhile, but I’m ready to give it another go.

I guess it’s just as well. The original article was probably more of a history lesson than a review, which is interesting in its own right but really isn’t what the retrospective was supposed to be about. That said, “Nausicaa” was such an influential film that the background needs to at least be touched on briefly.

At the time “Nausicaa” was created there was no Studio Ghibli, and officially “Nausicaa” is not a Studio Ghibli film. “Nausicaa” was essentially an experiment to see if creating a new studio under the leadership of Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, his producer, was a viable idea. Miyazaki himself was already fairly well known at the time. He only had one movie under his belt, true, and it didn’t do very well (“The Castle of Cagliostro” has since been remembered as a minor classic itself, and I intend to get to it next), but he had a lot of experience directing in several different anime shows. So he wasn’t exactly an unknown commodity.

Nevertheless a new studio – especially a studio that aspired to the consistently high quality seen in a Studio Ghibli film – is no small thing to bring about. So “Nausicaa” was created to convince people that it would be a good idea. And, thankfully for fans of anime, “Nausicaa” was a smash hit and almost immediately declared a classic, and has since been retroactively folded into the Studio Ghibli canon.

Right. A very brief history. So how does “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” stack up today?

Pretty well.

“Nausicaa” is not one of Miyazaki’s best films. It is a bold, creative, ambitious, beautifully drawn work of art with a complex story, entertaining characters, and fascinating ideas…but it is not one of Miyazaki’s best films.

The big problem with “Nausicaa” really isn’t “Nausicaa’s” fault. It’s that Miyazaki looked at “Nausicaa” again, didn’t like what he saw, and then decided to make a better version. That better version is “Princess Mononoke”, a movie that is a serious contender for greatest animated movie of all time and one of the greatest epic films ever made. And in comparison, it becomes more and more clear where “Nausicaa” fell short.

Though honestly, it’s hard to even say it “fell short” of anything. More like, what it did worked pretty well, and what “Mononoke” did worked even better.

In “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, the pro-environmental message is straightforward and heavy-handed: Humans who destroy the environment are bad. Humans polluted the earth and are terrible. There’s no subtlety.

Is this actually an issue with the movie? Well…not really? It gives us a clear hero and villain, and honestly, who can argue with “Don’t turn the earth into a toxic wasteland”?

But THEN we look at Mononoke, and how that town that’s supposedly destroying the environment is barely surviving in the middle of the wilderness, made up of outcasts who have banded together to form a struggling community, fighting against forest gods who are no saints themselves and who kill hunters, who need to find a way to get food for their wives and children…

…And all of a sudden “Nausicaa’s” view of the world looks terribly simplistic in comparison.

Similarly, the main villain in “Nausicaa” is mustache-twirlingly evil. Miyazaki gives her just enough of an argument not to make her a cardboard cutout, and there are some light attempts to justify her actions, but the things she does to the people of Nausicaa’s valley make her completely unsympathetic. Contrast her with Lady Eboshi, one of Miyazaki’s best characters, a complex and nuanced portrayal of a strong, compassionate, but icily cold-blooded and ruthless leader, willing to destroy whoever gets in her way and do terrible things in order to accomplish her goals. Her sympathetic portrayal contrasts strongly with the villain of “Nausicaa” (it doesn’t hurt that Lady Eboshi gets some of the best lines of any Miyazaki film – “I’m getting tired of hearing about that arm of yours. I think it’s time I cut it off!”).

This extends further, also encompassing Miyazaki’s attitude towards war and weaponry. Basically, any time “Nausicaa” and “Mononoke” attempt to tackle the same or similar themes, topics, or characters, “Nausicaa” does very well and “Mononoke” does outstanding. This makes “Nausicaa” look something like a testing ground for ideas that were utilized more effectively in “Mononoke”.

Of course, this is highly unfair to the film, which – as I stated – was very good in its own right. It does mean, though, that the most interesting parts of the film are where it diverges most clearly from “Mononoke”: The world-building and the character of Nausicaa herself. Miyazaki’s view of earth and the Valley of the Wind is a fascinating one, and there is a mid-film twist about the purpose of the poison forest that is genuinely surprising. It’s hard to really explain what makes it so fascinating without actually seeing it, of course:

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

“Princess Mononoke” has some amazing imagery, but nothing as fascinating and engrossing as the poison forests of “Nausicaa”.

Nausicaa herself is an enchanting character, at once brave, active, and very, very feminine. I thought it a misstep early on in the film when Nausicaa went toe to toe with the male soldiers attacking her – she is clearly not a very large or strong woman – and it’s something Miyazaki really never did again (Lady Eboshi and San from “Mononoke” have something different going on entirely), either in the movie or in his overall body of work. Outside of that, though, Nausicaa’s strength is of a distinctly feminine bent; she can charm animals with a smile and touch, her kindness wins her the love and devotion of her people, and she is utterly fearless in the face of danger, throwing herself in front of gunfire multiple times. She ultimately ends up saving the day not through traditional male-oriented action heroics but by asking for forgiveness and mercy on behalf of her people. Nausicaa is one of Miyazaki’s most fun and likable characters, and as great as some of the characters in “Mononoke” our protagonist is certainly not as compelling.

So, is “Nausicaa” a great movie? Yes, it is. Is “Nausicaa” a classic? Yes, it is.

Is “Nausicaa” one of Miyazaki’s best films?

No it’s not.

And that’s amazing.

And Two Poorer Reviews

Here are a couple more reviews of the Hugo nominated short story “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright. These reviews are not positive, but since they appear to be detailed enough as to indicate the reviewer did indeed give the story a fair reading, I will present them with no response.

First, from Strange at Escobar. The relevant section:

Loads the dice in the direction we expect, then pulls an unconvincing twist at the end. It is interesting in exploring deep ideas, but I think kind of fumbles this. It also depends overmuch on the context of the rest of the closely linked anthology it appeared in — but I’m voting for “Best Short Story” here, not “best part of a linked narrative”.

I know I sound as if I’m contradicting myself here somewhat since I’ve repeatedly mentioned that Josh Young’s “Felix Culpa” provides some context to the ending (and it does), but I will note that the story was originally submitted to stand on its own. I suppose this doesn’t affect the review, but it is worth mentioning.

Second, from books.zennaro.net. The relevant section:

Unfortunately it is the worse of the Hugo nominees in this category, trying and failing miserably to derive theological creationist axioms through logic that is so flawed to be laughable. I also did not think that the sexual sadistic elements of the plot really worked as intended. Conclusion: more a religion-fiction story, than a sci-fi one, and quite a bad one.

I will not respond directly, but I will ask those who have read the story this: Is the logic really so flawed as to be laughable? Is it more flawed than, say, the AI in “Cat Pictures, Please” claiming that God does not exist because it knows who its creators are (the logic of that AI, it is to be noted, was not mentioned in the reviewer’s early commentary on that work)?

Just something to chew on.

A Tale of Two Reviews

Two more reviews of John C. Wright’s Hugo nominated short story “An Unimaginable Light” from “God, Robot” have emerged. Here is the consensus from the Frisky Pagan:

Personally, I classify philosophical robot stories where the main point is Artificial Intelligence and not terminators trying to eradicate humanity in the same category as Time travel —a broken concept. It seems like putting the cart before the horse to me, like speculating about the consequences whose premises we don’t even understand. You might as well call them golems and say magicians built them (and surely nobody is going to bother about the problem of Hard Conscious then.)

Now that I have already ranted, what about Wright’s story? Is it good? Yes, it is, and it might be the top finalist, and that could still apply even if the others weren’t so bad (with the notable exception of Vaught’s story.)

As I don’t want to spoil anything, I’ll just say that Unimaginable Light follows (and subverts) certain known tropes and twists in robot/human stories, but where the story excels is in its intellectual or philosophical themes. Robots are, to a considerable degree, a device, an excuse to talk about human nature, morality, religion, God, and a bit about contemporary society.

Read the full review at the link above.

Here we have a new review from Goodreads:

I made the mistake of getting this book in order to read the Hugo short story finalist “An Unimaginable Light,” by John C. Wright, in fairness, since I will be voting. The story was a twisted robot story involving a misogynistic experiment. It’s important to note Wright’s story, by virtue of its Hugo recognition, is likely the best of the anthology. Let’s just say it won’t be getting my vote. The book was returned for a refund. I ordered by mistake, thinking I could tolerate the Puppy paradigm. Not interested in trying anything else from these authors. Creamy thighs, coerced fellatio, threatened flayings and actual burnings just not being my thing.

It is bad form to respond to criticisms. Luckily, none were made. “I don’t prefer this story for vague reasons” is apparently enough to give an entire book – otherwise unread – one star, under the assumption that every other story will also not be written to the reader’s satisfaction.

That the reader prefers a different *type* of story is hardly a fair judgment of the story as written. That’s like reading “King Lear” and giving it one star on the grounds that you don’t like sad endings.

The book was not in any way, shape, or form a puppy book. It is true that many of the authors are associated with the superversive and Castalia crowd. This is because I had connections with some already and was a fan of others.The only authors in the anthology are ones I had already read and loved; puppy or not puppy had nothing to do with it.

The one semi-exception is Steve Rzasa; I asked him to join on because I read his short story “Turncoat” from “Riding the Red Horse” and enjoyed it immensely, and I wouldn’t have read it were it not a puppy nominee. This, of course, is totally irrelevant – I asked Steve to join because I thought his writing was *good*, not because he was a puppy. nominee. As for John’s story, I literally had no idea what it would be about in advance beyond the intentionally broad general theme of the anthology.

The review already has three likes; my suspicion is that other anti-puppy folks were looking for an excuse to bash a puppy work, and found one in a reader who supposedly read it and disliked it. I highly doubt it’s the quality of the “review”…if you can even call it that.