Caitlin posted the slides from our joint panel at this year’s Otakon, covering female creative staff in anime. Check it out! We could use some feedback, as we had 20 minutes left and would like to make it longer for future panels.
Hey blog followers!
I know that most of you follow me somewhere else on social media or on ANN, so you are likely updated on my recent projects. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to post a list of what’s kept me so occupied since I last posted on this blog.
First of all, I just finished the first year of a Ph.D. program in musicology at the University of Texas. That’s kept me busy with classes and all the writing and research that goes with them. If you want to read up on my academic work, I have an Academia.edu account where I post most of my papers when I am finished with them. Some recent highlights include:
- “Everything You Dreamed of on the Edge?”: 1980s Generational Anxieties in the Music of The Brave Little Toaster (presented at the 2016 Society for American Music conference in Boston, March 9-13, 2016) (Note: because I might adapt this into a longer journal article at a later date, I’ve made the decision to remove it from my Academia.edu account. Please let me know if you would like to read it.)
- Music, Violence, Propaganda and Action Spectacle in the Hunger Games Film Series
- “Be Art or Sing It”: Camp and the Grotesque in Horror TV Presentations of Opera (includes discussion of operatic encounters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Black Butler)
More importantly and more excitingly, though, I am writing a book! It is a part of the 33 1/3 series published by Bloomsbury Press; you might have seen their guides to famous rock albums in bookstores. They’re launching a new “33 1/3 Japan” series, and I will be writing one of the first titles in the series: a guide to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack!
You can read more of the details of the series on our editor, Noriko Manabe’s website here. There is also a form for submitting a proposal if you know a lot about Japanese popular music (including other anime soundtracks) and are interested!
With all that plus teaching a rock history class this week, I have a busy summer! But a very fruitful one. I hope to produce more for the blog soon, but in the meantime, please enjoy what I have written in my absence!
Note: This is an assignment for my course “Action Film and the Soundtrack.”
The first Hunger Games film occupies an interesting place in the history of young adult film adaptations. It’s such an obvious choice for one, given its focus on teens battling to the death in a dystopian future America. Yet, from the start, it’s not directed at all like an action film. It feels like a period drama or documentary: It opens on an explanation of the titular Games’ founding, then dunks us into a news report with the host and gamemaster discussing its history. It has a distant, faded look to it over mysterious, minor-key music, giving the impression of the exotic and otherworldly. Then, it flashes to Katniss comforting her sister in District 12, with no explanation for the new viewer how the two images are related. This juxtaposition is important, however. It sets up clearly the two very different worlds in the movies’ Panem: the luxury of the Capitol and the abject, rural poverty of most of the Districts, which is also simulated in the Hunger Games arena.
This is reflected in the sound landscapes for the respective environments of the film. While the plot structure of The Hunger Games could be debated, the settings divide the film into roughly three sections: the District 12 portions, the ones in the Capitol where the Tributes are paraded before the ruling classes and train in luxury, and the actual battle in the arena that takes up the bulk of the film. After the film’s very memorable and unusual opening sequence, where lilting folk-like melodies and drone score sounds dominate, it was strange to me that once Katniss and Peeta arrived in the Capitol, there was hardly any memorable use of sound in the film. The exceptions were usually diegetic (sounds the characters are hearing in the film), like the triumphant fanfares for the characters as they appeared onstage for their interviews and showed off their costumes. This immediately changed when the film dunked the characters into the arena for the opening bloodbath.
This is built up to with Katniss’s entrance into the arena. The sterile white of their plane, and then in the room where Katniss meets with Cinna for the last time before entering her tube, are closer to the Capitol’s removed luxury than the wilds of District 12. We know the stakes are different now because of the role of the camera and, especially, the soundtrack. There are several key moments when the sound effects drop into a sort of “hyper-realism,” when their volume is amplified beyond how they would in real life in a way that feels much more immediate. In these scenes, this especially comes with the closing of doors: to the plane taking them to the arena, and to the tube finally dropping them in it. The latter involves a close-up of Katniss’s face, showing her panic as she’s separated from Cinna, and realizes how soon she will be in danger. It happens at the exact same moment as the thud. The Capitol scene has other close-ups of Katniss’s face, and moments when the sound zooms in and out, to emphasize her perspective, but the confluence is never that striking until the moment she’s about to drop into the arena.
As the games begin, the sound effects zoom out for more emphasis on the drone-like musical score, similar to the sounds we heard as the film opened. It brings the viewer back to that world through sound, as well as visuals, with the interesting tricks it plays with perspective: jumping back and forth between different tributes, following Katniss’s eyes. The lack of emphasis on the actual sounds for an overarching soundtrack puts us in Katniss’s mind, overwhelmed by the larger proceedings rather than zeroing in on specific events or people. As people jump into action and Katniss realizes it’s time to run away, the music changes to percussion and strings in the style of minimalist phasing, emphasizing both the character’s movements and the whooshing, rapid change of perspectives. It also adds to the disorientation, with how phasing works by slowly moving the different instruments’ voices apart and together. It messes with the listener’s sense of time, and works in The Hunger Games to put them in Katniss’s mind. It combines urgentness (percussive timbres, repetitive rhythms) and helplessness (the uncontrollable time shifts of the phasing).
Disorientation is a strange tactic to use in blockbuster action films, designed to be crowd-pleasers. Yet The Hunger Games is hardly alone in this, with it also marking a key feature of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road. A huge chunk of that film’s opening sequence uses sound and cinematography to put the viewer in Max’s mind, and visually depict his desperate life. It adds to the urgency of the situation in a way that’s more exciting, but also makes the viewer more uncomfortable. It immediately signaled to me when I first saw Fury Road in features that this experience would be like no other action film I had seen. Still, Fury Road later fits into genre conventions in a way The Hunger Games do not.
The Hunger Games uses those effects in a different way, one that doesn’t feel like “action film” directing. The emphasis is consistently on the main character’s psychology and the despondence of her situation, not on exciting fights. Mad Max does at least make action sequences viscerally thrilling, panning out in those moments to show us the scope of the battle, or focusing on characters wielding weapons and how they do it. The Hunger Games plays it all close to Katniss and other important characters’ heads, which makes the action viscerally upsetting and disgusting. This is through the sound’s focus on her perspective, whether she’s hallucinating from wasp stings or just looking for a way out of a tree. We feel her discomfort. Nowhere are we more immediately aware of it than the first scenes in the arena, dunked into this sound world in a way that feels disorienting coming from the restrained world of the Capitol. And yet, there’s some déjà vu (or déjà entendu), with the sonic callbacks to the opening scenes in District 12.
Part of why Katniss wins is that, unlike some of the other tributes (such as the Careers), her daily existence in impoverished, rural District 12 is not that different from life in the arena. (As they’re coached during training, survival skills help far more than weapons.) This is reflected in the sonic atmospheres of District 12/the Arena compared to the Capitol. Many dystopian worlds paint their false idylls as lacking music, the language of color and fun. (The most obvious YA example of this is The Giver–the book, not the film.) The Hunger Games is not among those: the people of the Capitol have culture and amusement aplenty. They even visually resemble the aristocracy of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. Still, there’s a huge difference between their sound for entertainment, and the sounds of survival, of existing out in nature and relying on its unpredictability. This is something The Hunger Games goes out of its way to explore, with its focus on Katniss’s perspective as she navigates these different worlds. We not only see but hear the stark divide between Panem’s different classes, sounding the cue for rebellion.
It’s hard to find old anime that’ll appeal to younger fans. I’m not talking about anime from the early 2000s or 90s. I’m talking mid-80s, when I didn’t even exist yet. We’re lucky to live in an era where companies like Discotek and Crunchyroll are making older anime more available for our viewing pleasure, but the big question remains: where do I start? If you’re looking for an anime that’s obscure, old, and unique, might I recommend GoShogun: The Time Etranger, released in the US under the name Time Stranger?
Time Stranger seems like an oddball choice to recommend, given that 1) it’s out-of-print currently (though copies of the Central Park Media release aren’t hard to find as of the time of this writing) and 2) it’s a sequel to a TV series that never got an English release. Last I checked, there aren’t even fan translations of the GoShogun series, but feel free to correct me on that. However, aside from a GoShogun model toy making an early cameo appearance, there’s no direct indication that this is a sequel to a mecha anime. To the uninitiated viewer, the characters could have been a part of any military organization and it just so happens they’re living in a future with hovering cars. Also, one of the guys is a giant blue man, but that never bothers anyone. Thankfully, knowledge of Goshogun isn’t necessary to understand the story as Remy is fleshed out wonderfully as a character.
The story begins with Remy Shimada, a woman in her 70s, getting into a car crash after a badass chase scene and winding up in a coma. Her friends from her GoShogun years come to see her, but the doctor tells them that she has a 5 percent chance of living due to the severity of the crash and other medical complications she was hiding prior to the crash. Even after pulling all the strings they can to save her, she’s given 2 days to live. In her comatose state, Remy fights in a mysterious city where escape is impossible and everyone is trying to kill her. She’s given a letter telling her she has two days to live. All Remy has is her determination, her revolver, and her friends.
Remy is actually experiencing two dreams. The main dream takes place in a city 40 years ago, which looks like it could take place in the Middle East given the mosque-like structure in the middle of the city the denizens pray to daily. The other dream is a flashback to Remy’s childhood in France. She lost her mom when she was young and became a street urchin. Kids would harass her but she would fight back, proving that even as a little kid, Remy was still the coolest.
The film never explicitly indicates how much of what we see in Remy’s comatose state is her actual memory and how much is just her dreaming, but it’s for the better. Not explaining adds to the surrealness of the situation and allows the central metaphor of fighting death. When I first saw this film, I was reminded of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, another film about a woman experiencing flashbacks to her past at the end of her life. Like Millennium Actress, memory and dreams mingle to the point they’re indistinguishable While not as visually ambitious as Millennium Actress, the same idea about how our memories define our lives is why I love Time Stranger. Remy remembers the two points in her life where she felt like she would die, but she managed to find the determination to escape death. Overcoming impossible odds through sheer determination is an old anime cliche, but few anime show an old woman fighting the giant demonic panther that’s the personification of fate with a single bullet and knocking over her own grave at the same time. That’s much more inspirational to me than Goku yelling until he’s strong enough to destroy a planet.
On a side-note, it’s rare to see any anime, today or in the past, invoke Islamic imagery in any way. The words “Islam” and “Muslim” are never explicitly used, but it’s clear what’s being invoked on-screen. They’re a generalized force of fate and order, a surreal religious army inside Remy’s head. For most of the film, the civilians are blank gray-skinned mobs trying to kill Remy and her comrades, like zombies in an apocalyptic world. As far as representations of Islam go, it’s not particularly kind, and if this movie were made today with criticism of media depictions of Muslims being more common, it might be seen as dehumanizing. However, if you take it as a metaphor for religion in general and how it can be seen as fatalistic, it works just fine. Still, watching this movie today made me realize that depictions of Islam in both Western and Japanese media are limited.
The animation is nothing special, and the art is pretty typical for the era; pleasant enough to look at, gets the job done. Some of the sequences are really neat and tasteful, like when Remy has a vision of herself being torn apart, she transforms into a bloody-red outline that falls apart. Remy’s face in the present-day is also never fully-shown, and the film does this by obscuring it with sunglasses or a breathing mask, or by utilizing some first-person perspective. You always get the sense that you’re on her side, not viewing from the outside but from within, even she’s awake in the present. It’s one of the many ways Time Stranger gets you to empathize with her.
At its core, Time Stranger is the story of one woman finding a reason to live when everyone’s telling her it’s her time to die. It just so happens to be the sequel to an old mecha TV series without the mecha, and it’s great. It’s an obscure gem of a film, and those with an interest in 80s anime that’s not Akira or Studio Ghibli should check it out.
Mad Max Fury Road premiered in theaters this week, and critics are already hailing it as the action movie masterpiece of the decade. I can’t help but agree with them. The 4th Mad Max easily triumphs over other contemporary action films due to its distinctive look and feel. Most of the stunts are practical with a few CGI touchups, the film smoothly transitions from chase scene to chase scene, and the characters have an immense depth behind their ridiculous names and limited dialogue. Much has been made of the film’s feminist themes. The film unsubtly reminds us that women “are not things” and the climactic scene involves the two heroes, Max and Furiosa, teaming up with an all-woman motorcycle gang called the Vulvani to fight back against Immortan Joe and his War Boys, the apocalyptic patriarchy. Go see this film if you haven’t yet, it’s an amazing treat and the rare nerdy action movie that I’d seriously want to see win Oscars. After seeing it, come back and read this.
There’s one scene at the end of the film that stood out to me not for its amazing stunts or creative design, but for how quietly it bucks a Hollywood trend that’s always annoyed me. A dying Furiosa is saved by Max performing an emergency blood transfusion. After an entire movie of throwing people off cars and fighting the ghosts he could not save, Max saves a life. But that’s not what made the scene bold in my mind. What made it bold was that in other Hollywood action films, this would have been the kissing scene. Other action movies feel it necessary to give the male and female lead of a movie romantic chemistry, because it’s expected that when two leads of the opposite sex spend a significant time together, a romance together. I was worried it would go down that route when Max holds Furiosa close and tells her his name for the first time, but shortly after it fades to black and we’re at the Citadel, with Furiosa standing triumphant as the woman that took down (the patriarchy) Immortan Joe. I appreciated how the filmmakers didn’t cave into the expectation that these two needed to a romantic item. Rather, they’re two broken people in a broken world that respect each other.
Max and Furiosa make for a great team, though they don’t know it yet. They meet each other by circumstance; they’re both escaping from Immortan Joe, but Furiosa is the one with a specific destination in mind. Action movies like The Avengers often contrive situations for their heroes to fight each other before they team up. It’s an easy way to build tension, but the artificiality of it can be distracting. In the case of Max and Furiosa, it makes sense that they wouldn’t trust each other at first and try to kill each other. They live in a world where mercy gets one killed, and Furiosa can’t afford to jeopardize her mission to save the wives of Immortan Joe. Max is also not a great negotiator. He mostly just grunts and speaks in single words, hinting at just how mad he is. This half-man, half-animal doesn’t get along with others, and neither does the one-armed matriarchal Furiosa.
Yet as the film goes on, one gets the sense that these two are very similar despite coming from different societies. Both have lost an important family member, and are driven not only by the need to survive, but to be redeemed. Both are strong fighters, but have emotional and physical weaknesses, which make for compelling heroes. Actions speak louder than words, and their harsh stares and grunts have more character than a billion Joss Whedon quips.
This brings us to that pivotal scene where Max and Furiosa defy the expectations of Hollywood romance. Firstly, the film already had a decent romance in the form of redeemed war boy Nux and the red-haired and aptly-named Capable, so to have another developing romance would have been going overboard. Secondly, Furiosa and Max don’t see each other as sexual partners, but as comrades. It’s why the kiss scene in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, the main reason I was worried about them sharing a kiss at the end, didn’t work for me. There’s nothing wrong with two heroes developing romantic feelings for each other, but so many movies do it that feels more like an obligation than a natural part of the story. The main relationship of Edge of Tomorrow is of a mentor and student who become soldiers of equal strength. That kiss feels tacked on to an otherwise engaging male-female relationship that never felt all that romantic. Mad Max Fury Road is proof that movies don’t need to romantically pair leads if they have different genitals. The small moments like Max giving up his sniper rifle to Furiosa and using himself as a stable platform for her are more powerful than a tacked-on kiss. And honestly, with so many movies about two dudes kicking ass and never kissing, do we really need to be reminded how much culture favors heterosexuality?
Mad Max Fury Road deserves all the praise for its action and stuntwork, but beneath the skull-adorned hood, there’s a beating human heart. Rarely do action movies make you care for characters who speak so little this much. Future action filmmakers should be looking at how director George Miller makes combining feminist humanism with flamethrower-guitars and granny bikers look so easy.
What I value most about history and film, my two favorite subjects in the world, is their ability to generate empathy. There’s a great Roger Ebert quote from the documentary Life Itself that comes to mind: “… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Films and history can give voices to the voiceless and expose different sides of the dominant voice. On the flip side, films and history can reinforce false narratives to keep the voiceless oppressed and the dominant voice unchallenged. Films as recent as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reinforce the narrative of the savage enemy and the heroic American who puts them down. American Sniper was the second-highest grossing R-rated film ever, so clearly there was a demand for it, and those demanding it voiced their racist opinions about Arabs after seeing the film. It’s propaganda fanning the flames of nationalism and racism. However, film’s empathy-generating power can counter propaganda. Hearts and Minds is one of those essential examples of counter-propaganda.
Hearts and Minds is a Vietnam War documentary that depicts Vietnamese victims of war, the soldiers that bombed and poisoned them, the politicians and generals that told them to do so, and the American people’s attitude towards the war. The Vietnam War is remembered as America’s first real loss in a war, when people bother to remember it. Hearts and Minds shows in an interview with Captain Randy Floyd, a pilot whom ran 98 bombing missions in Vietnam, asking him what we’ve learned from Vietnam, he says “I think we’re trying not to.” 1974 was the year before the Vietnam War was truly over, and folks were already trying to unlearn everything they learned.
Some of those who chose to remember tried to justify their actions in Vietnam. One could take the side of Lt. George Coker, an American POW who appears in the film speaking at several conventions about his experiences as a POW and his views on patriotism. Several times Coker says things like “I was what you made to be.” He says this in front of young Catholic students and elderly women. He unflinchingly uses the word “gook” to describe the Vietnamese. He dehumanizes not only the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, but also the South Vietnamese by calling all Vietnamese backwards. This attitude comes directly from the top. General William Westmoreland tells director Peter Davis “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” This scene is juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching Vietnamese funeral for a man most likely killed by American bombs or napalm. Hearts and Minds takes the side of the Vietnamese as victims of a foreign invasion, but in order to do so effectively it must document those invaders. We must understand the oppressors if we want to work against oppression, but not excuse them.
It’s important to note that in depicting Vietnam as a victim, Hearts and Minds also avoids infantilizing the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese knew what was happening when American soldiers sprayed poison and napalm to destroy their crops and jungles. The South Vietnamese government was complicit in these actions because they benefited from the corporations and power America gave them. American companies like Ford, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America were setting up shop in capitalist South Vietnam. There’s a scene featuring the political leaders of Saigon having a lavish dinner party in a country club telling crude jokes about women. One of the leaders asks them to stop so they don’t look ridiculous in front of the camera. If there’s a flaw in Hearts and Minds, it’s the depiction of the North Vietnamese Army. That is to say they’re barely featured in the film. It’s understandable that Peter Davis would have an easier time filming in America and South Vietnam, but it would have been nice if the film could have presented a more complete picture of Vietnam. What Davis captured of Vietnam is still impressive and helps to understand the mindset of the South Vietnamese contrasted with the Vietnamese refugees. It demystifies Vietnam as the “Oriental” Other that General Westmoreland saw them as.
We justify acts of atrocity all the time as heroic or necessary. We had to accept Vietnam as a loss, but many refused to see the war as wrong. Ronald Reagan tried to justify the war with this speech in 1980 at a Veterans convention: “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.” Note the language used. Vietnam was “newly free from colonial rule” and “sought our help… against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.” This is the same rhetoric used by America to today to justify wars in the Middle East. We coat our ignorance of foreign affairs in the language of a savior of the weak. However, Vietnam was not “free from colonial rule.” The Vietnamese refugees saw Americans as colonists. The only difference between the French and Americans was the language they spoke and the companies they built.
I believe in respecting veterans, but I also believe in criticizing our involvement in war. I believe it is necessary to understand both sides of the conflict. We must not paint these narratives as black-and-white us vs. them politics. That leads to dangerous propaganda like American Sniper, which fuels hatred of Arabs and Muslims by depicting American murder of them as heroic. This kind of narrative not only affects movies, it affects video games as well. One of the writers on Battlefield Hardline recently said “I wrote one about this guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend. Someone on the team pointed out that ‘hey idiot, this is someone you are about to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to,’ so we decided, let’s not go down that route. We had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn’t as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay.” This is an admittance of removing empathy from the narrative, because empathy would make it less enjoyable for the player to murder people. To get back to Vietnam, think of how the Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter portrays the Vietcong. The Vietcong are depicted as sadists that enjoy forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The film is willing to show Americans as complex and empathetic, but unwilling to extend that same empathy to the Vietnamese.
We must take care in how we portray all sides in any conflict. Not all sides are equally valid, of course. Modern hate groups like GamerGate should never be given the same legitimacy as the women they harass. Understanding does not excuse atrocities, but it can help us deal with atrocities. Films like Hearts and Minds resist the simplicity of the black-and-white narrative that we are spoon-fed in films like American Sniper. Whether you’ve studied the history of Vietnam in-depth or not, Hearts and Minds is a must-see. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, and appeals to my desire for empathy.
Whenever the topic of Studio Ghibli comes up, inevitably casual consumers of anime are thinking about Hayao Miyazaki movies, not Isao Takahata movies. I remember having a conversation about Ghibli with one of my film professors, who likes some anime, and he was surprised that Grave of the Fireflies was a Studio Ghibli production. It’s not surprising when you realize that popular image of Studio Ghibli is its accessible family films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The somber and very-Japanese Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday don’t fit in with Ghibli’s popular image, and to be fair aren’t as fun to watch (though I’d rather sit through Grave of the Fireflies than My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata is Miyazaki’s senior, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim as Miyazaki. Yet Studio Ghibli wouldn’t exist without him, and I’m thankful that he was able to put out one more film this year, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
On the surface, one might think that Princess Kaguya would have been more suitable for Miyazaki. A fairy tale about a spunky lovable girl seems like the basis for a Miyazaki film, but after watching Kaguya I realized how perfect it was for Takahata. Takahata has never been interested in the fantastical European-like settings of Miyazaki’s works, and sets all of his stories in Japan. His films are approachable for outsiders with enough knowledge, but he is directly speaking to a Japanese audience. He assumes that viewers already know something about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and rather than trying to update it for a modern audience, it’s extremely old-school. Life for women in the 10th century (okay, all centuries really) was extremely limiting. Kaguya’s father, obsessed with fitting in with nobility and customs to escape his mountain peasant roots, has Kaguya raised to be a perfect princess. She’s forced to shave her eyebrows, paint her teeth black, and not allowed to be seen by her many suitors. Yet she maintains her playfulness and desire to be in the outside world. The film is sympathetic to her conflict and takes pleasure in seeing her outwit her suitors by making them eat their words and find the impossible objects they compare her to. Kaguya is the story of a young woman wishing to experience a world she is forbidden from due to society’s strict patriarchal rules. The ending is bittersweet. It’s sure to confuse many not familiar with the original folktale, but is successful at articulating what Kaguya has lost.
Two connections with Takahata’s previous works instantly sprang to mind while I was watching this film. One, the artstyle of Kaguya recalls the beautiful watercolor scenery of My Neighbors the Yamadas. Every brushstroke is detailed and gorgeously rendered, and during a dream sequence, comes apart chaotically to represent Kaguya’s inner conflict. It’s the visual standout of the entire film and left me breathless. The Wind Rises looked good, but it never seemed as though Miyazaki was pushing his artstyle. Takahata created a film that cannot be confused with any other Ghibli film and I thank him for that. Takahata’s reverence for the countryside, as seen in Only Yesterday, returns as well. Both Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films have had environmental elements, but Takahata specifically seems critical of city-life. It works better for me here than it did in Only Yesterday. Kaguya’s nostalgia for the mountain makes more sense when you realize just how terrible and limiting being a noblewoman was back then.
I saw Princess Kaguya while I was taking a history seminar called “Women and Gender in China.” While Princess Kaguya is Japanese, not Chinese, I couldn’t help but compare it to the stories I had been reading in that class. The stories of how society restricted women put me in the right mindset for Kaguya. The professor of that seminar also saw Princess Kaguya the same weekend I did, and we had a great discussion after class about the movie and the original folktale. Rarely do I get to talk about anime in-depth like that with a non-anime fan, and a history professor to boot!
When asked which filmmaker I prefer, Miyazaki or Takahata, I must honestly say I prefer Miyazaki. The man has been able to make more films that resonate with me, and doesn’t have the reputation of going over-budget and taking forever to make movies (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness features many Ghibli employees complaining about Takahata’s work ethic). However, I have much respect for Takahata. Not just because he was a co-founder of Ghibli, but because he always made a good contrast to Miyazaki. His voice reaches a smaller audience, but that smaller audience appreciates him for it. Miyazaki has mixed feelings toward him, saying he’s “abandoned him as a filmmaker” (again, watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), but the two have a long history together. Takahata discovered Miyazaki. Without Takahata, would Miyazaki have become the internationally-acclaimed director he is today?
I hope The Tale of the Princess Kaguya gets an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. It’s hard to imagine anything beating The Lego Movie, but if Takahata’s potentially final film were able to win an Oscar, then it’d be a great victory for anime fans and a final huzzah for the dying Studio Ghibli.
You’re not a REAL anime fan if you tell me you don’t like any Studio Ghibli movies. Okay, that’s a lie as the whole “real anime fan” concept is bullshit, but most anime fans will admit to loving at least one of the prolific studio’s films. For many fans, their first anime was probably a Ghibli film. The studio has been around for nearly 30 years, and one of its co-founders, Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement from filmmaking after the release of The Wind Rises.
The Wind Rises is as final as a film can be from a filmmaker. Using real history as a metaphor for Miyazaki’s career, The Wind Rises is clearly a personal statement. Aside from Porco Rosso (btw, in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki recently called Porco Rosso “a foolish movie” because it was made for adults instead of children), it is Miyazaki’s only film made specifically for adults. Aside from the film’s dream sequences with an Italian plane designer, the film is lacking in the fantasy and whimsy that Miyazaki is famous for. Honestly, the only audience that I can see loving The Wind Rises is one that is obsessed with Miyazaki as an auteur. To outsiders, The Wind Rises is a slow-moving, not-all-that-fun-to-watch biopic with decent animation. As Miyazaki’s final statement on his film career and his obsession with work, it becomes much more engaging.
This is technically a 2013 film, but I didn’t see it until February of this year, hence why I’m including it in this blog series. Next to Terror in Resonance, The Wind Rises is the anime I had the most frustration with this year. As a final film for Miyazaki, it’s essential to watch, but as a historical film, hoo boy is it problematic. The film’s protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, was the real-life inventor of the Zero fighter plane, the plane used by Japan in World War II. Given Japan’s war crimes towards Korea and China that even today it refuses to address, making a film about the man who invented a killing machine was already controversial. Miyazaki is openly anti-war, both in his previous films and in real life, so I expected The Wind Rises to handle the controversial subject accordingly. Amazingly, The Wind Rises doesn’t seem all that concerned with the consequences of the war, as at the end of the film, Jiro is more concerned about the planes being destroyed than the lives destroyed by the planes. It’s all okay though, because Jiro’s imaginary Italian boyfriend and dead wife tell him to move on with his life.
Some have interpreted the ending of The Wind Rises to be anti-war, but it’s hard to take it that way when the film refuses to show the consequences of the war. The film is more concerned with Jiro’s obsession with building planes and how it leads to him neglecting his dying wife. The closest we get to the film having a discussion about the consequences of building planes for the Imperial army is a discussion between Jiro and his imaginary Italian idol. They use the pyramids as a metaphor, explaining that it was built with slave labor, but they’d rather live in a world with pyramids because they’re impressive, even if they were built with less-than-moral means. It’s a discussion on what limits there are to making art.
Miyazaki’s fascination with planes has always been evident. Flying machines have been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, and Miyazaki’s father helped create planes for World War II. The contradiction of Miyazaki being anti-war yet loving the Zero fighter plane is discussed in the Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Miyazaki loves the craftsmanship of airplanes. He denies being a plane otaku, but humorously in the same documentary he’s caught playing with a toy airplane with Hideaki Anno. I think Miyazaki clearly understands the consequences of the Zero, but instead chose to focus on Jiro’s inner conflict because he resonated with it more. As a result, The Wind Rises is a deeply personal film, but one that almost completely ignores the politics that Miyazaki is known for.
I was pretty disappointed in The Wind Rises when I saw it this year. I can’t say I love it now, but I’d be a fool to dismiss it entirely just because I took issue with its portrayal of history and sluggish story. After seeing The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I have a lot more respect for Miyazaki as an artist. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s bold with his statements. He’s a grumpy old man, but some of the stuff he says is really true. Lot of anime fans hated his comments on otaku ruining anime, but he’s got a point. Anime is catering to the obsessives these days, and as a result we’re getting a lot of garbage. Mind you, we’re also getting a lot of great anime among the trash like Kill la Kill and Space Dandy, but Miyazaki still has a point. We did get dreck like Mahouka and Cross Ange this year. Mahouka, with its right-wing nationalist bent, would definitely be the kind of otaku anime that Miyazaki would hate.
The Wind Rises deserves criticism for its problematic content, but as a final film for Miyazaki, it’s fitting. It doesn’t hold up with his best work, and I think Porco Rosso is easier to swallow as far as personal films go, but it’s as final as a film can be. Miyazaki has had a long, interesting career with an equally interesting personal and political life to match. I imagine we’ll still be talking about him for long time after his retirement.
Day 5 preview: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and the other Ghibli co-creator, Isao Takahata.