Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Scent of Green Papaya: Glorious Beauty

With the sensuality and rich score of a Kieslowski transported to the East, this movie seduces one to it's pacing and unique narrative voice. The images and sounds are stark but soothing as we see a young girl become a woman.

Yet this film isn't just about the one character, but about the joys and heartaches of women, all women. There is the loss of a child, the simple pleasure of putting on a shoe, the charm and heartache of men, the beauty of nature and the seduction of cooking.

It is a visual poem, a tribute to women, and an encouragement to take joy in everyday things. This film is truly a thing of beauty.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Brave: Three Meditations

Part I: Mor'du

I was not always as you see me now.

I was once a powerful man, a ruler of men, a commander of armies.  While my father was the High King, I ruled under him, taking charge of his armies, conquering peoples and making his empire strong.  When my dear father gave me my charge to conquer, he handed me my most precious possession: the Ring of the Double Axe.  It was too dear to me to place on my finger, so I wore it on a metal chain around my neck, so it might never be removed.  Then I set my face to gather land for my father.  And so I did.

My three brothers were nothing and did nothing.  Mortek, the oldest, spent his days travelling from one pub to another, drinking his fill with masses of peasants and merchants. Morbus lived in libraries, always putting his nose in a book.  Moder, the youngest, spent his days in the forest, where his companions were rabbits and squirrels.  What did they know about ruling an empire?  They had no real experience.

Yet when my father died, they all stood to take charge of the empire.  Morbus presented a proposal that we should rule the land together, but I refused.  I was the only one who understood warcraft, the handling of men, the manipulation of real power.  How could I share such power with the weaklings my father produced?

But they dared to stand against me.  Morbus had a number of the army on his side.  And though his forces were small, they were smart and underhanded and diminished my forces.  Moder called up the animals of the forest, and his army of bears and antlered deer slashed the leather armor off of my men, damaging them.  Mortek rose up an army of peasants, and his merchants paid for armor and swords.  They were inexperienced, but they had passion.

In my rage, I rose up personally against my brothers, but I knew that I could not reach them, surrounded as they were by soldiers and bodyguards.  So I went to the Witch of the Woods and demanded that she give me the strength of ten men.  She warned me, however, that the spell would only cease if "that which is broken be mended".  What would that matter to me?  My strength is what was significant.

So I called my brothers to a meeting under a flag of truce.  They gathered, with their men-at-arms in the cave where our father had placed the treaty stone, with the image of all four of us standing together.  When they arrived, I took the potion, and they watched as the transformation took place.

It was not as I expected.  I did not turn into a Hercules, a god.  I turned into a bear.  And my blind rage took over my powerful paws.

I broke the stone of treaty, and reached out and killed my three brothers.  The rage dissipated, and I was left with brokenness and blood.  Only then did I realize that I needed Morbus' knowlege, Moder's natural powers and Mortek's community connection.  Only then did I see my folly.  And I could not mend what was broken.  I had broken too much.

After a day my rage returned.  I have lived by instinct ever since. 

Part II: Tiers of Pixar

Pixar has a few tiers of film. There is the entertaining film: Cars 2, A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc.. There are the films that are so stunning that it is hard to speak after the first watch: Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille. Then there are the films that grow on you.

Perhaps I didn't think much of the film first time I saw it. It's okay, pretty, fun. But nothing deep. Then your kids watch it again, and you happen to be in the room. Hum. And again, but this time you sit down and watch it with them. Soon, you find deep lessons for your life in the film, and as simple as it seemed the first time, it is more enriching the more you watch it.

That's Finding Nemo. And Brave.

Just watched it again yesterday and as much as I enjoyed it in the theatre, it didn't make me cry like yesterday. This second full viewing really spoke to me and a lesson for all of us. Relationships are more important than our pride. That's what makes us have satisfying lives.

The animation is so excellent in this film as well. No, this film doesn't stun me. And it doesn't speak deeply to my heart. But it is that most precious of all films for me. It grows.

Part III: What is the Message of Brave?

***Warning!  Major spoilers below!!!***

The main story of Brave is easy to see: a mother/daughter tale, where they needed to understand each other better, and only when the mother is transformed into a bear could this occur.  The story might seem too similar to another Disney film, Brother Bear, but Brave makes more sense, is funnier and has more sympathetic characters.

The key to the film, however, is to determine what breaks the spell.  What is "the bond torn by pride" that must be mended?  Merida thought that it was the tapestry, and many viewers thought the same.  However, just because the tapestry was mended, it didn't break the spell.  Part of the tension of the film has to do with Mor'du's spell, which is broken at his death (after which he turns into a will o' the wisp), but even then Merida's spell isn't broken.

Certainly the "bond" has to do with the relationship between Merida and Elinor. But we see them getting along quite fine in the forest, and Elinor already signaled Merida to declare a compromise that both could approve of.  So their conflict is finished, right?  Yet the spell is not broken.

The "bond torn by pride" is their relationship, but it was broken by both sides.  Elinor agreed that she had gone too far, and delayed a betrothal (Although it must be noted that a betrothal was not set aside.  The original contract between the four peoples was that a marriage would occur between Merida and one of the three boys.  That still held, they just gave the young people time to make their own decision as to which one it would be.)  How did Merida break the bond?  What did she need to do to mend it?

The key is in Merida's many declarations of innocence after he mother turns into a bear.  She is constantly deflecting blame for her actions.  She blames Elinor, blames the witch for giving the "wrong" spell.  But it isn't until the final moment that she admits her own responsibility for harming her mother.  

That act of repentance at the climax of the film is what breaks me.  It is the sorrow of the prodigal, the shame of the morally weak, the breaking of the pride that tears.  And in the end, that is what is complex and beautiful story is about.  To truly mend the tears between relationships, we must admit our own actions.  We must have sorrow for our own wrongs done.

The relationship was torn by two parties, as is most of the time the case.  And there cannot be true restoration until both parties confess their actions in causing the rift.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Just Another Analysis of The Shining

A family travels to paradise.  Paradise, in the ancient world, was a garden, a huge, never ending garden that had everything the family needed.  They would never have lack.

In every garden there is a temptation, a manifestation of evil that tempts them to harm and destruction.  For the man, the temptation was his entitlement, his sense that the world revolved around him and that anything that deviated from his orbit was in opposition to him.  For the woman, the temptation was her fear—partly her fear of the man, but also her fear of her inadequacy to be a good mother, to care for her child.

For the child, the temptation was Room 237.  The Hotel Overlook was the tempter, the snake, causing them all to give into their temptations, to destroy each other. 

The Shining is a film that encourages thinking, and, as we see in the documentary Room 237, overthinking.  There is so much detail, so much complexity in a relatively simple story that we want to assume that it is more than it is.  And the movie is slow enough, constantly taking us through labyrinthine halls and mazes that never end, giving us ample room for our interpretations to hang themselves. 

It is this that makes the Shining a work of art.  And it is The Shining’s weakness.   Is it possible for a work of art to be full of so much detail that no real interpretation is likely?   Is the real maze not in front of the Overlook Hotel, but in our minds, and Kubrick has given us just enough to allow our own subconscious to be the true director?

How many interpretations are possible?

10 Reasons Why The Princess Bride is One of the Great Films of All Time

In 1987 I was in college and we studied hard.  A local three-dollar theatre was available and we were always looking for cheap entertainment.  A friend of my friends had seen The Princess Bride in its first run, and asked… no, actually, she demanded… that we go with her to see it.  We loved it.  It provided the perfect break from our everyday lives.  Pretty soon, we were seeing the film every week during its run at the theatre, which was a number of months.

At this point, I am a died-in-the-wool fanatic about the film.  It is a family favorite, along with a handful of Miyazaki and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Why do we love this film?  Let me count the ways…

1. The Two Frames
There are two versions of The Princess Bride—the movie and the 1973 novel written by the screenwriter, William Goldman. In the movie, a grandfather reads the old fashioned adventure story to his increasingly convinced grandson.  In the novel, we have a different frame.   To read the novel takes nothing away from the movie, but adds so much.  Primarily is the story of how the author of the “original” Princess Bride is S. Morgenstern who was writing a long satiric tome rejecting royalty.  Goldman’s father so loved the book he would read it to his son, but skip all the boring parts and spruce things up a bit.  Goldman sought this book for years and finally found it to read to his son, only to find it was a dusty, dull historic story.  So he rewrote the story in the way his father told it: the “good parts” version.   This story is as fictitious as the rest of the novel, but adds so much to the overall story.

2. Sincerity of the characters
No matter how silly the story gets or the names, or the dialogue, almost every character isn’t playing as if they were in a comedy, in which they are winking at the audience.  They are serious, at times deadly serious.  It is an old-fashioned, classic movies seriousness, a Douglas Fairbanks seriousness, but it is beautiful for that.  The comedy is deepened by the sincerity of every line.  But this just goes to prove that the film isn’t just comedy.  We are truly impressed by the honor of the Dread Pirate Roberts as he dispatches but does not kill Inigo or Fezzik.   We are furious at the hypocrisy of Prince Humperdink and feel a chill at the quiet sadism of the Count.  Not only is this one of the greatest comedies, but also one of the great adventure stories ever.

3. Great names
William Goldman pulled out all the stops, becoming one of the great namers next to Dickens, Rowling and Terry Pratchett.  The Cliffs of Insanity makes us wonder why people go insane at these cliffs.  Are they so tall that looking to their top causes an aneurysm?  Humperdink  sounds vaguely nasty, almost as if Miracle Max had named him.  The Machine is chillingly vague, as if once you have experienced this machine, there really is no other machine you would ever think of.  Buttercup is so over-the-top silly that every time I hear the phrase “Princess Buttercup” I smile and have images of Saturday Morning Cartoons made to sell another cereal.  ROUS, Fire Swamp, Dread Pirate Roberts—all classic names. 

4. Peter Falk
One of the great comedy/drama character actors of all time.  He is usually undersung, because after Colombo it was hard for anyone to take him seriously.   But he is so memorable in so many films: Wings of Desire, A Woman Under the Influence are two of many amazing performances.  He makes it look so easy, as if anyone could be slyly sincere, and underhandedly benevolent.  Not anyone can.  And no one could like Peter Falk.

5. Wallace Shaun
Wallace Shaun is another undersung performer and writer.  His day job is writer, especially small plays.  But he has some excellent roles as an actor, especially in My Dinner with Andre and as Rex the Dinosaur in the Toy Story films.  But I will always remember him as the proud Vizzini, self-confident to a fault, always proclaiming “inconceivable.”

6. Excellent quotes:
“There’s not much money in the revenge business.”  
“Tyrone, you know how I love to watch you work, but I’ve got my nation’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it.  I’m swamped.”
“Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
“Anybody got a peanut?”
And we cannot forget the classic quote: “Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
That’s just a sampler.  I could fill this page with quotes.  And I will, if given half a chance.  Post your own favorite quotes in the comments, if you like.

7. Beautifully silly ideas
Goldman has created a number of concepts that enrichen the movie with comic gold:
“Mostly dead”—A person can be dead, but not really dead and then revived by forcing a large chocolate-covered pill down his throat.
“True love”—There is your regular, every-day love, but once in a while there is “true love” which cannot be broken by governments, kidnappings or even death.  And it results in remarkably effective kisses.
Brawn + sword  + brains= Unassailable plan.  Unless someone has greater brawn, sword technique and smarts.  
Iocaine powder—Odorless, tasteless, mixes well in liquid and kills instantly.  Yet a great tracker like Humperdink can sense it immediately.

8. Andre the Giant
Andre first gained his fame by being a villain in opposition to Hulk Hogan in wrestling.  I never saw any of these bouts, but I find it hard to believe that he could be seen as a villain.  He was the gentlest, most wonderful people in the world.  Billy Crystal, after meeting him on the set of The Princess Bride, was inspired to make the film My Giant, in an attempt to show Andre’s real character.  Andre was famous for wanting to pay for a meal whether he was the host or guest.  At one point Arnold Schwartzanager snuck away to pay the bill ahead of him.  Andre caught wind of what he was doing, and he and Wilt Chambrilen picked Arnold up and deposited him at his car. (Can you imagine serving these three giants? Is there a restaurant that could hold them all?)  In this movie the role of Fezzik Goldman writes of Andres real nature, strong but gentle.  He died of heart failure in 1993.

9. A movie for all ages
The Princess Bride stands alongside of many Pixar films as being a true “family” film, good for both children and adults.  And it grows with one as well, even as the Wizard of Oz does.  As a child we might appreciate some of the humor and the adventure, but as we get older more and more of the humor hits home, as well as the abiding nobility. 

10. A movie for all eras
Although the frame is clearly placed in the 80s as the opening scene of the old-time baseball video game shows.  But really, this film is timeless.  The majority of the story takes place in a vaguely 18th century European fairy tale world, which could really be anytime, anywhere.  And the themes of the relationship between the grandfather and his grandson, romantic love, desire to right wrongs, and a sense of fairness never changes. 

In the end, The Princess Bride is a film for all ages, for all people.  Not everyone will appreciate the humor, for all such appreciation is subjective.  But there will never be a time in which a group of people won’t appreciate The Princess Bride, as it is one of the classic entertainments of cinema. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Seeing and Feeling Love: Wall-E

#26-- Wall-E
It fascinates me, over the years of expressing my love for this film, that there are a number of men who agree with me, but most women I have spoken to think that it's okay, but not one of the greatest films ever made.

This is my guess as to why:

Wall-E works best as a fable about love. The environmental stuff is cool, the side characters are fun, but that's not where it tugs the heart. Yet this love-fable is really from a male perspective. Wall-E is how many men see themselves at their best. Working hard at an impossible task; lonely and romance is idealistic; we love our hobbies, but no one really understands. Finally, we fall in love, and the woman is strong, but distant... possibly even destructive (with her words, perhaps not with a laser cannon). But if a man is loyal and caring, even when she is unresponsive, he can eventually win her love.

This movie, along with perhaps City Lights, 50 First Dates, and Knocked Up (all speaking toward bumbling and perseverance winning the romance) give a particular male perspective to the idealized romance. The female version of this we have seen many times in romantic comedies-- Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman. One isn't more realistic than the other, but the perspectives differ.

So call Wall-E the male (nerdy) version of a romantic comedy. But the other aspect of this film is the silence. With but a few words, all was communicated. Which makes me wonder, can we, as humans, actually recognize love without words?  Even with words, how do we know it?

You can show you care by making a Wall-E sandwich!
In the film, Eve didn't recognize Wall-E's love at first.  She thought he was cute, an idiot, imaginative, unique. The indications of his love were there when she was conscious-- the symbol of the flame, the scenes from Hello Dolly!  But it wasn't until she saw his everyday perseverance and care.  Perhaps his actions were sometimes useless or silly, but every one showed a concern and an over-the-top desire to please, to treat, to respect, to assist in achieving the other's goals.  Suddenly, Eve understood.  Perhaps for the first time she understood what love really was.  Not the hand-holding or the dancing, but the everyday concern.  

That kind of love doesn't happen right away.  It doesn't fit the quick mold that many movies require for falling in love.  It takes time and patience.  And this is why Wall-E is one of the great pieces of cinema.  It doesn't talk about love, it shows it.  It takes the times to display love in an entertaining fashion-- all with using as few words as possible.  Amazing as it is touching.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Japanese Civil War: The Last Samurai, Samurai Assassin and When the Last Sword is Drawn

In the 1860's, Japan's economy took a major turn, depending more on foreign trade than ever before.  This led to a conflict between the Emperor, who, by the end of the 1860's was under the thumb of the foreigners, and the Shogun, who wanted to retain power for his military class, the samurai. This eventually lead to some skirmishes and also to all out war between the forces of the Shogun and the Emperor in 1868, where the Shogun was defeated in Edo and the Shogunate was dissolved.

This era of Japan was made into many films in Japanese theaters and television.  It is a dramatic time and the stories from this time heighten the tension and the challenge to samurai at the time.  Although it can be questioned as to the nobility of the samurai at the time, yet most films display the samurai as noble and loyal to a fault, which is seen as a great ideal to follow.  Here are some words on a few of the films on this era, two Japanese and one American.

Samurai Assassin (1965)

This film takes place in 1860 at the beginning of the tension between the Shogunate and the Emperor. It is showing dissent amidst the ranks of samurai, all trying to respond to the coming of the West in force to Japan.

The clan of Mito determines that the Elder of Il must be killed, for the sake of the strength of the Shogun, and they collect a variety of samurai, including ronin (master-less samurai) to accomplish this task, but there is a traitor in their midst.

Of course, one of the ronin samurai is Mifune, who plays Niiro Tsurichyio, son of a concubine who's father is unknown. He is trained as a samurai, but his temper gets the best of him. Of course, he is the most skilled of samurai, and somewhat of a rogue. But this is only because his ronin class left him in poverty and disgrace, not even able to obtain a wife, let alone the woman he truly wants.

The first half of the film is dull, with much explaining, political discussions, and narrative-based action. But it is all giving the necessary background for the second half, where the truth is opened up.

Although much is spoken of honor and principle, it all descends into savagery and the worst of violence. It is a good reminder to us that we can get so caught up in secondary issues that we lose sight of the important issues of honor and morality. It reminds me of a modern political thriller, where corruption rules the day, even by those who seem so noble on the surface.

By the end, it is horribly wonderful.

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003)

This film takes place throughout the era, ending just after the defeat of the Shogunate.  It is a biography about Yoshimura Kanichiro, who was, in history, in service to the Shogun and was eventually defeated by the emperor's forces.

The film depicts him as much misunderstood because of his complete humility. He did all his strange (for a samurai) actions for the sake of duty to his family and to his lord.

I am amazed that this film won so many Japanese awards. It is unfortunate that this good story was told so poorly. Every emotional scene felt so manipulative, not because we shouldn't feel emotion, but for some reason it seems adequate to lengthen a scene and have characters repeat each other's names for emotional resonance. The final half hour of the movie could have been presented in five minutes-- Boredom is an unfortunate way to end a film. And instead of emphasizing our hero's nobility of duty despite opposition and mockery, it emphasizes dying in battle as a noble honor.

I'll give it a passable 3 out of 5, only because the heart of the film has a good depiction of a controversial figure.

The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai famously stars Tom Cruise who arrives in Japan just after the Shogunate is defeated and is asked to help dispatch some of the rebellious samurai forces that still exist. 

As an American epic, it has some eye-rolling cliches that took me out of the film. As a samurai movie, it cannot compare to the classics of that genre, but like those films, it discusses the matter of honor with some subtlety and interest.  The action was, in a sense, less realistic but more effective than most samurai films. As a movie that explores the connection between the East and West, it completely fails, but I"m not sure how much it was attempting to explore cultural connections.  But in the end, it is not a bad film, if not a great one.

What is this?  Like Avatar and Dances with Wolves this is a movie about an American teaching an indigenous tribe to fight for themselves.  Because an American has to do this, they wouldn't figure it out on their own.

Frankly, I still think Avatar is the better movie, not only because it's prettier, but because it is not a "movie about Japan" or a "movie about Indians", it is rather a movie about all subdued, oppressed cultures and so can represent all of them.  I wish it weren't necessary for an American to be the hero.  Why can't an aborigine travel abroad and become the hero for their own people.  I understand the cross-cultural element is necessary, but why always make the American the hero?

Nevertheless, I have to give The Last Samurai some kudos.  Tom Cruise played his role with tact and, at times, humility.  When he gave the honor to others, it brought tears to my eyes.  I don't care what nationality it is-- American, Japanese, or Na'vi-- when a man of pride and arrogance surrenders himself for another person or nation, it is of the greatest honor.

Sanjuro and the Man With No Name

The "Man With No Name" Series, a.k.a. the "Dollars" films:
Yojimbo (1961, Kurosawa)
Sanjuro (1962, Kurosawa)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Leone)
For a Few Dollars More (1965, Leone)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Leone)

Many people know that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo.  The plot goes pretty much scene for scene from the original, although Eastwood plays a slightly different hero than does Mifune. For a Few Dollars More may have borrowed some elements from the Japanese sequel, Sanjuro, but it is quite different.  For a Few Dollars more takes the character of the Man with No Name in a certain direction-- he has a sense of humor, but Eastwood is certainly for sale. By the time that trilogy ends, his morality is determined by the Almighty Dollar.

In Sanjuro, the character becomes more moral, taking on the cause of the underdog, even offering to sacrifice himself and proves himself wise in the arena of politics with a military twist. As per usual, the Man with No Name (who names himself "30-year Camellia" on a lark) arrives in a town split by violent factions. In this case, one faction is behind truth and justice and the other is not. As usual, our anti-hero gets involved, and his methods are... unusual. At the very least, unexpected. The "good" faction are often fighting about whether to listen to the man.

What is most unique in this film is the insertion of a female, even gentle, point of view. Recognizing Mifune as a "glinting sword" an older woman recommends that he would be better off as "a sword in a sheath." We find our anti hero questioning himself, even making errors, because of his excessive violence and self-assurance.

I love Mifune's take of this character, at one point lazy, another yelling, another deeply considering as he rubs his face.  So full of life and joy.  I am really beginning to appreciate the appearances of Tatsuya Nakadai, here as Mifune's counterpart on the corrupt side of the equation.  This is the one place where I can see a similarity between Sanjuro and For a Few Dollars More-- in the uncomfortable camaraderie of equals.  That aspect truly enriches both films, although it is minor in Sanjuro.

One of the fascinating aspects of Sanjuro, which is also played with in Harakiri, is the facade of dishonor, even betrayal, for the sake of loyalty and honor.  The nine young samurai are often discussing whether Mifune is simply unorthodox in his approach to nobility, or is actually ignoble. This aspect makes this film more true to real life, for there are many people in which the appearance of disloyalty is the same as disloyalty, as if a criticism of a nation is equal to a lack of patriotism.  "The proof is in the pudding", so to speak.

Should actually be titled
"The Bad, the Bad and the Bad"
Although out of the whole series, I find For a Few Dollars More the more entertaining ride, I find Sanjuro to be both funny and introspective, both filled with action and a call to gentleness. If Tarantino would ever get off of his revenge kick, I'd love to see him do a remake of this classic film.

For the record, I consider The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the worst of the five films. I dislike the depths of selfishness the Eastwood character goes to and the development of that character as a money-grubbing criminal.  Obviously I don't have a problem with immoral characters (see my review of Sword of Doom), but I find that the Man With No Name isn't very smart in this last film.  Sigh.  Oh well. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Cost of Defanging Selfishness: Castle In the Sky

#68—Castle in the Sky (Laputa)

It is a small mining town in Great Britain, around the time of World War I.    Air power is just coming into its own and in Europe the great air power is Germany, with it’s magnificent floating military fortress, Goliath.  There are also air pirates to take advantage of the governments like the Dola Gang, a group of pirates under the head of their mother.  But there are also rumors and hints of an even greater power: an ancient floating city, Laputa.  Some say they have seen it, but no one is certain.  One pre-teen girl named Sheeta, however, holds the key: an amulet made of volucite (or “aetherium” in the Disney dubs) that is said to hold the key to Laputa and all its power.

This is the context of this Raiders-esque romp through a mining town and the skies above it.  It is one long chase scene, but what an exciting chase it is!  Air wars, floating girls, train chases (borrowing a bit from Keaton’s The General), a Babylonian city, secret ancient science, caves, robots (did The Iron Giant borrow from these?), military encampments—it just never stops!  The pirate boys are always around to drop a good laugh now and then, and we see the whole thing through the eyes of the ball of energy, Pazu.  Did I mention, best Pirate Mom ever?  What about awesome proto-Iron Giant robots?

The fact is, I think this film out-Raiders Indiana Jones.  It is more fun, and the heroes are real heroes and the (real) bad guys are smart and more sinister. 

Now that I’ve told you about this film, I want to give you my latest theory about Miyazaki.

No matter what kind of film he’s making, there seems to be a focused vice.  It is often repeated a number of times through each film.  In Nausicaa, it is fear—all the terrible events come about through fear of others, fear of nature, fear of what might happen.  In Princess Mononoke, it is hatred—the hatred one has of the enemy that is preventing you from living life as you think you ought to have.  In Spirited Away, it is greed—whether gluttony, greed for money or greed for love—that causes all the problems in that film. 

In Castle in the Sky, it is selfishness.  Greed is a factor, but ultimately all of the events play out because a nation and an individual wants to see reality changed from their own perspective, without regard to others.  This selfishness is caused by insulation from others and from the earth itself, to consider oneself above all others and all the earth, to see all others as simply tools for one’s own ideals.

The solution to this, as to all the vices in all Miyazaki’s films is a single solution labeled a number of different ways, even within Castle In The Sky.  It is called compassion, love, connection.  In summary, it could be called community living.  In each of the films we’ve seen in the marathon there is some kind of idyllic community used as an example.  The Valley of the Wind, the village of Prince Ashitaka are both examples of how humans can live with nature in harmony, and how people work hard for each other to create a good life for all. 

In Castle in the Sky, the idyllic community is not actually seen.  It is the community that young Sheeta was kidnapped from.  (What is it about the theme of kidnapped princesses?  Anyway…)  This is the community the Laputans formed when they determined that living in their city was too separatist, and that they needed to return to the earth, to live with nature and to the people whom they once ruled over. 

The ideal is not simply a virtue that one can live on one’s own.  There is no single hero that shines through any Miyazaki movie that solves all the problems.  Rather, solutions are determined by both heroes, leaders and community.  It is a way of life they decide to live out together.  It is a life of compassion, of concern for others, of hard work and of communion with nature.  Yes, each film has its hero, who through deep personal sacrifice, brave deeds, mediation and virtuous determination creates the opportunity for peace.  But ultimately they only point the way.  It is when the community decides to take this upon themselves that the hero’s brave deeds are fulfilled.

And in some films, such an idyllic state is never reached.  Perhaps the vice of a certain person is thwarted, but the future is still uneasy. 

With this moral basis throughout all Miyazaki films, it is no wonder that they are considered children’s films, even though Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso aren’t really for kids.  The moralism is a bit heavy handed.  Nevertheless, with all this high-mindedness, Miyazaki gives us amazing sights to see and adventures to live out in our minds.  And this is why I consider Miyazaki my favorite writer/director.  He offers us a unique and beautiful moral vision, and makes it completely entertaining.

Even with all this “made for children” action and moralizing, there is a very real point that is not for children—the position of Princess Sheeta.  In the end, she realizes that she has part control over a monstrous power to destroy whole cities.  And the other person who has control over this power is a madman, willing to not only threaten, but use this power at will.  What does she do? 

Of course, her position is the same as our own.  Some of our leaders have the power to destroy large populations with little effort.  We share in that power.  The answer in Castle in the Sky is to, of course, be rid of such weapons, at whatever cost.  The fate of innocent people is nothing compared to power, a paradise, and even our own lives.  It is worthwhile to make deep personal sacrifices for the sake of the world. 

Funny that our present world hasn’t made this decision.  I guess we don’t have the same ideals as Miyazaki.  What a shock.

Ambition and Sustainability: Princess Mononoke

#29—Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke is the most male-oriented of Miyazaki's films.  It has a lot of action, and although there is a love story, it isn't a significant part of the plot.  It is seen through the eyes of a young man, and it certainly is more gruesome than other Miyazaki. 

Alongside of Spirited Away, this is Miyazaki's most visually stunning films.  Every frame has so much to see and as ugly as some of the action sequences get, so many of the forest scenes are gorgeous.  Every movement is perfect, every background communicates as much as the foreground focus.  You could just turn the sound off with no subtitles and it is amazing to watch.

The setting is ancient Japan, just at the beginning of industrialization.  Gods roam the countryside, and every healthy tree has a spirit living with it.  The plot is focused around the wanderings of Prince Ashitaka, who is forced out of his idyllic home because he was cursed by a demonized boar-god. He gets involved in the ongoing battles of the up and coming industrial Iron Town and the gods of the nearby forest.  Ashitaka tries to remain neutral, but finds it difficult after seeing the desires to thrive on both sides of the war, and he is torn by the hatred on both sides.  And there are, of course, complications.  For one, he has fallen in love with a human on the forest side, San, who grew up with the wolf god.  And the Emperor, seeking the key to living forever, has sent a monk to retrieve the head of the forest spirit, which has the power of life.

For many of Miyazaki's movies, I think of them in pairs.  The partner to this one is Nausicaa.  They both deal with wars between communities and the connection between nature and humanity.  The great evil of Nausicaa is fear, while in Mononoke it is hatred.  At one point Ashitaka breaks up a fight between San and Lady Eboshi, saying, "You both have the same spirit," meaning hatred.  It is hatred that causes a god to become a demon and hatred that causes a human to become a monster, even if their appearance does not change. 

The point of the movie, as with Nausicaa, is that nature and humanity should be working together for the benefit of all, rather than battling each other for limited resources.  Ashitaka yells out at one point, "Why can't humans and the forest live together?"  Ashitaka is seen with distrust from all sides because he won't take a side.  But in the end, at least Lady Eboshi considers rebuilding Iron Town in a way that would not harm the forest.

Although Nausicaa takes place long after Mononoke, I think it is better to see Nausicaa before Mononoke, because the potentially idyllic relationship between humanity and nature is more clearly seen there, and the tradgedy of Mononoke can be better seen in this light. 

A question one might come from the film: "Why is it called Princess Mononoke?  She seems more like a supporting character."  I think the key is in the term.  "Mononoke" is not a name, but a word that means "spirit" or, more tellingly, "monster".  The title obviously applies to San, being as much wolf as human and siding with the spirits in the battle.  But the term also applies to Lady Eboshi, who is a marvelous ruler of her town, but when she is ruled by hatred then she is monstrous, horrific.  They are both a "princess mononoke" and it gets to the heart of the film.  For the true monster is the one who is filled with hatred for either humanity or nature-- the one who is controlled by hatred and pours it out on one's enemy. 

Because of this, I think that Lady Eboshi is the moral heart of the film, the driving force.  At first she truly does seem like a monster because from the perspective of the forest, she is ambitious, and doesn’t care what she harms in order to meet her goals.  But she is not a monster, rather she sees the needs of her people, and is just seeking peace and sustainability for them, not knowing that there is another equally sentient people that she is harming.  She and Sen despise each other and each other’s people’s because they see their opponent’s people as less than sentient, less than “human”, less than fully moral.  They hate because they do not recognize the other as an equal.  By the end of the film, Lady Eboshi especially realizes that both peoples are equally “human” and that her ambitions for sustainability can also embrace the forest.

It is easy to say that Miyazaki’s ideal is to have town and forest live together in harmony (which I just did up above).  But more than this is the ideal that the inhabitants of town and forest are equally deserving of peaceful life, and that any ideal of sustainability has to include all inhabitants of the land, not just the humans.

When I first saw Princess Mononoke almost ten years ago, I didn't find it that great.  The themes were beyond me, I think, and I couldn't grasp whether the movie was ugly or beautiful.  After seeing so many other Miyazaki, however, I can understand it better and appreciate it much more.  It still has weaknesses: I think that the motivations of the characters, especially Ashitaka, are unclear, and I spend part of the film in confusion. 

Nevertheless, I can now see that it belongs with the top Miyazaki films.  It enriches Miyazaki themes, and displays the power of animation in ways that few films can.  

Humanity and Nature: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

#3--Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Someone once mentioned that it is a pretty long title, but with Miyazaki one must expect that occasionally, such as Ponyo on the Cliffs By the Sea.

Nausicaa is Miyazaki's second feature film, and the first that begins using the themes that reflect his later films, among which are relationship between humanity and nature, flying machines, and war. It is based on a much longer, more complex manga written and drawn by Miyazaki.

Nausicaa takes place a thousand years after human war has poisoned the soil of earth to such a degree that poisoned jungles grew up, insects became gargantuan and huge protectors of nature were created-- Ohms.  There are a number of human kingdoms, but the film deals with only three, Tolmekia-- a war-like kingdom that wants to rule the others; Pejite, the sworn enemies of Tolmekia; and the Valley of the Wind, a struggling utopia that gets caught up in the other kingdom's war. 

Nausicaa herself is Miyazaki's saint-- the ultimate peacemaker.  She is frankly an ideal Buddhist saint, who communes with all creatures, and seeks to make peace with all.  She is especially focused on creating harmony between humanity and nature, trying to heal the 1000 year old rift.  Throughout that thousand years, the poisoned jungles and humanity have been warring with each other, each attempting to overthrow the other's rule.  Only Nausicaa realizes that humanity would perish without the jungle and that the jungle can flourish under humanity's enlightened guidance.  Nausicaa is somehow able to understand the true nature of whatever she is facing.  Instead of reacting to a threat, she responds to the fear behind the threat.  Instead of seeing the death of the toxic jungle, she sees the beauty of it.  She works with the nature of whatever is before her in order to create harmony with all creatures.

Like all saints, Nausicaa presents us with an ideal of how humans should live.  We, as humans, should seek to discover the true nature of what is around us, whether human or natural, and respond to all with the care that they need. Sometimes she has to seek that true nature with research, such as the toxic forest.  Sometimes she responds with intuition, such as the fox squirrel.

Honestly, the scene with the fox squirrel both amazes me and it is symbolic for the saint-like way Nausicaa acts throughout the film.  Master Yupa warns Nausicaa that the fox squirrel is dangerous, but she treats the small creature as if it were the cutest thing in the world.  To prove Master Yupa correct, the fox squirrel bites Nausicaa on the finger and won't let go.  But instead of reacting to her pain or to an attacking creature, she still coaxes him, comforting him.  She understands that his attack isn't personal, but a reaction to his fear.  She allows him to attack her, with no repercussions so that he can know that whatever he does, he has nothing to fear. Fear is the source of harm, the source of attack and oppression. Throughout the film, Nausicaa is placing herself in harm in order to convince others that there is nothing to fear, no need to attack or oppress. This is peacemaking in action.

On the surface, this film seems weaker than other Miyazaki.  Most Miyazaki are amazing in the detail of the world that was created for the film, and Nausicaa is no different in that.  But the dialog is less rich and entertaining, the colors seem washed, and the style of animation is not as fluid as other Miyazaki films.  Part of this, though not all, is due, I think because Miyazaki is trying to communicate the bleakness of the world in disharmony with nature.  War-- both human and natural-- has taken its toll, draining life from everything.  At the end of the film, [spoiler]after Nausicaa's messiahship is realized[/spoiler], the colors suddenly are brighter and everything changes. 

Despite it's weaknesses (including a truly lame 80s score), this film is one of my favorites of all time.  Despite it's bleakness, it is possibly the most joyful and optimistic of Miyazaki's films, and it plots out the general outline of hope for the future.  Other Miyazaki films may communicate that war is bad and that bad guys aren't really all that bad, but this film actually lays out what would need to be done to end war, to change people's hearts.  It isn't childish in any way, nor simplistic, if perhaps naive.  It communicates that self sacrifice, listening to the another's heart, boldness for another's good and some basic reasoning can create a path out of the bleak world.

Perhaps I like this film because it is very much a religious philosophy I agree with.  Perhaps it is because Nausicaa is such a strong character that to me she is the perfect moral hero.  But with each time I watch it, the higher my estimation of it is.