The Miyazaki Retrospective: Miyazaki Got Game

A guest post by my sister Mariel Marchetta, assistant editor and co-writer of “God, Robot”.

So as a woman, and a young one at that, it might not be surprising that I tend to be a fan of a good romance in my stories. I’m certainly no fan of The Notebook by any means, but there’s nothing like a well executed romantic subplot. My recent foray into Miyazaki has been three movies so far–Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, in that order–and each one has included a romance, and each one has caused me to reflect on the way we approach romance in western animation. I’m not an anime fan, so I don’t know if it is a culture-wide difference, but whatever the reason, there is something about Miyazaki’s approach that is just fundamentally different; something that I think a lot of aspiring storytellers could learn from.

Let’s start with the most obvious: there is no Big Damn Kiss. At first I thought this might be attributed to the characters’ ages. After all, Pazu and Sheeta are at most 14, just on the border of being too young for romance, and Chihiro is only 10 in Spirited Away. But the trend continues in Princess Mononoke, with protagonists that have to be at least 16 years old, and probably older. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, despite other characters commenting on how in love Ashitaka is, the most the two get is a hug. And yet, you find yourself rooting for them just as much as any couple in a Disney movie. So what is it that makes this work?

The secret lies in two things. The first is that Miyazaki never puts the focus on the romance. There is no moment in those films that feels like it was put there to show their compatibility. For example, in Tangled, there is a scene where Rapunzel and Eugene explore the kingdom of Corona; it’s basically just a montage of them having fun together and Bonding, all to lead up to the Oscar bait love song they share. Western movies have these kinds of things all the time; here’s a falling in love montage, here’s them getting a moment to just talk to each other to show their chemistry.

Miyazaki doesn’t do that. The romance doesn’t come in big moments, but in small gestures during the big moments. One of my favorite moments in Castle in the Sky is when Pazu and Sheeta are keeping watch together while staying with the Dola gang. Pazu shares his blanket with her, tells her that it’s great that they could keep watch together, and promises that when they find Laputa he wants to go back to the place she grew up. But narratively its purpose is for Sheeta to give exposition that sets up how they defeat General Muska at the end; it is never about Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship. Even the scene of them laughing and rolling in the grass together after landing on Laputa is really an excuse to show off the stunning visuals of the floating city. Likewise Spirited Away uses scenes of Haku imparting important exposition to Chihiro interspersed with small gestures like giving her food and having a genuine smile on an otherwise cold face. Even in Princess Mononoke most of the romance comes from the intensity of Ashitaka’s devotion to protecting San during climatic battles.

That’s not to say ‘bonding moments’ are bad, of course. Where would Aladdin be without ‘A Whole New World?’ Or Lion King without ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ But there is something authentic and refreshingly organic about the way Miyazaki weaves together small moments to let the viewer figure it out for themselves. When Pazu begs Dola to let him join her to rescue Sheeta from the army and exclaims that ‘Sheeta means everything to me!’ after knowing her all of a day and a half (maybe), we believe him. Not because we were given a montage of them falling in love, but because they’ve had each other’s backs 100% of the time up until that point. You don’t need a declaration of love when Sheeta gives up her freedom and throws herself into Pazu’s arms before tearfully sending him away to protect him. It feels more like the romance happened because that’s just who the characters are, not because he wrote it intending one from the start.

There’s something else about a Miyazaki romance that I think really speaks to the superversiveness that permeates his work. Love is never, ever a weakness. Now that isn’t to say that it’s portrayed as a weakness in a Disney movie, per se, but it’s certainly an obstacle at times. Hercules almost dies because he gave up his strength for Meg’s freedom, Eugene almost dies because he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair rather than letting her be Gothel’s prisoner, etc. But this isn’t ever the case in a Miyazaki movie.

 

Pazu’s love for Sheeta gives him the courage to do everything from fighting the army to joining a gang of pirates. Not once does he waver in his mission to rescue her. Not once does he look scared, even while being shot at; after all, the most important thing is that Sheeta is in danger. Haku is injured by a witch’s spell and healed by the power of Chihiro’s love for him. One of the most powerful moments of Princess Mononoke is when Ashitaka falls into the water during a battle, while San is being suffocated by the demon tendrils of a boar being consumed by his own hatred. Ashitaka hears a voice ask him: what will you do for the one you love? And Ashitaka bursts out of the water with renewed strength to rescue San from the demon boar. Princess Mononoke is practically a Romeo and Juliet story where they bring together their feuding families instead of dying. Love never hampers anyone’s ability to achieve their goals. Love is never an inconvenience. Instead it’s a weapon in the arsenal, providing healing and strength. So how can the viewer come to any conclusion but that their connection is just as deep and meaningful as any western romance?

When it comes to Miyazaki himself, he says:

I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.

I offer a challenge to any writers that are thinking of adding a romance to their stories. Do not frame the question as ‘how can I show these characters are in love with each other?’ Or even ‘why are they in love with each other?’ Don’t worry about if they get a kiss. Instead, ask ‘how will they inspire each other to live?’ And work from there. I guarantee that if you do, a kiss is the least important thing they’ll need. I know I would take Pazu and Sheeta flying off into the sunset together over a peck on the lips any day of the week.

Some Responses

…To my last post.

  1. The idea that I’m not responding to the bulk of Daddy Warpig’s case is perfectly true. In fact, I don’t know nearly enough about the history of sci-fi to dispute his case even if I wanted to. I was – as he correctly pointed out – responding to a very specific point that I objected to. Indeed, I said as much.
  2. Incidentally, in the comments, my point was vindicated. Acknowledge that sci-fi and fantasy are clearly not the same thing, even if people can and do (and should) bend genres, and his whole case DOES work! Don’t do that, though, and it fails.
  3. That said, I do find it rather unfair to imply I’m responding to some minuscule, unimportant point. I mean, when we have quotes like this (linked to in the previous article):

Fantasy & Science Fiction is one genre, separate and indivisible*. Some stories have technology and aliens, others magic and nonhumans, others technology and magic, and so on and so forth.

People who try to disavow 95% of the genre are free to do so. If I need to speak their language to make my point understood, fine. But I don’t have to accept the validity of their mistaken beliefs, or cater to them.

And also this:

SF kicked out Fantasy. Got rid of it. Built an Iron Curtain between the two, and began a long program of sneering at the magical stuff.

You don’t get to disavow a huge category of stories for 80 years, then claim their successes as your own when it becomes inconvenient. Sorry.

(Incidentally, those two comments directly contradict each other!)

And when Jeffro just bluntly says this:

The genre delineations are useless.

Or DW says this (a repetition of his earlier comment, but with a different tag at the end):

Fantasy & Science Fiction is one genre, separate and indivisible. Some stories have technology and aliens, others magic and nonhumans, others technology and magic.

Yes, it’s worth it to salvage the good pieces from technology-centric F&SF, and to ensure that stories like that still get told. Even if we have to call them “SF” so the obsessives can understand.

Or a whole article written making the claim that hard SF doesn’t exist, which I still can’t help but think is just obviously wrong (and John C. Wright agrees with me).

…I think it’s safe to say I’m responding to a real, repeated, insisted upon point. DW can insist it doesn’t impact his overall thesis, and that’s true…IF he concedes the point and acknowledges a distinction between sci-fi and fantasy.

Because there is, and there has to be, or the whole thing fails.

So why AM I harping on this (and, again, it’s worth noting that I really am responding to something very specific here, the one point I disagree with, not the whole argument. And, again, I have great respect for both DW and Jeffro)?

Because a whole post was spent on the claim hard SF doesn’t exist.

Because ink has been spilled over and over on the claim that there’s no distinction between fantasy and SF, and that it’s all one genre, separate and indivisible. And it’s sparked arguments and disagreements and claims from many intelligent people, including John C. Wright, Josh Young, and myself, who all see comments like that and say “Wait, you’re saying the things I like to read don’t actually exist? But how is that true?”

And it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. Totally besides the point. If people say “I like sci-fi more than fantasy”, or “I prefer hard sci-fi”, who cares? We have bigger fish to fry: The loss of the superversive in fiction*.

Not changing genre distinctions.

*Incidentally, this is the reason I consider myself a part of the superversive fiction movement more than I would identify as a specific part of anything else, like the pulp revolution or blue sci-fi or red sci-fi or whatever. I believe that the issues we are attempting to tackle and correct here transcend the others in scope and importance; bring back superversive fiction, and the rest falls into place like a well-played game of Tetris.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Porco Rosso”

I have heard it said that Miyazaki, as a director, becomes very predictable the more of him you watch.

I haven’t found this to be true at all.

There was a point in “Princess Mononoke” where I actually turned towards my family and said “I honestly have no idea how he’s going to bring this film to a conclusion”. I had no idea what was going to happen next in “Spirited Away”. I certainly didn’t see the dirigible ending coming in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

True, Miyazaki goes back to certain themes and motifs, and he has an obvious and unabashed love for flying – but so what, really? What director doesn’t explore things they’re passionate about? Do we criticize Tolkien because he stuck to fantasy?

And it’s not as if he doesn’t do unique things with his ideas. “Porco Rosso” gives the impression of being lighter or “lesser” Miyazaki, without as much depth or ambition or insight as his very best films, like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. But while “Porco Rosso” isn’t quite as good as either of those films, there’s a lot more going on there than it’s often given credit for.

The movie, of course, is about a fighter pilot named Marco Rossolini (in the American dub) who has been transformed into a pig. One interesting aspect of the film is that we never actually learn why; Miyazaki gives us several potential options and the symbolism is fairly clear, but he leaves it intentionally ambiguous, both for us and for Marco himself.

The dogfights in “Porco Rosso” aren’t as well choreographed as the action scenes in “Castle in the Sky” or the fight scenes in “Princess Mononoke”, but some of the imagery is – as always -still wonderful, and the setting is one of the most visually fascinating of all of Miyazaki’s films, being the first one he made rooted in a real, historical place and time. The detailing on the planes is exquisite; you can feel the care he put into the designs bleed through.

“Porco Rosso” is structured as a comedy, and it is – a good one. The real highlight of the movie is the sparkling dialogue, which shines even through the dub. Marco is a wonderful character, one of Miyazaki’s most entertaining, essentially Humphrey Boggart in pig form. He’s excellent at trading barbs with whoever he happens to be talking to and his facial expressions are priceless.

The mechanic, Fio, and a potential love interest, continues the Miyazaki tradition of creating a character feminists swoon over that they would never actually create themselves. Fio proves herself fit to fly with the big boys, but in precisely the “Wrong” ways. When Marco balks at her being his mechanic, she asks him if it’s because she’s too young or because she’s a woman (“Both excellent reasons”).

Her reaction is brilliant. Instead of yelling at Marco, or getting offended, or getting mad, she shows him her design and begs him to give her a chance, pointing out that he started flying at 17, the same age she happens to be. No anger, no nastiness, and no frustration – and that is why we like her. She wins him over with optimism, ingenuity, and sheer hard work.

Ultimately what elevates the movie from a fun and atmospheric adventure film to something truly great is its brilliant ending. Because for all its lightheardedness and fun, this movie is one thing that no other Miyazaki film is: a tragedy. And you know what? It’s perfect.

SPOILER for the ending coming:

The great irony at the end of the film is that it’s only after Marco finally turns back into a human (so it’s implied, at least) that he commits his very worst act: Abandoning Fio and Gina.

But that’s the thing about Marco. In the end, he’s not so important. Fio and Gina do perfectly well without him. And now when he finally has no excuse, the only person he hurts by leaving is himself.

And that’s why “Porco Rosso” is a great movie. Only a bold, brilliant director would or could have ended “Porco Rosso” like that (just as, conversely, only a bold, brilliant director could have given “Princess Mononoke” a happy ending), and Miyazaki is both. This is just further proof to me that, far from being predictable, Miyazaki could do pretty much anything he wants to and succeed with flying colors. It’s a shame that this one isn’t more famous.

I know this will shock you, but – recommended.

EDIT: An interesting spoiler:

Apparently, going by reviews and various things about “Porco Rosso”, it is implied that Marco actually does get together with Gina – the other love interest of the film, and the one Marco is really in love with – in the end.

I think this still works very well BECAUSE it is only very lightly implied and still left ambiguous. In the end the important thing is that “Porco Rosso” doesn’t end in a straightforward victory for Marco; if it is not a bad ending for him, the possibility of a bad ending needs to be there. That possibility exists, and so it still works well.

Yes Virginia, there is Sci-Fi

Okay, down at the Castalia House blog, there’s something of a brouhaha going down.

One where I’m something of a devil’s advocate.

Before I start this, I want to make clear, as I always do: I have great respect for Jeffro Johnson, Daddy Warpig, and all of the Castalia House people. They’re smart guys who make good arguments. They’ve done a great job making their case and provoking discussion. I agree with them far more often than not.

But I think it’s time I start taking the discussion off-site, and talk about where I DON’T agree.

Let me start off with this:

There is a difference between science fiction and fantasy.

And furthermore, everyone knows it, including DW and Jeffro.

Not only that, seeing this distinction is crucial to their argument. It’s critical. If this distinction does not exist, then the arguments DW and Jeffro are making fall flat on their face immediately. They fail miserably.

Let’s start here:

There’s a sickness in SF, it’s very nearly terminal, and Doctor Warpig is in the house to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure.

Some of you may be in denial: “Science Fiction is NOT a ghetto! It’s not struggling. It’s just as popular as anything else!”

Let’s put it to a test. Take these three books:

The Three Musketeers. Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island.

You’ve probably heard of them. And movies and TV shows based on them. And allusions to them. EVERYBODY has.

Now name some post-Pulp prose SF works of equal or greater stature in popular culture. Spoiler alert: You can’t.

From the Silver Age? Nothing. In the Bronze Age? Nothing. And the Iron Age? Nothing. Then the Clay Age? Nothing. (The Golden Age? Tarzan, Batman, and Conan, for starters.)

Okay, fine. Except…

The Three Musketeers is not sci-fi or fantasy.

Treasure Island is not Sci-fi or fantasy.

Tarzan is not sci-fi or fantasy (if you want to count the later books, maybe, but the Tarzan of popular culture is a character of adventure fiction, not sci-fi or fantasy).

But wait! The genre distinctions are artificial, you say! Indeed, that is exactly the claim used to make the case:

Fantasy & Science Fiction is one genre, separate and indivisible*. Some stories have technology and aliens, others magic and nonhumans, others technology and magic, and so on and so forth.

People who try to disavow 95% of the genre are free to do so. If I need to speak their language to make my point understood, fine. But I don’t have to accept the validity of their mistaken beliefs, or cater to them.

Cool, fine. And yet…

Superhero comics had a huge impact on culture, for reasons I may go into because they bear directly on the discussion (and directly support my thesis). But they’re not SF, even though they too borrow props, scenery, and costumes from SF.

So to be clear here…

“The Three Musketeers”, which features no magic and no speculative science, apparently is applicable to a discussion about fantasy and sci-fi.

“Spider-Man”, a story about somebody bitten by a radioactive spider and as a result having his genetic code altered so as to take on some of said spider’s abilities – that doesn’t count.

Tell me this: If I point out those two books to you and say “Which one of those is fantasy or sci-fi? Which one is an adventure story?”…what is your answer going to be?

Right. We all know what you’re going to answer, right?

And here is the reason the distinction needs to be made:

If the distinction is not made, it is impossible to identify what needs to be fixed.

If sci-fi needs to be fixed, then sci-fi needs to be fixed! Fantasy is selling well, as Harry Potter proves. Adventure fiction seems to be selling well, if we put thrillers in that category. But they’re not sci-fi, which is why we say sci-fi isn’t doing well. We can’t have it both ways.

What we need to do is not eliminate the differences between fantasy and science fiction, or eliminate genre distinctions. The problem is not that, but what Josh Young pointed out – we’ve lost something higher. We’ve lost something bigger, more important.

Is it the fault of the Campbellians? I’m sure at least partially, though I’m suspicious that his influence might be being overrated. Is it the fault of the New Wave guys? Actually, possibly even more so.

But none of that is the point.

The problem isn’t the splitting off of sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is not the loss of blurred genre categorizations.

It is the loss of heroism. It is the loss of love, and philosophy. It is the loss of courage. It is the loss of the transcendant – a loss that can be seen in hard and soft sci-fi, in fantasy and science fantasy.

In short, it is the loss of the superversive.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Ponyo”

Once upon a time there was this movie.

This movie is, still today, considered by most a classic, and by some one of the greatest animated films ever made. It wasn’t the story, which was simple but surprisingly powerful. It wasn’t even the characters, though one of those characters became a sensation in her own right.

No, what made that movie legendary was its stunning view of undersea life, its gorgeously varied lights, textures, and creatures used to create a detailed and beautiful world simply never seen before, and arguably never seen since.

The movie I’m referring to, of course, is “Finding Nemo”, made by the only studio in the world able to consistently rival “Studio Ghibli” at its peak (one day the Pixar retrospective is coming!). “Finding Nemo” was a landmark film in the world of animation, proving that CGI could provide phenomenally beautiful backgrounds and creatures that even traditional animation couldn’t. It was statement movie, proof that CGI was not only cheaper than traditional animation but in the right hands just as beautiful as well.

Okay. Now let’s fast forward six years. Arguably the greatest animator in the world has finally, years after he announced his retirement (again!), come out with his new movie.

His last movie? A supremely imaginative fairy tale known as “Howl’s Moving Castle”, a movie more in line with his films like “Castle in the Sky” and even “Princess Mononoke” than his earlier children’s oriented entertainment.

So the question on everyone’s mind is: What is he going to do next?

Let nobody claim Miyazaki isn’t full of surprises. He stumped the world and turned back the clock to his earlier works for young children and came out with “Ponyo”, the wonderfully weird Miyazaki perspective on “The Little Mermaid”.

The trouble with Miyazaki films – for me, anyway – is that even when I find myself saying “This film is better” or “This film is worse”, I still don’t really have any specific flaws to pick on. Put another way – his execution is generally flawless, or close to it. The differences lie less in how well each particular film happens to be made and more in the ambition of his ideas and certain creative choices. Past that you get down – as my sister did in the “Mononoke” review – to nitpicking.

This very long prelude is all set up for me to say that “Ponyo” is an engaging and creative film. The darkness in “Ponyo” splits the balance between “Totoro” and “Kiki’s”. Unlike in “Kiki’s”, there is definitely an underlying sense of danger to the whole proceedings, but it’s never as real or tragic as Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s sickness in “Totoro”. Sosuke’s father is lost at sea, yes, but we cut to him multiple times, and neither Sosuke nor his mother seem overly worried about him. Later on it gets a little more serious when Sosuke can’t find his mother, and there’s definitely the nagging feeling that the senior center where his mother works is in danger, but in the end Miyazaki deliberately chooses not to focus on the more frightening parts in favor of Ponyo’s childlike whimsy and the pure beauty of his animation.

Oh, and what animation it is! Amazingly, this might be the most gorgeous Miyazaki film I’ve seen so far. The “Finding Nemo” was mentioned because of how interesting the contrast is between Miyazaki’s animation and Stanton and Unkrich’s. The animation in Nemo isn’t quite photorealistic – the fish ultimately look very human in their own way – but it definitely leaned very far in that direction. As a result it felt less like looking at the creation of a new world and more like we were taking a peek into our own backyard, and all of the beauty it contained.

As Nemo used CGI to do something traditional animation simply couldn’t, “Ponyo” used traditional animation in ways I’ve frankly never seen before or since. For Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is a painting, but not a static one. The artistic style isn’t very close to realistic but – interestingly – the people are, giving the impression that regular humans are interacting with an artist’s canvas.

The animation of the water is quite simply some of the best ever. It has to be. There is a scene where Sosuke and his mother outrace a tsunami to their house. Unbeknownst to the mother, the tsunami is not only following them – lead by Ponyo, who is skipping across the top – it is transforming into fantastical underwater creatures, sometimes looking like fish or whales or rays and other times simply forming into a gigantic many-eyed monster. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a sequence CGI just can’t replicate. It’s literally impossible.

The story is actually one of Miyazaki’s more straightforward, weird as it is, and the message of the film feels more typically Disney – the power of love will save the world – than Miyazaki, who tends to have layers of meaning in his films. Sosuke is a fine protagonist and Ponyo is lovable enough, but ultimately I found neither as well drawn or interesting as some of his other heroes, like Pazu and Sheeta, or even Satsuki and Mei. Liam Neeson’s wizard character was fascinating, but I’d have liked to figure out a little more about his and Ponyo’s relationship. We know Ponyo doesn’t really like him but while we get some hints, it’s not fully clear why.

So for those reasons this is probably – again, for certain values of the phrase – my “least favorite” Miyazaki film so far. On the other hand, I’m not willing to go further than probably. The gorgeous animation is so stunning that it alone might pull it up in the ranks. Either way, like all of his work, it’s highly recommended.

The Miyazaki Retrospective: “Princess Mononoke”

Today’s article is a guest post by my sister, Mariel Marchetta. You can find her stories in “God, Robot”, where she was also assistant editor.

As regular readers may have noticed, my brother and regular writer Anthony Marchetta has begun writing a series of reviews as he works his way through the Miyazaki canon. After convincing me to join him and successfully turning me into a Miyazaki fan, he has graciously taken a step back and let me take the floor to pen my thoughts on the next movie on our list, Princess Mononoke.

Having watched Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky before this, the movie in some ways feels very much in line with what I have come to expect from a Miyazaki movie; stunning animation (the best I have seen so far, in fact), an understated but effective romantic arc, an imaginative plot, and of course a message about living in harmony with nature.

The differences are much more striking. Castle in the Sky was an adventure flick, almost Indiana Jones for kids, with goofy pirates and an almost cartoonishly evil villain. Spirited Away was a Japanese Alice in Wonderland.

Princess Mononoke has the titular character drinking the blood of wolves and has more than a few instances of dismemberment in some pretty violent fight scenes. But the scenes don’t feel gratuitous, one of the biggest grievances I have against a lot of adult oriented cartoons in the west. In fact, these scenes rank among the best in the film.

There’s also a certain level of moral ambiguity in Princess Mononoke I haven’t seen so far. Miyazaki is famous for his extreme environmentalism, but there’s much more nuance in the film than it’s given credit for. The most obvious antagonist in the film seems to be Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown. When we are introduced to Eboshi, she is a ruthless and cunning leader who dreams of manufacturing enough guns and weapons to take the forest for herself. She has no regard for the lives of the animals she is killing or the gods of the forest, and in fact was responsible for the demon that cursed Ashitaka in the first place. What makes her compelling is that what she lacks in compassion for the forest, she has in spades for the people of Irontown.

Eboshi buys women from brothels and gives them work to save them from prostitution. She helps lepers who were otherwise shunned from the community. The people of Irontown all follow her, not out of fear, but because they genuinely love and respect her. There was one particularly effective moment when San, after breaking into Irontown to kill Eboshi, comes face to face with both her and two women armed with guns. Eboshi calmly tells her that she can try and kill her–but she’ll have to face two women whose husbands were killed by the wolves that raised San. The idea is clear: Eboshi has a point. The forest spirits are no saints. And, in what was one of my favorite parts of the movie, Eboshi actually sees the error of her ways and promises at the end to ‘build a better town.’ The message of the movie doesn’t demonize the humans or the spirits, but rather tries to find a middle ground that has the optimistic message that humans and spirits can learn to coexist–and that even power hungry Eboshi can learn to do better. Despite all of the violence, it seems that Miyazaki just can’t help that streak of superversiveness that seems to be present in all his films.

I mentioned the imaginative plot before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t think Miyazaki could get more creative than he did with Spirited Away. But between talking forest spirits, a protagonist cursed with a demon mark that imbues him with powers, and a girl raised by wolves that fight to protect the forest spirit from the humans, this has to be one of the most ambitious concepts I has ever seen in an animated film, if not the most ambitious.

However, its high concept also makes it that much harder to execute, and while Miyazaki is definitely successful for the most part, Princess Mononoke had some noticeable flaws, mostly centered among the townspeople. The characters of the town are used often as comic relief, but poorly; between the dim witted henpecked husband and the group of feisty flirtatious women, it all felt a little too goofy. This might have been somewhat intentional on Miyazaki’s part, to show the differences between them and Ashitaka’s people–a serious people who lived in harmony with nature, as compared to the bumbling, loud people of Irontown–but if it was it fell flat. This is all a pretty minor gripe once the main conflict really picks up though, and certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie all that much.

So would I rank this as the best I’ve seen so far? Compared to Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, two films that I honestly think were flawless, this would actually probably rank as the worst. But that’s a difference of one or two small flaws compared to none, so that’s definitely not an insult by any means. And if Princess Mononoke lags behind the other two in execution, that’s only because the incredibly ambitious concept would have completely fallen apart in all but the most capable director’s hands. In that sense, it may not have been my favorite to watch, but it’s definitely the one I’m most impressed by. So if you’re looking for a movie with incredible visuals, and an epic, compelling story (not to mention giant wolves and boar demons), you should definitely pick this one up.

Anthony’s Notes:

While I do agree with the gist of my sister’s review, I do disagree that it is the worst of the films so far. “Castle in the Sky” was an excellent movie that executed what it was trying to do just about flawlessly, but ultimately it was a very straightforward adventure movie, not too far off of “Indiana Jones”. “Princess Mononoke”, in contrast, was a vast and sweeping epic; as my sister pointed out, there were flaws (and I agree with them), but the successes outweighed them by so much they’re barely worth mentioning.

My sister hasn’t yet seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighbor Totoro”. In some ways it’s not fair to compare, as those movies are trying to do vastly different things. At the same time, it seems only right to take ambition into account, and “Princess Mononoke” is incredibly ambitious. I would – as I generally do – go farther than my sister here and say that “Princess Mononoke” is one of the great epics ever made. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

CASTALIA Review: “Stardust”, by Neil Gaiman

Stardust by [Gaiman, Neil]Neil Gaiman is a guy who I’ve noticed gets a lot of flak around these parts. It is true he has SJW tendencies, but then, most authors do. And he IS immensely popular.

Mostly – and I am going by anecdote here – it seems that people believe that he (along with Ursula Le Guin) is somewhat emblematic of post 1970’s fantasy and science fiction: He is a good pure storyteller but with little depth (like “A Study in Emerald”, a fun and clever Lovecraft/Holmes pastiche that has little to distinguish itself besides its cool premise) even though people act as if he’s wiser  than he deserves credit for.

He is also known for lapsing into stupid SJW propaganda, such as the notoriously terrible story “The Problem of Susan”.  So that gets him a lot of flak from these parts as well.

Still, something about him seems to capture people. I decided I simply needed to find the right book, and picked “Stardust” (the novel version, though I’ll purchase the comic/picture book version soon if I can.

“Stardust” is an excellent book that showcases all of Neil Gaiman’s strengths but also highlights some of his flaws. It is a fairly straightforward story about a half-fairy young man who goes to fetch a shooting star for his beloved in Faerie and ends up falling in love with the star, who turns out to be a beautiful woman named Yvaine. Along the way they are harassed by evil witches who wish to steal Yvaine’s heart and use it to regain their youth. Occurring concurrently is a subplot about the sons of the current, dying king of the kingdom of Stormhold struggling with each other for control of the throne.

The story is very straightforward, which is to its credit. Gaiman set out to write a fairy tale for adults, and that’s exactly what he did. Some sections are simply wonderful, like this bit of dialogue early in the story:

“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.” He shivered. His coat was thin, and it was obvious he would not get his kiss, which he found puzzling. The manly heroes of the penny dreadfuls and shilling novels never had these problems getting kissed.

“Go on, then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.” “What?” said Tristran. “If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do?

Tristran Thorn went down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers. “Very well,” he said. The wind blew from the east, then. “I shall leave you here, my lady,” said Tristran Thorn. “For I have urgent business, to the East.” He stood up, unmindful of the mud and mire clinging to his knees and coat, and he bowed to her, and then he doffed his bowler hat.

Or this:

“He stared up at the stars: and it seemed to him then that they were dancers, stately and graceful, performing a dance almost infinite in its complexity. He imagined he could see the very faces of the stars; pale, they were, and smiling gently, as if they had spent so much time above the world, watching the scrambling and the joy and the pain of the people below them, that they could not help being amused every time another little human believed itself the center of its world, as each of us does.”

That is grade A, classic fairy tale stuff right there. That is exactly what you want and should see in a fairy tale.

The witches, his villains, are also excellent. They are something of a hybrid between the new trend of the seductress witch and the classic crone variety, stealing back they’re youth by capturing hearts – and, we learn, the heart of a star is especially potent. Gaiman ends their story with neat little lesson about how pathetic evil is before we lose sight of them for the last time.

The way my book was written it had a preview of Gaiman’s next book BEFORE the epilogue, so I had stopped reading. I only learned there was an epilogue after I looked up the book online, so I went back and read it later. It provides closure to the story and ends on a mostly positive but bittersweet note just a little bit reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a nice little coda.

Gaiman explicitly says that the book was meant as a throwback novel reminiscent of Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, and James Cabell, which is all to the good, and he is mostly successful in his attempts to conjure that sort of mood.

The problem – and this gets at, I think, why the old-fashioned Castalia crowd tends to dislike him – is the “adult” part of the adult fairy tale. The truth is that the things that supposedly made it more adult added absolutely nothing to the story. There is a graphic sex scene at the beginning of the novel where we see the conception of our hero, Tristran:

She wriggled and writhed beneath him, gasping and kicking, and guiding him with her hand.

She placed a hundred burning kisses on his face and chest and then she was above him, straddling him, gasping and laughing, and he was arching and pushing and exulting…

There is more, but I trust you get the idea.

And no, it did not have to be there. Contrast that scene with this scene from Josh Young’s story “The Secret History of the World gone By”from “Forbidden Thoughts”:

He was gratified, then, to see a pair of dainty breasts topped by dark nipples and that the dark thatch of hair between her legs lacked the equipment with which he was most familiar.

Anders was in the spring of his manhood, and so it went as such things go.

So why was Gaiman’s scene there? Well, it’s Adult, and you know how the Adults like all of the Sexing! Isn’t he so Adult?

Later, a unicorn is killed and then decapitated in a manner described as gorily and graphically as possible. After Yvaine falls to the earth, she drops the only serious curse word of the book, an F bomb so out of place for both the novel and the character (who never comes even close to cursing again) as anything one can possibly imagine. Again, there is no reason for this; all it does is jack up the rating from PG to R.

So why did Gaiman do it? Why was it important to him to add these sections specifically to create an “adult” fairy tale, and why did his concept of “adult” depend on the additions of sex, gore, and curse words, three things that even the great J.R.R. Tolkien had no use for? I think the answer is interesting, and gets to the heart of the bad taste Gaiman leaves in a lot of the Castalia folks’ mouths: Gaiman is ashamed of fairy tales.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by [Gaiman, Neil]These sounds odd, and even somewhat counter to some of Gaiman’s quotes, so I’ll try and make my case.  In the book’s afterword, written by Gaiman, he describes a time where he had to make a speech at a symposium of academics discussing myth and fantasy. The day before the speech, listening to the conversations, he got angrier and angrier, believing they did not understand the power of fairy tales. The next day, he tells a story to convince them of their power – a story with a twist:

It was a retelling of the story of Snow White, from the point of view of the wicked queen. It asked questions like, “What kind of a prince comes across the dead body of a girl in a glass coffin and announces that he is in love and will be taking the body back to his castle?” and for that matter, “What kind of a girl has skin as white as snow, hair as black as coal, lips as red as blood, and can lie, as if dead, for a long time?” We realize, listening to the story, that the wicked queen was not wicked: she simply did not go far enough; and we also realize, as the queen is imprisoned inside a kiln, about to be roasted for the midwinter feast, that stories are told by survivors.

Do you see the issue? The power Neil Gaiman sees is not in Snow White. He claims it is Snow White, but it isn’t, because Snow White is about something utterly different, teaches a different lesson, has a different hero and villain.

This isn’t the only time he’s done this. See here as well:

Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty in this fairytale mash-up where things are not what they seem. When three dwarfs learn of a sleeping plague spreading throughout the land, they alert their queen. The queen, already feeling that marriage means the end of her ability to make choices in her life, gladly postpones her wedding, grabs her sword, and sets off with the dwarfs to get to the bottom of the magical curse.

This is not somebody with a respect for fairy tales as is, but with an idea for ways to turn them into something they’re not – something that is the opposite of what they should be.

I reject that, and I believe we all should as well.