The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

Ghibli Retrospective: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s second critically acclaimed director. He is neither as good nor as prolific as Miyazaki, but he is, for lack of a better word, “artsier”. Takahata’s best known film is “The Grave of the Fireflies” (which I will NOT be getting to), the notoriously sad and depressing wartime classic about two children who starve to death in WWII era Japan. “Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed, undeniably brilliant, profound, moving, and something nobody ever, ever desires to watch twice. Takahata is not a crowd pleaser like Miyazaki is.

…Which isn’t to say that he’s bad. Quite the contrary, Takahata is very good, and certainly interesting. He has two of the most artistically unique Studio Ghibli films, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”.

The first and most obvious thing to note is that yes, the pencil-drawn “Kaguya” is a beautiful film. The story of the film is taken from the Japanese folktale (or, technically more accurately, Monogatari) “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The plot is that a bamboo cutter discovers an infant the size of his thumb inside of a magical stalk of bamboo, an infant he immediately recognizes is a Princess with no name. Together with his wife, they raise the infant as she grows with supernatural speed into a young woman of exquisite beauty. At the same time, the Bamboo cutter finds gold and fine clothing appearing inside other stalks of bamboo, and takes it as a sign from Heaven that he is to move to the capital and raise the Princess as actual royalty, where she learns the duties of a real Princess and leaves her friends back in the bamboo valley behind.

The movie is – bluntly – rather dull, but it is an interesting look at Japanese culture and history. However, this is also its biggest failure. Miyzaki is often cited as a feminist, but he is not in the way westerners think of the term, at least as far as his movie go. If this movie is anything to go by, Takahata is. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is profoundly and obnoxiously anti-men, and the truly harmful thing about this is that to reach that point the movie needs to lie about its past and its origins.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” tries to paint a picture of an old Japan where young Princesses were swept up against their will by the whims of the patriarchy, unable to make their own choices or escape the expectations of a male-oriented society. The Princess is clearly far happier at her original home by the bamboo forest, playing with other children and living among the beauty of nature, than she is living at the cold, sterile palace. But her father essentially forces her to live at the palace he builds for, claiming the entire time that royal life and marriage are for her happiness but obviously thinking more about his own newfound status.

The royalty who come to visit the Princess and ask for her hand in marriage clearly know absolutely nothing about her and don’t care, comparing her to various objects and completely uninterested in getting to know her personally. The Emperor almost kidnaps her. The one male character originally portrayed as positive in the film considers leaving his wife and children to run off with her. Literally none of the male characters are portrayed positively. The father has a change of heart at the end of the film, but he has been such a negative influence up until then that it very much comes across as too little, too late.

The big issue here is that this isn’t how the original 10th century story went; put another way, this movie is portraying a lie. This is not what all men were like. Her father did not shop the Princess out to various men like a slave in the market, but rather tried to protect her from the outside world; he was not happy about making her choose among the royalty who come to court her, but is pressured into it.

When the Emperor comes to court the Princess, he does not attempt to kidnap her, and when she rejects him, he does not vow to return and make her marry him whatever her issues on the matter. In fact, the Emperor treats the Princess with great respect the entire time. He continually proposes to her, having fallen in love, but accepts her rebuffs with grace. When the moon people come for her at the end of the story, the Emperor tries to stop them despite the fact that she rejected him. In the original tale, the roles of the men and women are, if anything, reversed; the Princess has the royalty wrapped around her little finger while her father is forcibly bullied by them despite his best efforts to help her.

At the end of the story, the Princess and the Emperor have such a close relationship that the Princess writes a letter to the Emperor herself before she is taken back to the moon, and the Emperor is so overcome with grief he sends men to the top of Mount Fuji – the mountain “closest to heaven” – and tells them to burn the letter in the hope that it will one day reach the Princess.

And ultimately this is the biggest issue with the film: It tries to paint an image of a time gone by when women were treated as objects and men were selfish boors and jerks, when the original story simply doesn’t portray a world like that. The point of the film is a lie, and if the movie is most interesting as a piece of Japanese culture, it is highly disappointing to see it wear its anti-men agenda so proudly on its sleeve like that.

If you like the idea of watching an experiment in pencil drawn animation and semi-dreamlike storytelling, then you might find the movie of interest; I can’ really say I regret watching it. But for most people, it’s not recommended.

 

 

Miyazaki Retrospective: The Final Analysis

I have sometimes heard a term used when talking about Shakespeare called “Bardolatry”. Essentially it refers to the assumption that because he is Shakespeare, every single thing he wrote is a perfect masterpiece that we should be falling over ourselves to praise. A good example is “Titus Andronicus” a play universally considered absolutely terrible right up until the second half of the twentieth century, when people mysteriously “discovered” how brilliant it was. But it’s not. It’s terrible, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare.

Does this take away from Shakespeare? No, of course not. The five great tragedies (“Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, and “Othello”) are even today unmatched masterpieces, and his best comedies and romances are brilliant as well. It’s just a good reminder that just because a certain name is attached to something doesn’t make it good by default.

This is all a preface for me to say that while I am trying to avoid engaging in “Miyazaki-dolatry”…it is REALLY hard. The truth is, the hype surrounding this guy was so huge that really, who could possible live up to it? I wasn’t *expecting* him to live up to it. It would be unfair to, really.

…And then, dammit, he did. He really, really did. He was as good as promised, and in some cases *better* (“Howl’s Moving Castle” particularly). After viewing his filmography in full, there are four main things I took away:

  1. The man is good at EVERYTHING. Slow moving and idyllic slice of life films? Brilliant. Biopics? Brilliant. Epics? Brilliant. Comedies? Brilliant. Action movies? Brilliant. He has movies that are powered mainly on the strength of his dialogue (“Porco Rosso”), movies powered by the strength of their action scenes (“The Castle of Cagliostro”), movies most notable for their scope and complex plots (“Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa”), movies carried by the sheer beauty of the animation (“Ponyo”), wonderful romances (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), and then movies that are so original, so purely Miyazaki, that you’re simply in awe at the uniqueness of his vision (“Spirited Away”). Never have I seen a director who isn’t just good at *something*, but who has mastered every aspect of his craft.
  2. The consistency of his brilliance is remarkable. There is not one single “bad” movie in Miyazaki’s filmography. His worst film, “Ponyo”, is absolutely gorgeous, has lovable characters, and bursts with atmosphere. “The Castle of Cagliostro”, probably his second worst movie by default, has action scenes that are still revered by directors today. In my “Spirited Away” review, I pointed out that I’ve seen at least six different films all ranked as Miyzaki’s best on one list or another – and every decision is completely defensible.
  3. He knows how to do female characters better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki creates female characters that are brave, tough, kind, beautiful, admirable, and very, very feminine. And all with distinct personalities as well; you can palette swap the average female Strong Wymyn Character in western media today and come up with basically the same character with a different name, but Miyazaki’s female characters are all *different*, yet all *admirable*. It is a little sad that this is so remarkable (a writer can create interesting and competent characters, stop the presses), but that is the situation we’re in right now.
  4. He is the most superversive director ever. I’m not really sure how you can dispute this. Every single one of his movies contains at least one moment of love or beauty that points the viewer towards away from themselves, and towards the divine. Miyazaki’s characters literally and figuratively look upward – towards the rising wind, towards something bigger than themselves, towards things worth risking their lives and making sacrifices for. He has heroes who are truly heroic, villains who are truly villainous, and characters with understandable goals and motivations that nevertheless are not excused for their actions, because they live in a world where morality is real and there is such a thing as making the *wrong* decision, both practically and morally. If C.S. Lewis is the patron Saint of superversive fiction than Miyazaki is the current king of the castle.

Ultimately I feel a little like I did when I discovered the excellent show “Justified” for the first time and learned there was still one season left: Very, very lucky. Miyazaki is not done: He is is still drawing, still writing, still creating. And I am absolutely thrilled to be lucky enough to watch him do it one more time, right in front of me, and experience his movie when it’s released as it’s meant to be.

And you can be sure when that happens, the retrospective will be updated again!

So what’s next? I am done?

Nah. I’ll move on to more Ghibli (but NEVER “The Grave of the Fireflies”). “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” should be in the mail right now, so that will probably be the next in the retrospective. Stay tuned!

Ah, and one last thing. My personal ranking (Note: Every movie is recommended, and all should be watched at least once)…

  1. Princess Mononoke
  2. Spirited Away
  3. Howl’s Moving Castle
  4. Castle in the Sky
  5. The Wind Rises
  6. Porco Rosso (Note: I rewatched it recently and liked it a lot more, but am still surprised to find myself putting it higher than a couple of these movies!)
  7. My Neighbor Totoro
  8. Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind
  9. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  10. The Castle of Cagliostro
  11. Ponyo

The Superversive Gundam Series: Gundam Unicorn

“Superversive” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” doesn’t get associated often. Over the course of the history of this giant franchise of Japanese science fiction, there’s been a strong note of despair and incidents of nihilistic excess that cannot be ignored. (If Yoshiyuki “Kill ‘Em All!” Tomino is involved, be ready for it.)

This is not universal, and recently a series not only shook itself loose of that legacy but managed to be Superversive. That series is Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096, and you can watch it free and legal here (subtitled into English) or (for American readers) on Adult Swim’s Toonami block on Saturdays (dubbed). If you prefer (and you can find them, and read Japanese) there are print versions; Unicorn originally was a light novel before its series adaptation.

The reason I mark this series out as Superversive has to do with the subject of the story, which concerns itself with the origin of this setting’s creation and the corruption that took root at the beginning to subvert the real potential for the uplifting of Mankind into a more perfect form- Newtypes (i.e. psychics, telepaths). The conflict of the story revolves around those seeking to maintain the undermining lie upon which all of this meta-narrative’s conflict revolves, or expose the truth to all of Mankind and thereby risk the collapse of a corrupt order into utter chaos in the effort to restore the original intention of the founders of the Universal Century era.

And by saying that much, I likely spoiled some of it. My apologies.

This is a series featuring giant robots fighting battles where our protagonist is reluctant to fight, tries to love his way through it all, and–especially once he gets a literal princess at his side–actually manages to pull some measure of it off. Why? Because that desire to love his enemies leads him to the truth, and that truth is the means that leads him to achieve his victory in the end despite facing down multiple superweapons and just as many black-hearted antagonists who’d throw billions to Baal (not so figuratively) than admit that they serve a lie.

While many Gundam series conclude with bittersweet success for the protagonists, if they succeed at all, this time it’s properly uplifting. There’s a reality to it that isn’t present in others, and a decided lack of nihilism despite all of the suffering and death that occurs. While I’ve yet to watch a Gundam series that lies to me, this is the first one that ended in a way properly uplifted me, like after I watched Star Wars the first time lo those many years ago.

In short, this is a beautiful series in all ways possible. Short of a Miyazaki masterpiece, it is rare to get such a treat in most franchise anime. Recommended.

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.

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.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “The Wind Rises”

So here we are. Miyazaki’s final latest! film, “The Wind Rises”. What is there to say about it that hasn’t been said about the great man’s other films?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. “The Wind Rises” is one of the most difficult and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever watched. So of course I watched it twice.

The movie is a very, VERY fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Japanese airplane the Zero fighter, one of the most remarkable fighter planes of WWII and most notoriously one of the planes involved in the Pearl Harbor attacks. Given this knowledge, a movie that gives an extremely sympathetic, even kind-hearted, portrayal of the designer should be incredibly tasteless at best and horrifying at worst.

Well, perhaps for a normal director, but Miyazaki is no normal director. “The Wind Rises” is many things – an exploration of the role of art in society, the horror of war, the fleetingness of life, and one simple tragedy: In life, there are endings. But one thing it is very much not is tasteless.

As far as the production quality, well, it’s Studio Ghibli. Yet I can’t help but think that the visuals are stunning even for a Miyazaki film; the only one that really comes close on visuals alone is “Ponyo”. Jiro’s fantasy sequences, where he meets with his hero, the (real life!) Italian aircraft designer Caproni, are nothing short of stunning, and Miyazaki’s airplanes (also real airplane designs!) are magnificent. Miyazaki made the interesting artistic decision to have actual humans imitate the various airplane noises rather than use sound effects. It sounds kind of crazy, but it works, enhancing the already vaguely dreamlike feel of the world: This is all happening in a real historical place and time and even with real people, but not QUITE in the real world. This is the real world as imagined by Hayao Miyazaki.

One must be careful psychoanalyzing creators through their art, but after reading some interviews and quotes from Miyazaki it becomes difficult not to imagine Miyazaki’s version of Jiro as a creator analogue. The debates and discussions Jiro has with Caproni in his head don’t actually sound very confident; Miyazaki doesn’t seem overly sure of the answers he’s giving to the questions Jiro is asking. This is actually to the movie’s strength – instead of being lectured at with a message we’re exploring an idea.

You can perhaps say that the main conflict of the movie is reconciling Jiro’s love of aircraft design with Japan’s involvement in WWII. Miyazaki was inspired by a quote from the real Jiro Horikoshi: “All I ever wanted was to make something beautiful”. There’s something highly unsettling about the phrase due to the context – the “beautiful” thing Jiro is making is a WWII fighter plane that was used to kill thousands of people.

In one of the dream sequences Caproni addresses the conflict with this question: “Would you rather live in a world with pyramids or without them?”. When  I brought this up to a friend, he said “Well, no pyramids if it means not killing slaves, right?”

And he’s right! If it means not enslaving people and getting them to work to the bone, then it’s wrong to make pyramids!

But making planes for your country is a little more complicated, isn’t it? Helping your own country in a war is also a matter of patriotism and loyalty. After all, in our own country, draft dodgers are shamed, even if the war is a controversial one. Is it really fair to blame a man for making something beautiful to serve his country?

It’s not an easy question, and Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from it. By the end of the film, Jiro points out to Caproni that every single one of his planes has been destroyed in the war. As he says, flying is a cursed dream; for man to fly is also for man to use flying machines to kill each other.

The heart of the movie is the (in this case, fictional) romance between Noriko and and Jiro. For the first time I’ve seen so far (two films to go!) Miyazaki doesn’t have a strong female protagonist or deuteragonist to go with his male hero (his sister, who becomes a doctor, is a major character but not really on the level of a lead). This really isn’t a bad thing. Noriko is a lovely character, and her romance with Jiro is charming.

And tragic, of course. Noriko and Jiro’s doomed romance serves as another exploration of Miyazaki’s theme of endings, and of balance. Jiro’s love for his wife leads to him to…

…Okay, I’m going to stop here for a moment and talk about briefly why I stalled so long on this section of the review. Because I’ve been stuck, and now I think I know why.

Both times I watched “The Wind Rises”, the romance was actually my favorite part of the film. This is quite rare for me, as I don’t particularly like romances, but this one moved me. For a long time I wasn’t sure why, but I think I do now. It’s because I’ve been making a category error.

I separated the incredible visuals of the film from the storytelling. This cripples some of my language as a result, like talking about what I thought was so great about “Firefly” after passing over the dialogue in the first paragraph. The visuals aren’t separate from the movie, they’re at the heart of it (this was even more the case in “Ponyo”, which was a weaker movie and so leaned – quite successfully – even more on the quality of its animation than “The Wind Rises” does).

The romance is so wonderful because the images we get associated with the romance are some of the most memorable of the film. The umbrella scene – partially portrayed in many of the posters for “The Wind Rises” – is not only charming, but amazingly animated; only Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli cold make fighting over a windswept umbrella so compelling.

Similarly, later scenes intended to build the romance are sweet on their own but coupled with the animation sing with life. One scene has Jiro making and throwing paper airplanes off a balcony to Noriko. The scene is cute in itself but the effects of the wind on the little paper planes is simply stunning, bringing new energy to a simple, quiet moment between the couple.

This energy and life serves the movie well later when Noriko’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Early scenes with Noriko were deliberately set outdoors and in a bright, breezy, almost dream-like environment, but after Noriko’s first health setback everything shifts. The spark of life and energy to the scenes is gone; Noriko spends almost the entirety of the rest of the movie literally lying down. The brightness is gone – there is no sun. Everything is set indoors. There’s no umbrella chasing, no flying paper airplanes.

Much like in “My Neighbor Totoro” some of those earlier scenes seem to have no obvious point, but suddenly when Noriko is framed as the only thing that could potentially unfocus Jiro from his planes – and, perhaps tragically, does not – it all fits, because we saw the relationship, why it formed, who they are, and what makes it so wonderful and special. We know why Noriko puts rouge on her cheeks to hide the extent of her illness from Jiro, and why Jiro makes sure to move so he can be next to her every day. The biggest tragedy of the film isn’t really Noriko’s death; we knew that was coming. It’s that Jiro also knew it was coming but still decided it was worth it to leave town.

In a way, this reframes Caproni’s initial question: Would you rather live in a world with Noriko or without her?

Jiro ultimately makes the decision to leave his extremely ill wife behind for several days to see to his planes, yet in the end his planes are all destroyed, while his wife dies alone.

Was it worth it? Really?

In the end it doesn’t matter. The choices were made. And even while the whole world dies around him, for Jiro, the wind still rises. He must try to live.

And he does.

Jiro Horikoshi lived to be 78 years old. Excerpts from his personal diary made it clear that he greatly opposed Japan’s involvement in World War II.