Stepping out of the Shadow: Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea

[My blog this year ends as it began, with anime. This essay was first published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 37, no. 103 (Summer 2008), pp. 53-72. It was written in a white heat, as soon as the film came out in the UK. Ursula Le Guin didn’t like either the movie or my discussion of it, though she enjoyed the other essay I published in Foundation. Her dislike of the film was shared by many, but I still think it’s an honest movie with a fascinating relationship to its source material, both in Le Guin’s great story cycle and in anime.]

Tales from Earthsea was forged in a spirit of contention.[1]  Goro Miyazaki’s famous father Hayao made it clear that he did not want his son to direct it.[2]  Ursula K. Le Guin, on whose Earthsea books the film is based, expressed her disappointment with it on her website.[3]  And Japanese filmgoers – who made it the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2006 – found themselves fiercely divided as to its merits.[4]  Disagreement dogged the project from inception to release; and much of this disagreement seems to have sprung from the decision of Toshio Suzuki, president and chief producer of Studio Ghibli, to name Goro as its director, despite his total lack of experience or training in the art of film-making.

Miyazaki Goro

The film anticipates these divisions from its opening sequence.  The captain of a ship labouring in heavy seas appeals for help to his weatherworker, one of those trained wizards of Le Guin’s Earthsea whose power consists in learning the ‘true names’ of things and thus gaining a degree of control over them.  But the weatherworker’s powers desert him and he cannot calm the waves.  We are in a world where age-old certainties have crumbled and been replaced with an inner turmoil that keeps breaking out in bloodshed.  Soon afterwards, a pair of dragons fight to the death in territory not their own (they have flown farther East than ever before in living memory – a detail picked up from the third and fifth books of Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence).[5]  And in the following scene a boy kills his royal father for no reason.  Toppling to the palace floor, the dying king calls out his son’s name, Arren, as he dies.  Generation is at war with generation, and the only communication between them is a name thrown into the dark after the retreating footsteps of a teenage assassin: a name unattached to any visible body, as if to symbolize the predicament of Earthsea, where names have begun to lose their meanings.

The murder

For readers of Le Guin – and Le Guin herself – this unmotivated murder seems to be the most disturbing aspect of the film.  This is partly because it has no equivalent in the books (in The Farthest Shore Prince Arren leaves home with his father’s blessing);[6] and partly because we are never given the comfort of an explanation for it.  Our hope for an explanation reaches its height much later in the movie, when Arren discusses the murder with a girl called Therru.  Given that Therru’s parents abused and tried to kill her – a violent past she carries about with her in the visible form of a burn-mark across her face – she naturally assumes that the prince’s deed was an act of revenge for similar abuse.  But no: his father, Arren tells her, was a ‘great man’, whose qualities made the youngster feel inadequate (though he never claims that this is why he stabbed him).  Dissatisfied with this half-hearted effort to supply the prince with motivation, the audience casts about for a better way of accounting for the killing.  By the end of the film, for instance, we might assume the king’s assassination to be one more sign of the universal malaise brought to Earthsea by the deadly magic of the corrupt witch/wizard Kumo or Cob.  But Arren himself never seeks refuge from responsibility by claiming any such thing, and at the end of the film he sets off on the journey home to Enlad to face the consequences of what he has done: consequences we can only assume to be dire ones.  Debates about the film’s quality (as against the identity of its director) tend to centre on the question of why Goro Miyazaki chose to introduce the startling new element of parricide into Le Guin’s series, and on the extent to which viewers find themselves satisfied by any possible answers to this question.

Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin was clearly not satisfied by any explanation on offer.  For her, the excitement of the film was ‘maintained by violence, to a degree that I find to be deeply untrue to the spirit of the books’; and this reliance on violence to stimulate the audience’s attention is a widespread phenomenon in modern fantasy, ‘literary or governmental’, which offers ‘killing people’ as a solution to the ‘so-called war between good and evil’.[7]  She regrets that the reason for Arren’s initial act of violence is so belatedly and so tersely given, and concludes that ‘the darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword’, while lamenting the fact that in the film ‘evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems’.  Interestingly, her objections to the movie are couched in terms of a malaise in the ‘real’ world not unlike the kind that pervades Goro Miyazaki’s Earthsea: a malaise in this case sustained by the propagandistic simplifications of the War on Terror, which is represented as a ‘war between good and evil’ where evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’ – Saddam or Osama – and ‘killed’ with every pseudo-magic weapon at the disposal of the Good Guys.[8]

Cob and Therru

Le Guin’s objections are understandable, but do the film less than justice.  For one thing, the level of violence it contains is no higher than that found in the Earthsea books.  Every violent act in the film has its equivalent in Le Guin’s series, with the sole exception of the killing of Arren’s father.[9]  In addition, the film-makers eschew simplicity as strenuously as she does, and seem to view physical assault with equal distaste.  The wizard Kumo/Cob is precisely not killed with a blow of Arren’s magic sword.  His identity as an arch self-deceiver is merely made manifest by the blow, as he loses his wizard’s staff and with it his ability to sustain his youthful appearance; but his strength remains undiminished by the loss.  Indeed, one might question whether Cob is actually ‘killed’ at all.  As he staggers towards the dragon Therru/Tehanu in his final moments, he clearly sees her as possessed of the eternal life he craves, since she has just revived from apparent death by strangulation.  He begs her to bestow that life on him, and she gives it him in a puff of breath.  But a dragon’s breath is made of fire; so he is destroyed by what he asked for.  The implication is that it’s his craving for an artificial extension of his earthly existence that kills him, rather than an act of violence on his enemies’ part.  And his death precisely does not ‘solve all problems’.  Arren must still return to Enlad to face trial for murder.  And before this happens, as the last few wordless scenes of the film remind us, the ploughing of a field must be completed and it must be sown with seed, or there will be no harvest.

Le Guin’s view of the film has some intriguing affinities with Goro’s account of his own early response to the Earthsea books.  He first came across them, he tells us in his blog, as a High School student in the early 80s, when he found himself identifying enthusiastically with the ambitious young wizard Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), quite against the grain of the book’s insistence that Ged is a surly teenager who is himself responsible for calling up the Shadow he must confront at the climax of the narrative.[10]  Re-reading the book in his late thirties, Goro tells us, he found his sympathies changed.  Now he identified not with Ged but with the older generation, those patient sages who are always telling the boy to have patience, to do only what he must, to learn thoroughly the way things work before seeking to control them.  In other words, in the process of revisiting the Earthsea books Goro’s own mind became a site of generational conflict, where his younger self as reader existed in radical opposition to the readings of his older self.  And Goro went on to make his film the site of a similar conflict, capable both of being read as Le Guin reads it and mined for a subtler reading.

Young Prince Arren behaves at several points in the movie as if he were just the sort of brainless sword-wielding hero Le Guin takes him to be.  With reckless abandon he attacks a band of slavers who are about to rape Therru, declaring as he does so that ‘life is nothing to me’ – a position traditional romances might well acclaim in their protagonists.  Later, he thrusts himself in front of the farmer Tenar when she is confronted by the same thugs, attempting no doubt to shield her from harm as (male) heroes are always expected to shield women on such occasions.  Later still, he overcomes the thugs a third and final time before striking off Cob’s hand with a blow of his father’s sword – an action which in a conventional epic would signal the transference of patriarchal power from one generation to the next.  But the briefest reappraisal of these incidents demonstrates their undercutting of the tradition of patriarchal romance they invoke.  Having been rescued, Therru contemptuously dismisses Arren as a boy with a dangerous disregard for what she holds most precious: life and all its complex processes.  Tenar responds to Arren’s effort to shield her by thrusting herself in front of him: it is not for him, she implies, to decide whose life is worth saving and whose worth casting away.  And the climactic confrontation between Arren and Cob rapidly transforms itself into a confrontation between Therru and Cob, as Therru, like Tenar, interposes herself between the warring males.  While allowing Arren to go through the motions of heroism, Goro never permits his audience to relax with the notion of Arren as hero; and his chief means of ensuring that they never do so is to cast over him the shadow of his father’s death.

Arren’s mask

This shadow takes the form of a grotesque ‘mask’ of aggression that distorts the boy’s face at key moments in the narrative; an expression of gleeful malevolence as disturbing as it is unexpected.  This mask first appears when he attacks the thugs who attacked Therru, and its appearance reminds us that he is capable of atrocities quite as appalling as anything done by the slavers.  After all, he has killed the king.  The menace of Arren’s facial expression is driven home when the chief of the thugs threatens to cut the girl’s throat if the prince approaches: Arren tells him to go ahead, and his contempt for the girl’s life as well as his own terrifies the gang into beating a retreat, aware that they have lost their only bargaining chip against him – the assumption that he is more humane than they are.  Later, the expression returns to the boy’s face in the sequence where he assaults a second father-figure, Sparrowhawk (Haitaka), with a sword he has borrowed from a third, Cob.  Here it is clearly linked with the problematic patriarchal heritage he has grown up in, where a son’s independence must show itself through violence, and where the logical target of that violence is the father who stands in the way of his child’s development.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the mask is absent when Arren engages in his final act of violence: the attack on Cob in defence of Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  After all, this time it was Therru who urged him to fight.  But it’s also hardly surprising if his violence should prove ineffectual.  By this stage in the narrative, assaults on father-figures have been shown to have nothing heroic about them, as each one in succession awakens echoes of that first, shocking act of parricide.  The last step in Arren’s redemption must not replicate the crime that put him in need of redemption in the first place.  Violence is Cob’s tool, and cannot logically be used to destroy what the wizard stands for.     

Horus, Prince of the Sun/Little Norse Prince

The young prince could be said, then, to represent a memory of the traditional hero; the remains of a simple form of narrative that concerns itself with what Le Guin calls ‘the so-called war between good and evil’, and that has been rendered obsolete by the sophisticated appropriation of its terms by unscrupulous politicians.  His status as a memory is confirmed by the style of the character drawing in Tales from Earthsea.  Le Guin felt that ‘the animation of this quickly made film… does not have the delicate accuracy of Totoro or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of Spirited Away’.[11]  But Goro’s rejection of ‘delicate accuracy’ and ‘richness of detail’ is no accident.  It stems from a stylistic decision he took in consultation with the animators: a decision to emulate the techniques of Japanese animation from before Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, as Goro explains in detail in his blog.[12]  The film’s characters have the stocky simplicity – most notably in the rendering of the legs and feet – of Goro’s favourite animé, The Little Norse Prince of 1968, directed by his father’s friend and collaborator Isao Takahata.[13]  It is as if the new director is announcing a return to first principles not unlike that advocated by the Victorian pre-Raphaelites, or the Modernists of the early twentieth century.[14]  To find a style of his own he must wind the clock back to Takahata’s first full-length feature, which was also the first animated movie to be made in Japan, and the first of many projects on which Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki worked together.  In The Little Norse Prince, as in Tales from Earthsea, humanity is threatened by a powerful demon-magician, whose spells disrupt the order of the seasons just as Cob’s interrupt the ploughing and sowing of the fields of Goro’s Earthsea.[15]  Scenes from the old film are echoed in the new: notably Arren’s encounter with ravenous wolf-like beasts, which recalls the Norse Prince’s running battles with the demon’s ‘grey wolves’ and has no equivalent in Le Guin’s series.  The affectionate relationship between humans and animals elsewhere in Goro’s film recalls the central role played by animal companions in Takahata’s; Goro’s investment of Cob with the power of flight might remind his viewers of the disconcerting aerial mobility of Takahata’s demon; and the dream-sequences in Goro’s film echo the expressionistic visionary scenes with which Takahata punctuates his narrative.  Arren himself is an older version of Horus/Hols, the young hero of The Little Norse Prince, with the same shock of black hair and perpetual frown.

The magic sword

Above all, the importance of Arren’s sword in Tales from Earthsea derives from Takahata’s narrative, not Le Guin’s.  Prince Horus/Hols pulls an old damaged sword from the shoulder of a giant, and spends most of the movie trying to find a way to re-forge it; and he only succeeds when the whole community of Northmen collaborates in its forging.  In Goro’s film, the wizard Sparrowhawk reminds Arren that his name means ‘Sword’, and the boy always carries his father’s sword with him (as indeed he does in The Farthest Shore).[16]  But the weapon was not handed to Goro’s Arren in a symbolic gesture of legitimate succession.  Instead we watch him snatch it from the dying king after he has stabbed him, and for most of the film he is unable to draw it from its scabbard.  At a moment of crisis in Cob’s castle, Therru urges him to unsheathe it in order to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar, who are about to be executed by Cob.  Arren responds with the hackneyed view that he is ‘not worthy’ to wield his father’s weapon, a sentiment Therru dismisses as the irrelevance it is, while she weeps over the scabbard in frustration at the prince’s self-imposed impotence.  Then abruptly she announces that she knows the boy’s ‘true name’: the name all inhabitants of Earthsea must keep secret from any but their most trusted friend, since knowledge of it puts them at the mercy of the knower.[17]  By speaking it, she releases him from his obsession with the stolen blade.  His real identity is not Arren, meaning sword, but Lebannen, a word that refers only to himself.  So it is fitting, once again, that the moment when he succeeds in drawing the weapon during the final confrontation with Cob should prove less than decisive in the struggle against the wizard; much less decisive than the fact that Therru is with him in that confrontation.  Arren and Therru combine to overcome the wizard, and as in The Little Norse Prince, by this stage the sword has come to symbolize not the handing down of paternal power but the coming together of people who were once divided.  It was Therru’s tear falling on the scabbard, we might imagine, that loosened it in its sheath and made it functional; and it is Therru’s passion for life that finishes the demolition of Cob which the sword began.

Dragons in the east

But the choice of a pre-Ghibli style for this movie may have another rationale besides a wish to pay homage to The Little Norse Prince.  The project of bringing Le Guin’s Earthsea books to the screen had been cherished by Goro’s father, Hayao, since before the studio’s foundation; in fact, since before he directed his second feature, Nausicaa (1984), whose success enabled him to launch the Ghibli studios.[18]  One can see what appealed to Hayao about the books.  The notion of the young wizard who spends his time, in the first book, struggling against his own shadowy alter-ego instead of an external enemy, could only delight a director who has consistently worked against the notion that evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’.  As early as Nausicaa, Hayao refused to demonize the giant bugs of the poisoned forest that threatens the survival of mankind; instead he traced the source of the forest’s threat to toxins unleashed by humans themselves.  And after Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986) there ceased to be any outright villains at all in Hayao’s films.  Again: the ‘balance’ that must be observed by wizards in the Earthsea books would appeal to a director whose ecological convictions form only part of a larger philosophy of maintaining social and psychological equilibrium among the inhabitants of a fragile environment (think of the urgent struggle, in Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke (1997), to find a modus vivendi between humans and the forest they fear but also need).  Again: the opportunities for representing flight offered by the Earthsea books would no doubt have enthused a director who is celebrated for the aerial sequences in his films.  From the hawks into which Sparrowhawk transforms himself in the first volume to the dragon that carries Sparrowhawk and Arren to Roke in the third, flying stands for a kind of freedom in the works of Le Guin, as it does in Hayao’s movies.  Even the fierce attack on the values of capitalism in The Farthest Shore perfectly matches Hayao’s political convictions, as does Le Guin’s respect for the worth of ordinary domestic and agricultural labour and her consistent opposition to violence.  The self-consciously old-fashioned style of Goro’s film pays indirect homage to the film Hayao might have made in the early 1980s, if he could have got the rights to what was then the Earthsea trilogy.

But Goro’s film could never have been anything like that unmade film of the 1980s; because by the time he took his seat in the director’s chair a lot more had happened to the Earthsea series than a change of perspective in Goro himself.  Three more Earthsea books had appeared in print, two of which (Tehanu  (1990) and The Other Wind (2002)) took up the story of Sparrowhawk and Arren where it left off at the end of The Farthest Shore (1973), while radically rewriting Earthsea.  In Tehanu Le Guin unleashed the full force of her anger on the patriarchy that she herself had permitted to take control of her imagined archipelago.  The first three books gave male wizards an absolute monopoly over ‘serious’ magic, relegating only petty forms of conjuring to the despised female witches.[19]  And women played only a peripheral role in the plots of the first and third novels; while even the heroine of the second, Tenar, only plays Ariadne to Sparrowhawk’s Theseus (or so some readers have assumed).  Furthermore, in addition to confronting Le Guin’s own imaginative injustices, Tehanu introduced the concept that human beings and dragons were once the same species, and that the great divorce between them occurred at a time when men and women chose to devote themselves to possessions – lands, knowledge, things that could be passed from one generation to another – while dragons grew wedded to wildness and freedom.[20]  The divorce between humans and dragons resembles the divorce between men’s and women’s social roles in a patriarchal culture: and Tehanu and the books that follow hold out hope that this divorce, like that between humans and dragons, may undergo some sort of metamorphosis – though nothing so glib as an undoing.  In the years, then, when Goro was changing as a reader of the first three Earthsea books, Le Guin was changing as a writer; so that nothing about the project of filming Earthsea could remain altogether faithful to his father’s vision.

Therru at sunset (1)

In 2006, even a film based on the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, could hardly remain untouched by the backward-reaching shadow of the books that follow it.  Women could no longer remain peripheral, and Le Guin’s discoveries about dragons could scarcely be ignored.  The violence Goro does to the plots of the Earthsea sequence no more than matches the violence done by the sequence to itself.  How, for instance, could Sparrowhawk remain the saviour of Earthsea, as he was in that third novel, in a world where the traditional notion of male heroism has been so totally supplanted by the quieter heroism of women as it is in Tehanu?  Goro’s response to this problem is to bring a character from Tehanu – Tehanu herself, whose use-name is Therru – back in time to the events of The Farthest Shore, and to make her the same age as Arren in the earlier novel.  This enables Therru to confront and undermine Arren’s individualistic, violence-fuelled notion of his own heroism at each stage of the narrative, refusing ever to let him succumb to the narcissistic self-infatuation that drives Cob.

Therru and Tenar

But this is only one of many unsettling changes Goro makes to the chronology and geography of Earthsea.  Another is his transference of Tenar’s farm from Gont, the most frequently revisited of the islands of Earthsea in the novels, to Wathort, which Le Guin’s readers visit only in The Farthest Shore and whose inhabitants traffic in human flesh.  The effect of this is to destabilize Earthsea – to pluck it from the rock on which it was founded.  Gont is the place in which Le Guin’s sequence has its deepest roots, as she shows in her short story ‘The Bones of the Earth’, where an elderly wizard plunges into the ground to soothe the quaking roots of Gont Mountain.[21]  Le Guin set Tehanu on Gont because Gont was where the Earthsea stories began, and it was there that the mighty work of re-imagining that world must also start.  By shifting Tenar’s farm to Wathort, Goro sets it at the epicentre of Cob’s bid to unbalance Earthsea; and in the process he unsettles Le Guin’s universe, which is one of the things that unsettles lovers of her books as they watch the film.

Arren at the fountain

The third change Goro has made is to conflate the first and third books of Le Guin’s sequence so that the shadow that pursues Sparrowhawk in the first novel becomes the shadow of Prince Arren, Sparrowhawk’s companion in the third.  Goro’s shadow springs directly from Arren’s state of mind after he has murdered his father.  It first manifests itself as a sense of dread that seizes the prince on the night when he first meets Sparrowhawk.  The dread intensifies in Hort Town, when the boy sees a fountain take on the appearance of the dead king; and reaches its climax in a nightmare he suffers at the farm of Tenar, where Sparrowhawk turns into Arren’s father, then into a monstrous tar-covered replica of Arren himself.  On waking the boy decides to leave the farm, convinced that if he stays he will be visited once again by the rage that made him a parricide; and shortly afterwards he meets the doppelganger from his nightmare and flees from it in terror, certain of its malevolence.  The doppelganger’s eyes are hidden, much like those of Therru, who often conceals her eyes behind a protective fringe of hair; and Arren’s terror of it makes us anticipate something terrible if ever they should be revealed.  But when the shadow does push aside its fringe – at the point when it stoops over the boy’s body, after he has fled into a swamp and half drowned himself in an effort to escape – it reveals the large, vulnerable child’s eyes that are ubiquitous in early anime.  And when it speaks to Therru at the gate of Cob’s castle, the air of malevolence that formerly surrounded it dispels at once.  With gentle courtesy it explains its nature to her, identifying itself not with the rage that drove Arren to murder, but with the princely qualities he flung aside when he fled his father’s court.  Arren himself, in fact, is the shadow – as the dark clothes he wears throughout the film should tell us – while the brightly-clothed doppelganger from his dreams represents the bright possibilities he rejected.  And his double is alive in a way that Arren is not.  After speaking to Therru at the castle gate it embraces her like a lover and whispers Arren’s true name in her ear, before melting away as her face turns crimson with blushes.  At this stage in the film, it can approach Therru with a confidence and openness the prince can only dream of; but it also gives her the ammunition she needs (Arren’s true name) to free him from his self-made prison and recall him to full participation in the business of living.

Arren’s nightmare

The role of the doppelganger in the movie, then, is quite different from that of the shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea.  In the book, the creature is a non-being summoned by the adolescent Sparrowhawk from the land of the dead, in an arrogant and self-destructive gesture, as a demonstration of his skill in working magic.  It has a ‘blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes’, and it stands both for an ‘ancient darkness’ that seeks to engulf the wizard, and for the young man’s own worst aspect: his self-segregation from the community of Earthsea, his immaturity as a social animal.[22]  Sparrowhawk can only defeat it when he accepts help from someone else – his best friend Vetch; after which he can embrace the shadow like another friend, hugging it to him in dreadful intimacy and whispering its true name (his own) in its ear as he does so.  Goro’s shadow is not Le Guin’s, but it is just as carefully conceived.  His Arren has rejected the role that made him part of society, his role as a prince; and by rejecting that role he has rejected life of any kind, as he showed when he stabbed his father.  It is fitting, then, that his shadow should be a lively, colourful one, capable of bringing colour to Therru’s face.  And it is fitting, too, that Arren’s return to life should involve Therru as a mediator between his living self (the doppelganger) and its fearful, violent, self-segregating twin – the boy whose adventures we have followed throughout the film.

This change is in any case imposed on Goro by the backward-reaching shadow of Tehanu, which questions the terms on which Sparrowhawk pursues and defeats his shadow-self in A Wizard of Earthsea.  One of the steps Sparrowhawk takes towards his victory in the earlier novel is when he becomes sensitized to the beauty of a young farm-girl, Yarrow, whom he meets just before his climactic confrontation with ‘ancient darkness’.[23]  The implication is that he at last recognizes himself to be  part of a community – no isolated island, but an element in the interconnected archipelago of humanity – and so can permit himself to be emotionally drawn to a fellow human being for the first time in his life.  But in A Wizard of Earthsea this understanding can never bear fruit in a fully-fledged partnership, because Sparrowhawk is a wizard, and wizards, like priests, are celibate.  Only in Tehanu, after Sparrowhawk has lost his wizardly status, is he permitted to take a sexual partner – Tenar; and in the process the lost balance between the genders in Earthsea begins to be restored.  Therru in Goro’s film is in one sense another Yarrow, and Arren a Sparrowhawk who has the potential to form a permanent bond with the girl he loves, as Sparrowhawk could not.

Therru at sunset (2)

But Therru is more than Yarrow.  At the beginning of the movie, the old wizard Root reminds the King of Enlad that humans and dragons were once a single species; a fact that does not figure in the first three books of the Earthsea sequence.  And Goro’s Therru is closely linked with dragons.  Soon after the prince has rescued her from the slavers he falls asleep and dreams that a dragon is approaching from the sky.   We learn later that this is an aspect of Therru herself, who is a throwback to an earlier phase in the world’s history, a being as much dragon as girl.  Her dragon nature betrays itself in her temperament.  Goro’s dragons crackle with fire as if on the verge of disintegrating under its force, flecks of flame spilling from their mouths while their bodies undulate in the serpentine motions familiar from the river-dragon sequences in Spirited Away.  Therru too is fiery: her angry response, first to Arren’s rescue of her and later to his intrusion on her privacy at Tenar’s farm (‘Why are you here?’ she snaps, ‘to hurt me?’) is an apt emotional counterpart to the physical form she is capable of assuming.  And she makes, too, a perfect foil to the often sullen Arren, whose intervals of passivity (he passes out several times in the movie, and grows tired when he walks long distances or works on the farm) identify him as her opposite, as limp and frail as she is energetic.  Arren is in fact Therru’s shadow, so that the reunion of shadow and substance that occurs at the end, when he rides to safety from Cob’s collapsing castle cradled on the forearms of her dragon-self, represents the righting of an imbalance that has been obvious from the moment the youngsters met.

Arren and Sparrowhawk

Once Therru has been recognized as Arren’s inverted double, it soon becomes apparent that the film’s narrative is structured around a series of doubles or opposites.  Tenar is Sparrowhawk’s opposite, her blond hair and blue eyes identifying her as of a different ethnic group from the rest of the dark-haired, dark-skinned inhabitants of Earthsea – as she is in the books.  Her stability, cultivating the farm, contrasts with Sparrowhawk’s flightiness, associated throughout the film with the hawk from which he gets his use-name, and which appears in his company whenever he enters the narrative.  This flightiness manifests itself most amusingly when the Archmage gallops off in the middle of ploughing a field to fetch Arren’s sword from Hort Town; a mission Tenar rightly sees as having little point to it.  The Archmage, meanwhile, is the inverted double of Arren’s father.  His paternal relationship to the prince is driven home repeatedly, as he blends with the murdered king in Arren’s dreams, instructs the boy in a fatherly way about the ‘Balance’ on which Earthsea depends, rides to rescue him when he is in danger, and becomes the target of the boy’s aggression in Cob’s castle.  But he differs from Arren’s father in his sense of responsibility for his young protégé; a sense that tells him that he ought to stay close to the boy, even though (as his flightiness dictates) he is always leaving him.  On one occasion when he leaves Arren by himself in Hort Town, where he is captured by slavers, Sparrowhawk first rescues the boy, then apologizes for having put him in a position where he needed rescuing.  In contrast to this, Goro is careful to place Arren at an insurmountable distance from his father at the beginning of the film.  We see the King of Enlad marching through his palace surrounded by nobles and advisers, his attention fixed on affairs of state, while two women vainly seek to catch his attention.  When at last one of his advisers is persuaded to listen, the women tell him that the prince is missing.  At this point, Goro gives us a fleeting glimpse of a strong character who never appears in the books: Prince Arren’s mother.  The queen tells the women that the king is too busy to be troubled with the matter of his son’s disappearance, and that Arren is in any case of age to look after himself.  The royal family at the film’s opening, then, has no warmth at all, no mutual interest, no coherence; and it is this incoherence that presumably, by some dreadful logic, drives Arren to murder.    

Arren’s mother, like his father, has a double in the film.  The queen’s inverted double is Tenar, who gives up her bed to the sick boy after his rescue from the slavers, invites him to join her in her farm-work, and compliments him on his unexpected aptitude as a labourer.  Like the mother, she acknowledges Arren’s manhood (how good it is to have men about the place, she says, to help in the fields); but she does so by including him in her affairs, not by barring him from adult company.  And at moments of crisis – as when Cob’s henchmen burst in through the gates – she shows a protectiveness which Arren’s mother haughtily rejects.

Sparrowhawk and Tenar

In fact, the dysfunctional royal family as a whole has an inverted double in the awkward family group that begins to form at Tenar’s homestead.  This is a family of four, unrelated by blood or marriage, whose focus is the supper table.  After the arrival of Sparrowhawk and Arren at the farm, this table is a place of enforced and unwelcome proximity, where the youngsters Arren and Therru radiate mutual hostility while the substitute ‘parents’ Tenar and Sparrowhawk exchange uneasy glances.  But by the end of the movie the same table has become a place of celebration, concerned as much with laughter as with nourishment.  At one point in between these two contrasting supper scenes, Sparrowhawk tells Arren that human beings must learn with difficulty to do what wind and leaf and whale do naturally; and the whole film could be said to concern itself with the task of achieving a ‘natural’ domestic harmony at mealtimes.  The heroic scale of that task can be measured by recalling the state of the royal family at the start.

The fusion of two adults (Tenar and Sparrowhawk) and two teenagers (Therru and Arren) into a harmonious family unit also combines two more sets of doubles.  Therru, who is part dragon, quickly forms a bond with Sparrowhawk, whose name allies him to another creature of the air – a bird – and whose addiction to wandering identifies him as a lover of the freedom enjoyed by dragons.  Therru calls him ‘Hawk’ (‘Taka’) when she meets him; and later she sings a song about a hawk, in which she wishes for a companion who will understand and perhaps mitigate her loneliness.  Sparrowhawk would seem well suited to this role, if he could be persuaded to stick around long enough to assume it.  Arren, meanwhile, bonds with the farmer Tenar.  When Sparrowhawk takes off for the town, the boy stays behind to help with the ploughing, and it is at this point that Tenar recognizes him as a potential co-worker.  So the new family created at the end of the film joins together two freedom-lovers and two lovers of the land, symbolically healing the rift between humans and dragons, the beings of earth and air, which was explained by the old wizard Root in conversation with the King of Enlad.

Slave

There is another, easily overlooked double in the movie.  When he first enters Hort Town, Arren sees a slave-wagon going by, and when he glances in through the barred rear window he sees a youngster of indeterminate sex who looks just like him, forlornly awaiting his/her entry into a life of forced labour.  Later in the movie, when Cob’s henchman Hare (Usagi) has seized Arren and thrown him into an identical wagon, we glimpse the prince through the barred window at the rear of the wagon in a precise reiteration of the earlier scene.  The identical appearance of slave and captive prince suggests another function for the simplified character drawing selected by Goro.  The people in the film often bear a close resemblance to one another; and because of their physical resemblance it’s impossible to see Arren’s situation as unique.  At one point, indeed, Sparrowhawk insists in divesting the prince of the principal token of his uniqueness.  He buys him a cloak to cover up his princely clothes, and those clothes are later stolen from him by Hare and replaced with the sombre garments of a slave.  In an interview, Goro explained the thinking behind this homogenising of Arren and his people. ‘I didn’t want to make a fantasy with a main character who is just a prince,’ he pointed out.  ‘Arren is a prince but then he has a problem and that problem can be related to many young people in Japan…  In today’s Japan, the young people are being choked.  They don’t see hope in the future, life isn’t that beautiful anymore.  They feel… oppressed and that oppression comes from their own parents’.[24]  Arren and the anonymous slave are related; and both share with Therru a sense that their generation has been stifled and betrayed by the one before.  In Therru’s case and the slave’s, that betrayal is real enough: the first has been abused by her parents, the second deprived of liberty.  But Arren’s situation is closer to that of the young people of Goro’s Japan, in that he cannot define the exact nature of the oppression that has been visited on him.  The removal of this weight of oppression at the end of the film is symbolized once again through clothing: the new-made family sits by the fire sewing a new set of garments for the prince, garments suitable for farm-work or a journey.  Here at last Arren’s physical resemblance to his people accords with his situation and his state of mind, as he immerses himself in the healthy work of an ordinary subject, which can be carried out only with the support and respect of peers.              

Cob

Among all the proliferating doubles in this movie, the evil wizard Cob is the most profligate in the range of roles he duplicates or inverts.  His ability to do so is enhanced by his indeterminate gender; in the English version of the film he is voiced by a man, in the Japanese by a woman, and his Japanese name Kumo (which can mean ‘spider’, like the English word ‘cob’) is used both for men and women.  At one point or another Cob acts as a double for almost everyone in the narrative, insinuating himself into all the different social positions that might have been used to help integrate Arren into the communal life of Earthsea.  If the changing constitution of the supper table in the film suggests that life is about learning to work and play together in fruitful co-operation, Cob’s contradictory desire is to make himself the centre of all affections, the sole beneficiary of all labour.  His white, mask-like face identifies him as an actor, with the classical actor’s gift of taking on male or female roles at will.  At various points he substitutes himself for Arren’s shadow (he snatches the boy from the shadow’s grasp when he carries him to his castle); for Arren’s mother, tending the boy in his own bedchamber as Tenar did in hers; for his lover, stooping over the prince’s prone body to offer him pleasure in the form of a cup that stains his lips purple; and for his father, as he stands by Arren with proprietary arrogance, looking down on Sparrowhawk as if to note the Archmage’s reaction to his successful seduction of his adoptive son.  Cob can fly like a dragon or a hawk – like Therru or Sparrowhawk; yet he is also associated with a single fixed location, as Tenar is – his castle.  What he represents, then, is a pastiche of the Balance or Equilibrium, the reconciliation of many complementary qualities and functions that characterizes what is ‘well and rightly done’ in Sparrrowhawk’s philosophy.  He is everyone’s shadow, as the dragon-Therru recognizes at the end of the film when she dismisses him to the darkness he came from.  ‘Shadow’ she calls him, even as she snuffs him out in a blaze of light.[25]

Shipwrecks

Shadows have no substance of their own, and Cob’s existence is sustained by draining substance from every other inhabitant of Earthsea; a process so self-centred that it upsets all balance.   Goro, who is an architect as well as a landscape gardener, conceives this loss of balance in spatial terms, and depicts it in the many broken buildings that lie scattered through his movie.  We first meet Sparrowhawk as he moors his boat in a dilapidated harbour; and when he sets out on foot to seek the source of Earthsea’s sickness, he passes further ruins: the hulks of giant ships left high and dry on land; the empty shells of farms; the decayed and decadent city of Hort Town, whose inhabitants dwell in the shattered remains of what looks like an ancient Greek civilization.  At the entrance to Hort Town, a gigantic disintegrating gateway frames a market-place where slaves are bartered, as though liberty has been lost along with architectural coherence.  Later, Therru’s near rape takes place in a courtyard full of classical columns, where the masked henchmen of Cob – slave-traders in his service – seek to combine pleasure with the sickening business they live by, as they chase the girl between surviving fragments of a long-lost feat of structural engineering, hoping to violate her before they sell her.  All these ruins find their source and culmination in Cob’s castle, which is itself reduced to ruin in a series of spectacular collapses at the end of the film.  A spiral staircase falls away as Arren runs up a tower in pursuit of the fleeing wizard.  The summit of the tower is then demolished in an earthquake unleashed by Cob’s magic, concentric shock-waves tearing the stones apart so that Arren has to scrabble for purchase at the tower’s edge.  If Goro contrived to upset Le Guin’s admirers by destabilizing her Earthsea books, one wonders if he set out to destabilize himself in this climactic sequence, which is crammed with images of balance precariously maintained, perverse embodiments of an architect’s worst nightmare.

At one point Therru leaps from a flight of stairs to the top of a narrow wall.  She is steadied by Arren, but not before she has almost unbalanced the prince and knocked them both into the courtyard far below.  During the first fight between Arren and Cob, Sparrowhawk stands nearby, hands tied, at the edge of another precipitous drop – the mode of execution chosen for him by his shadowy alter-ego.  The second fight with Cob is more vertiginous still, as the top of the tower falls to pieces under the fighters’ feet.  And after Cob’s death, Arren deliberately abandons all balance and leaps from the tilting tower in the ultimate gesture of trust.  His conviction that Therru in her dragon-form will catch him before he hits the ground marks the final step of his restoration to inward balance: his acceptance that his equilibrium as a man can only be maintained by acknowledging his dependence on others.  Central to all this drama of balance and imbalance is the castle: a building designed to protect its occupant, to keep his enemies at bay and to intimidate his subjects.  Therru and Arren must find their way through this castle to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar – entering it (in Therru’s case) by an unguarded gate, proceeding through it by unorthodox routes, evading its points of weakness or collapse and finally abandoning it as they fly away together to a life beyond its gloomy confines.  Dismantling old frameworks – narratives or buildings – is not necessarily destructive, Goro implies; it may even be necessary.  But it is deeply disconcerting, and he is not afraid to show this in the most graphic terms imaginable.

Hort Town at sunset

If ruins stand for the loss of balance in Cob’s new order, the ultimate effect of that loss of balance is symbolized in the film by a succession of sunsets.  Goro has chosen a rich palette of colour with which to paint the landscapes of his movie, in contrast to the subtler tones favoured by Hayao in most of his films; and the raison d’etre for this palette is the sunsets which punctuate its narrative, harbingers of the total darkness into which Cob seeks to plunge Earthsea.  Sparrowhawk first meets Arren at close of day, and gives him shelter from the darkness by his fire.  Evening falls again after their arrival at Hort Town, where Arren falls asleep alone, watching the sunset on the harbour steps; this is where the slavers catch him.  It’s evening time, again, when he decides to leave Tenar’s farm and strike out on his own; the shadow finds him at sundown and chases him into the marsh, where he nearly drowns.  Sunset represents the moment of balance between night and day; and each of Goro’s sunsets – most notably the one Arren watches from Hort Town – occur in a setting where another binary is present: that of land and sea, which gives Le Guin’s and Goro’s worlds their names, and which gives the sunsets their magnificence.  Once sunsets begin to dominate this landscape at the expense of sunrises, Earthsea as a whole will lose its balance and be reduced to the foul black tarry substance that is always linked with Cob.

Arren and Therru at sunset

The same setting of land and sea provides the backdrop for the two most striking dawns in the film, both of which are viewed from Cob’s castle.  The first is the vision of sunrise granted to the two teenagers when Therru presents Arren with the gift of her true name, as she struggles to arouse him from his lethargy in time to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  As soon as she names herself as ‘Tehanu’, the walls of the castle fall away and the youngsters find themselves standing on a pinnacle beside the open sea, with the sun rising behind them.  As the sun rises, a dragon rises too: the dragon-self invoked by Therru’s true name, which flies up over the young couple, after which the walls of the castle suddenly close in again and they return to the urgent task in hand.  The scene echoes the dazzlingly-drawn moment earlier in the film when Sparrowhawk rescues Arren from the slavers’ wagon.  He does so in a blaze of light much like a dawn, and all forms of bondage melt away before his brightness.  And a similar scene is recalled by Tenar at her farm, when she tells Arren of the moment when Sparrowhawk rescued her from the tombs of Atuan (the movie makes it a one-sided rescue, although in Le Guin’s book the rescue is mutual – Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him).[26]  As Tenar recalls this incident, the screen dissolves into a whiteness that leads us to expect a re-enactment of the past; instead we are shown Sparrowhawk riding into town in his quest to find Arren’s lost sword.  The re-enactment of the rescue takes place much later, and involves the liberation of both Sparrowhawk and Tenar from Cob’s castle and the installation of a new generation at the centre of the story of Earthsea.

Sparrowhawk at Cob’s castle

Sparrowhawk is lured to Cob’s castle by the capture of Tenar, who remarks as she is shoved into the castle’s lowest dungeon that the place reminds her of Atuan; ‘so many memories’, she adds, invoking the sense of a lost but constantly resurfacing past with which the film is imbued.  Sparrowhawk duly comes for her, in another breathtaking juxtaposition of light and darkness: the sequence in which he rides through the night towards Cob’s castle with his staff blazing is one of the most memorable in the movie.  But his intended re-enactment of Tenar’s rescue never takes place.  Instead, the Archmage comes face to face with a murderous Arren, seduced by Cob into trying to kill his friend as he killed his father; and this encounter ends with Sparrowhawk imprisoned alongside the woman he meant to save.  All hope lies now with the younger generation: and their fulfilment of that hope takes place in the context of an actual sunrise, as prefigured by the vision they had when they exchanged true names.  Cob comments on the rising of the sun as he watches Therru rising from the dead after he has strangled her.  And when she gets to her feet amidst the wreckage of the castle tower, demolished by Cob in a bid to annihilate the youngsters who defy him; and when she changes into her dragon-self, again as the vision predicted; we might register, consciously or otherwise, that in destroying his own castle Cob has effectively completed the picture painted by the vision.  He himself has brought about the melting of the walls of his own tyranny.  His desperate attempts to hold back the course of time, to delay his own aging by adopting an immaculate mask – in contrast to the time-ravaged faces of Sparrowhawk and Therru, both of whom have been scarred by their histories – together with his efforts to enlist the next generation in defence of his position, when he caused Arren to fight Sparrowhawk; all his struggles have merely created the conditions for their termination.  His plot to seize sole power ends with him begging for assistance from the person in all Earthsea he most despises – the girl he left out of all his schemes.  And his collapse leaves the next generation free to fly clear of the oppressive ruins of his aborted future.

Only Yesterday, dir. Takahata Isao

Much of this imagery of solipsism supplanted by co-operation, of a selfish element in the older generation overthrown by a mutually supportive younger one, of a dysfunctional, distant family replaced by a new, affectionate familial community, has clearly been carefully thought through by Goro in his courageous struggle to achieve a style of his own in the face of his father’s astonishing artistic achievements.  It’s clear, too, that his vision of the perfect community owes much to Isao Takahata, whose hymns to agricultural solidarity – Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), the desperate efforts to find nourishment that dominate the waking lives of the child-heroes in The Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – had their origins in the humble strife-torn village defended by Hols/Horus in The Little Lost Prince.  Despite its initial hostility to him, Hols ends by forging the village into a community, much as Therru ends by transforming Tenar’s farm into a family homestead; and Goro’s repeated acknowledgement of Takahata’s influence invites his interested viewers to follow up the thematic and visual links between their works as I have done earlier in this essay.

The hazia pedlar

It’s trickier, though, to determine how far Goro might have intended the more disturbing transformations he has effected to his father’s cinematic legacy.  Although the drawing of the characters recalls the pre-Ghibli tradition of anime, many of the characters’ faces are strongly reminiscent of specific types in Miyazaki movies, as if Goro is keen to embed the history of his father’s work in his production.  At Hort Town, Arren meets a small warty man whose face is closely modelled on that of the amoral mercenary-monk in Princess Mononoke.  But whereas in that film the monk had the glamorous villain’s role of tracking down the Spirit of the Forest, in this film he is reduced to a drug-pusher, whose attempt to persuade Arren to sample his wares is foiled by Sparrowhawk – and who at once turns vicious in a way the monk never did.  Hare/Usagi, the leader of Cob’s henchmen, has a face that recalls a long line of comic villains in Hayao’s movies, from the despicable Count in The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to the skyborne pirate family in Laputa and the bungling sky-pirates in Porco Rosso (1992).  In this film, however, the comic villain is a would-be rapist and a slave trader, terrorizing his men and the island’s population, while acting with grovelling subservience in the presence of his master.  As if to emphasize his degeneracy, he wears a helmet whose goggle-visor recalls the 1920s headgear worn by all the pilots in Porco Rosso; his cowardice looks all the more pronounced when compared to the dashing aerial antics of his predecessors.   His subordinates who drive the slave-wagon in which Arren is transported look like members of the pirate families in Hayao’s work; but their consent to the slave trade represents a level of villainy to which the pirates never descend.  The old women who visit Tenar at her farm to ask for medicine for a sick child bear some physical similarity to the strong old women who crop up everywhere in Hayao’s work, from the mother of the pirates in Laputa to the indomitable Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).  But in this film they have become sneaks and hypocrites, betraying Tenar to Hare in hope of financial gain, despite the fact that she has been supplying them with medicine free of charge.  In every case, the charming if sometimes unprincipled characters in Hayao’s oeuvre who are summoned up by the faces of Goro’s minor players find themselves diminished and darkened in Tales from Earthsea, condemned to play wholly despicable roles where in earlier Ghibli films they were always redeemable.  Obviously Goro’s world will require far more drastic remedial surgery than Hayao’s, if it is ever to regain the balance it has forfeited.

Cob’s eyes (1)

The most direct allusion to a specific Hayao character, or rather creature, comes at the end, when Cob loses his staff and with it the magical control of his body that sustained his youthful appearance.  Cob is at once devitalized, dragging himself up the steps of the castle with the painful laboriousness of old age, white-haired and round-shouldered.  One is reminded of the many moments of physical debility that afflicted young Arren throughout the film – his exhaustion and his fainting fits – and one imagines that these had their source in Cob’s pernicious influence over Earthsea.  But when Cob reaches the top of the tower a more drastic change comes over him.  His legs shrink and his arms extend until they are grotesquely long and boneless.  Proportioned like this, Cob resembles one of the flying robots in Laputa, charged with protecting the ancient skyborne castle of the movie’s title, which is both a deadly weapon and a heavenly garden.  These robots themselves began as weapons, capable of demolishing even the monstrous gunship that attempts to take charge of the Castle in the Sky; but some of them have achieved redemption, converting themselves to gardeners who tend the rich vegetation that has taken over the ruins of the aerial fortress.  The robotic Cob, by contrast, is concerned only with self-preservation.  His lack of eyes at this stage in the movie (a grotesque detail taken from The Farthest Shore) means that he is unable to see anything but what’s inside him – and that is emptiness, as we learn from the occasional close-up.  Where the robots existed to interact with others – even if in acts of aggression – Cob is incapable of doing so; and this makes him infantile in his final moments, cackling over the seeming death of Therru, begging whiningly for life from her when she revives.

Cob’s eyes (2)

Cob, then, becomes childish as the children in the movie grow up.  And the pain involved in the process of growing is powerfully evoked in the painful sight of well-loved characters from our filmgoing past – the lovable rogues and tender robots of the earlier Ghibli movies – diminished, darkened, humiliated and finally displaced at the moment when the new generation comes into its own.  In his final moments, Cob’s grotesque eyelessness recalls the moments in the film when we could not see the eyes of the youngsters: Arren and Therru, whose eyes are veiled by their hair when they feel angry or alienated, and Arren’s doppelganger, whose invisible eyes confirm Arren’s unwillingness to confront it rather than any inherent hostility in the doppelganger itself.  Each of these youngsters, however, can unveil their eyes when they choose to communicate.  Cob cannot; and this fixes him in a permanent state of adolescent egotism, a state which he seeks to impose on Arren too, and on the rest of Earthsea, from which the magic is draining away as it strives to rid itself of the responsibility and hurt that comes with adulthood.     

In his fusion of age and youth, then, as in other things, Cob is a distortion of the community of four that forms in the film’s last sequence.  Arren’s and Therru’s new family represents a fruitful combination of young and old, as against the wizard’s poisonous compound of immaturity and senility.  In the last few shots, the teenagers work shoulder to shoulder with Tenar and Sparrowhawk on the farm, sowing the new-ploughed land with seed, laughing together at supper, sitting in the evenings contentedly at work on the clothes and equipment Arren will need on his journey back to Enlad.  And when Arren goes to face the consequences of the murder he committed, he does not go alone.  Sparrowhawk goes with him as his advocate and guide; and they wear the clothes and equipment fashioned by their farming community in those evenings of contentment.  In Hayao’s films as well as Goro’s, families are things you work on.  Think of Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001), scrubbing at the floors of a witch’s Bathhouse so as to win back her parents; or Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), labouring to make an old house ready to receive their sick mother, or setting out on the long journey to the hospital carrying the good food they think will cure her.  Goro has not broken Hayao’s world, any more than he has betrayed the imaginative vision of Ursula K. Le Guin.  He has chosen the difficult route of telling his tale from Earthsea rather differently from the way either of them would have told it.  But for those who are willing to look closely at what he has done both to Earthsea and to Ghibli, the prospect of further difficult films from Goro is a welcome one.

Arren faces Therru in dragon form

NOTES

1. Tales from Earthsea is known in Japanese as Gedo Senki.  The only version I could watch before writing this essay in October 2007 was the dubbed one released in the UK in 2007; names are therefore given as in the dubbed version, with Japanese equivalents in brackets.  I am grateful to Yushin Toda both for nourishing my enthusiasm for Japanese culture over the last couple of decades and for answering my questions as the essay reached its final draft.

2. On Goro Miyazaki’s relationship with his father see Animé News Network, ‘Taipei International Book Exhibition: Meet and Greet with Goro Miyazaki’, by Chih-Chieh Chang.

3. See Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: A First Response to “Gedo Senki”, the Earthsea film made by Goro Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli.  Written for my fans in Japan who are writing me about the movie, and for fans elsewhere who may be curious about it’   (www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiResponse.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).

4. On the success of Tales from Earthsea at the box office see the Wikipedia entry Tales from Earthsea, ‘Reaction and box office’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_from_Earthsea%28anime%29, accessed 21. 9. 07).  On the divisions over the film among Japanese audiences, see Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: Responses from Correspondents’ (www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiCorrespondents.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).   

5. See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), p. 475; The Other Wind (London: Orion, 2002), p. 94 ff.

6. See Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 324.

7. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

8. Interestingly, too, Goro speaks of his film as a response to a universal malaise among young people in Japan (I discuss this later in the essay).  See Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’, an interview with Goro Miyazaki on the website ‘GhibliWorld.com’ (www.ghibliworld.com/gedosenkiatviff2006.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).

9. Indeed, the defeat of Cob is a good deal more violent in The Farthest Shore than it is in Tales from Earthsea.  He is first ‘crushed and burned’ by the dying dragon Orm Embar, then crawls in this shattered state into the land of the dead, where he is attacked again and again by Arren with his sword (‘The blade made a great wound, severing Cob’s spine… a rage of loathing swelled up in Arren, a berserk fury, and swinging up the sword he struck again with it, a full terrible downward blow’).  Arren’s attack is as ineffectual in the book as it is in the film.  For Goro’s feelings on aggression, see his blog entry for 17th January 2006 (Goro Miyazaki’s Blog Translation, translated by Paul Barnier, The Hayao Miyazaki Web): ‘even for the purpose of defeating evil, I don’t want to make magic an instrument of violence’.

10. On Goro’s initial response to the Earthsea books, compared with his response on re-reading them, see his blog entries for 14th-22nd December 2005.

11. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

12. For a detailed discussion of this decision, see Goro’s blog entries for 27 February 2006-7 March 2006.

13. Goro tells us that The Little Norse Prince is his favourite animated movie in his interview with Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.  The film is also known as Horus Prince of the Sun.  Goro discusses it often in his account of the ‘simple’ visual style of Tales from Earthsea: see his blog entries for 27 February-7 March 2006.

14. The analogy he makes is with the European neo-classicists of the eighteenth century; see his blog entry for 28 February 2006.

15. The version of Little Norse Prince discussed here was released on DVD by Optimum Asia in 2005.

16. For Le Guin’s description of the sword see The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 328-9.

17. Le Guin discusses names in general in A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 50-2; and names and friendship on pp. 70-1.  See also her early short story, ‘The Rule of Names’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp.82-93, and her late novella ‘Dragonfly’ in Tales from Earthsea (New York: Ace Books, 2002), pp. 209-79.

18. On Hayao Miyazaki’s long-term fascination with Earthsea, see for instance Kaleem Aftab, ‘A feud that animated Japanese film’, The Independent, August 10, 2007, at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20070810/ai_n19478963/pg_1, accessed 23. 9. 07.

19. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 16: ‘There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic’.

20. See Le Guin, Tehanu, The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 488-93.

21. Le Guin, ‘The Bones of the Earth’, Tales from Earthsea, pp. 151-171.

22. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 164.

23. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 143-152.

24. Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.

25. In fact, the film makes it unclear whether the dragon-Tehanu burns Cob with its breath or whether he undergoes some sort of spontaneous combustion.  Once again, the violence of Cob’s death is not the point.

26. See Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 272-3.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Concept Art for Laputa: Castle in the SkyAs the first post of 2020 I’m providing here a link to a podcast I did with the Fantasy/Animation project last year. The project is the brainchild of Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant; warm thanks to them both for inviting me to participate. While you’re at their website take a look around at all the other wonderful podcasts they’ve made available!

I chose to talk about Laputa because at the time I thought it was my favourite film by Studio Ghibli. I change my mind about this every so often, but Laputa will always be up there in the top five.

Anime as Fantastic History

[This is the text of a lightning talk I gave this week at an event organised by my colleague Dr Saeko Yazaki, ‘Thistle and Sakura: Glasgow-Japan networking event’, attended by Mr Nozomu Takaoka, the Consul General of Japan in Edinburgh.]

Journey to Agartha (2011), dir. Makoto Shinkai

My interest in anime is bound up with my interest in fantasy and the fantastic: the art of the impossible, books and films whose creators choose to turn away from mimetic realism to represent things that never existed and never could exist. Anime movies in particular interest me because they’re more immersive than TV shows, and can be more easily watched in my spare time. I’ve taught courses on anime, lectured on it at Masters level, and published a couple of essays on the genre.

Journey to Agartha (2011), dir. Makoto Shinkai

The question of what can or can’t exist is answered differently by different cultures, and by different individuals within each culture. Anime gives me the sense that Japan has more available gateways between what’s possible and what isn’t possible (such as the symbolic gateways of shrines) than the Western cultures that have embraced its art.

Letter to Mom (2011), dir. Hiroyuki Okiura

Animation makes the distinction between the real and the unreal, the material and the immaterial, a seamless one. You can transition from cityscape to dreamscape, from the near and familiar to the far and strange, without even noticing the moment of transition if nearly everything is drawn by hand.

Whisper of the Heart (1995), dir. Yoshifumi Kondō

Animation encourages us to think about the ways we affect and transform the things we imitate or dream up. The peculiarities of character drawing, for instance, lend a distinctive flavor to entire movies or TV series. Each frame in a well-made anime is carefully composed, and draws attention to that fact (pun intended).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), dir. Isao Takahata

I like to think of anime as a way of telling history. Thanks to its famous period of isolation, followed by an equally famous accelerated industrial revolution, Japan has gone through faster and greater changes than the Western cultures I know best. Japanese artists seem to me to have used anime to articulate the effect of these radical changes in radical new ways, through memorable stories and evocative images.

Princess Mononoke (1997), dir. Hayao Miyazaki

I’m also fascinated by the way anime collaborates with other art forms, especially literature. I’m interested in the way Western writing has been adapted to Japanese concerns in films like Panda Go Panda! (Pippi Longstocking), The Castle in the Sky (Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels), Tales from Earthsea (Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea sequence), Arrietty (The Borrowers), and Mary and the Witch’s Flower (The Little Broomstick). Anime’s intimate relationship to books and reading delights me; Whisper of the Heart, for instance, is about writing fantasy fiction, while Giovanni’s Island is about how a book helps two young boys endure terrible things.

Panda! Go Panda! (1972), dir. Isao Takahata

In terms of future plans, I’ve invited Jonathan Clements to give a talk here at the University of Glasgow to mark ten years of the Scotland Loves Anime Festival, perhaps the most important anime festival in the UK; that’s on the 10th October 2019. And I hope one day to write a book on anime, if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous coming from a scholar who hasn’t visited Japan and doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ll need a lot of help with it!

Patema Inverted (2013), dir. Yasuhiro Yoshiura

Anime and Time

[This is the talk I gave to introduce a showing of the movie Pop in Q, hosted by the Consulate General of Japan at the University of Edinburgh, 1 February 2019, as part of the Japanese Film Festival, 2019. My thanks to Mr Ben Jones and Ms Murata Yoko for inviting me to take part.]

I’ve been asked to talk today about how I came to love anime, before going on to talk about the movie we’re about to watch, Pop in Q. To do this I have to go way back in time to my earliest childhood memories, when I lived in Singapore in the 1960s, the son of diplomat and a university teacher, and gained privileged access to several anime series which as far as I know have never been officially shown in the United Kingdom. With my brothers and sister I watched Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion (1965) in the heat of the tropics, in a house whose windows had no glass in them, allowing giant bats to fly in and out of the living room freely while the gekkos scuttled across walls and ceilings and enormous red-brown cockroaches bumbled through the air bumping into things. The worst punishment you could get in those days was to be sent to bed without watching Kimba. He lived in the heat, like us, surrounded by eccentric and often dangerous wildlife; he was as brave, clever and strong as we wanted to be, and his adventures had a peculiar flavour about them which no other programme on TV in those days seemed to share. There was a darkness to them; animals Kimba was close to died regularly, beginning with his father, and the little lion cub was always being betrayed and damaged, very often by human beings or by animals who had been damaged by contact with humanity. The darkness of his adventures was matched by the strange shapes of the landscapes through which he moved; they were far gloomier and stranger than the landscapes in other cartoons, an effect intensified by the fact that we had a black-and-white TV. There was a yearning about many episodes, too, for friends, family and places Kimba had lost, and for times gone by that could never be recaptured, though they could be remembered with fondness. These days I’d call it something like nostalgia; a simultaneous sense of the transience of beautiful things (mono no aware) and the importance of happy memories (natsukashii). This unique atmosphere will be familiar to all lovers of anime; it suffuses the form, and Osamu Tezuka, the pioneer of manga who invented Kimba, was one of the masters of evoking it.

As an English boy I was lucky to get access to Kimba, thanks to my time in Singapore, and since then a brief glimpse of Kimba’s face has been enough to send me back to that unique period in my growing up. Anime wasn’t much seen on British TV at the time, but my love of the lion cub – along with Astro Boy, Prince Planet, Ultraman (not an anime, this one) and Marine Boy – meant I was ready and waiting when we finally began to see truly great anime movies in Britain, in the late 1980s. As far as I was concerned the first of these was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), now widely recognised as a cyberpunk classic. This was a movie that captured the trauma of late twentieth-century life like nothing else; it takes place in a future Tokyo – rebuilt after a devastating incident that destroyed the older version – where gleaming ultra-modern skyscrapers conceal deserted roads and alleyways in which gangs of disaffected teenagers clash on improbably magnificent super-bikes. Into this dystopian present erupts the shadow of the menace that destroyed old Tokyo, in the form of bizarrely ageing children with psychic powers, and one of the teenage bikers – also with psychic powers – whose body begins to morph into a grotesque fleshy monster, as if infected with diseases or radioactive contamination thought to have been suppressed in an earlier epoch. At the heart of the movie is the question of how we can come to terms with the past in the present in order to give ourselves a liveable future, and this continues to be the central question addressed by anime to this day. The question is made intensely personal in Akira by the fact that the destructive monster waging war on Tokyo is a teenager, whose friends are as concerned to save him as to stop him; the boy’s grotesque metamorphosis can be read as a metaphor for mental illness caused by trauma, and the ruptured friendship it embodies invests it with the same sense of nostalgia and yearning that suffuses Astro Boy and Kimba.

The most important anime event in history for many British viewers was the mainstream cinema distribution of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002-3, and for me, too, this was transformative. As soon as I’d discovered Miyazaki I couldn’t rest till I’d found out more about the Japanese film environment he was part of. I bought DVDs by the dozen, rapidly discovering the work of Isao Takahata, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe, and later Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, as well as the rest of Katsuhiro Otomo’s output. I became a regular at the best anime festival in the UK, which by great good fortune happened to be based where I lived in Glasgow: Scotland Loves Anime, which for me was always housed in that Art Deco palace the Glasgow Film Theatre and introduced by that guru of anime Jonathan Clements. I relentlessly exploited the knowledge of Japanese friends, including Yushin Toda of Japan Desk Scotland, who it turned out had been offered the chance to work on Akira in the 1980s but turned it down; and my colleague at the University of Glasgow, Saeko Yazaki, who is an expert in Islam but joined with me to put on a public showing and discussion of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) at the university’s Gilmorehill Cinema in 2014. Anime, then, has entered my life on three distinct occasions, though my most extensive engagement with it has been a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s an integral part of my past and present; it has shaped me from the beginning, and continues to shape me. And this is appropriate, since I would argue that anime engages with the question of time – the complex web of relationships between time past, time present and time to come – with an intensity and consistency which makes it unique among the contemporary arts.

Spirited Away (2001), for instance, deals with a ten-year-old girl called Chihiro who is being relocated to a new town by her parents, cutting her off from the landscape and friendship groups that formed her and filling her with resentment. But on the way to their new home the family – mother, father, daughter – stray into the grounds of an abandoned museum or theme park, which suddenly brings them into contact with the past they seem to have left behind; a world full of diverse spirits (kami, yokai and others), many of them associated with specific places, some of them forming an integral part of Chihiro’s childhood. Once again, Chihiro is left without a choice about what happens next: her parents have been transformed into pigs by a curse and she must work in the spirits’ magical bathhouse, run by the fiercely maternal witch Yubaba, in order to reunite her family and move forward to the next stage of her life. In the bathhouse Chihiro loses contact with her present-day identity when she loses her name as part of her contract as a worker, just as her life in constantly mobile present-day Japan made her lose touch with her personal past and the past of her culture; and the work she has to do in the course of the film is effectively to re-forge her relationships with the past (the spirits), the present (her parents, herself) and the time to come (her move to a new location). Her relationship with a boy called Haku, who also works in the bathhouse and is possessed of magical powers, turns out to be seminal in this process: he is the spirit of a local river who saved her from drowning in early childhood, and her new relationship with him will, it is implied, ensure that she carries forward the awareness of and affection for her origins into the world of work that awaits her as a junior high school student and later as an adult.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: anime – the art of animation as practised in Japan – seems to me to be among the richest and most emotionally satisfying ways of contemplating time available today. Each of the major anime movies – and my experience of anime is largely limited to films – is utterly frank about its concern with past, present and future; and in particular with the question of how to reconcile the rich and complex past of Japan with the explosive technological, political and social changes that threaten to shatter the global present, and by this means point the way towards some sort of liveable future.

Think of Miyazaki’s second feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), in which reconciliation between the declining human population who dominated the planet in the past and the insects and toxic plants which dominate the planet in the present is essential if there is to be any future at all for humankind.

Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor: the Movie (1989) takes as its subject a virus which is infecting the mechas – giant mechanical sentient body-suits piloted by human beings – tasked with demolishing the remains of old Tokyo and constructing a capitalist mega-city in its place. We learn that the virus has been introduced into the construction mechas, the Patlabors, by a nostalgic programmer who was depressed by the systematic erasure of history being practised by the city planners in pursuit of profit; and that the virus can only be halted in its progress by demolishing the building known as the Ark, which is the nerve centre of the project to reconstruct Tokyo. The erasure of the virus, in other words, halts the demolition of old Tokyo in its tracks, and the movie leaves us wondering whether anything will have been learned in the process about the need to nurture the traces of the Japanese past.

Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001) tells the history of Japan in the twentieth century through the memories of a celebrated film actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who lives in seclusion after her retirement but is visited for a rare interview by one of her most ardent admirers, a TV interviewer called Genya Tachbana. As the interview proceeds, Genya finds himself caught up in Chiyoko’s reminiscences and acting alongside her in all her movies – which have become, in effect, episodes in her life and in that of Japan – from the early days of her stardom in the 1930s to the science fiction thrillers of the 1960s. Every film is linked to an encounter she had in her youth with a communist painter, who she helped to escape from the military police but who also left a mysterious key in her possession. She informs Genya that she became an actress in the hope that the painter would see one of her movies and get in touch, so that she could return the key. In every new film she imagines herself to be pursuing the painter in a bid to give the key back, while she in turn is chased by a succession of enemies: bandits, samurais, soldiers, monsters. Eventually Genya hands her the key, which he found in the ruins of the film studio where they both worked. But the interviewer never reveals to her something else he has found relating to her past: that the painter was arrested soon after she saved him and tortured and killed before her acting career began. Her pursuit of the painter throughout her life, in other words, has been a chase after a chimera – a ghost; but this doesn’t matter, as Chiyoko tells Genya at the movie’s end. She knew full well she might never find the painter, but loved the chase itself, the constant movement from time to time and from place to place that characterizes all the sequences she and Genya have taken part in. The film ends with Chiyoko succumbing to a heart attack, only to re-enter the dream world of her films and blast off in a spaceship, heading for the future, reconciled to the losses and traumas of her past.

Millennium Actress tells us something crucial about anime, which is that it functions as a particularly ambitious and all-embracing form of artificial memory, an unrivalled means of articulating Japan’s history. Few nations have experienced such varied and rapid extremes of social and political change as Japan between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries: a period of total isolation from outside influences, followed by sudden industrialization, an equally sudden and aggressive escalation into imperialism, the rapid militarization of industry, occupation by a foreign power, total commitment to the boom and bust of postwar capitalism, looming ecological catastrophe – crisis following crisis at a rate that seems to defy analysis by conventional historical methods. Most of all, the encounter with the present and the future is embodied for Japan and the rest of the world in the bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which (as J. G. Ballard memorably suggested) the laws of time and space seem to have been shattered beyond recovery, the grand narratives of history to have been cataclysmically interrupted. The difficulty of finding means to express the extremes to which the Japanese people have been subjected finds a solution in the astonishing proliferation of animated pictures – from movies to TV series and OVAs – that have emerged from Japanese studios since the first great TV series of the 1960s, Dr Tezuka’s Astro Boy or The Mighty Atom. Some of these pictures describe the traumas of history directly, such as the accounts of the atomic bomb-blasts and their after-effects given in Moro Masaki’s Barefoot Gen (1983) and Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World (2016); or the wartime firebombing of Tokyo, as recalled in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988); or Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (2014), about the Soviet invasion, occupation and forced evacuation of Shikotan in the 1940s. Others concern themselves with the convergence of past, present and future as explored through fantastic narratives, and the need to achieve what might be called synchrony between these elements in order to establish a healthy society. Synchrony in films reconciles or brings together different chronological perspectives – those of young, middle aged and old people, understandings of the world based on past, current or potential future ways of seeing things – in a harmonious conjunction closely similar to a piece of harmonised music. The centrality of the concept of synchrony to anime is perhaps why music plays such a crucial role in the form; it’s widely acknowledged that the composers Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno are as much responsible for the success of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe as the directors themselves.

The film we’re about to watch today, Naoki Miyahara’s Pop in Q (2016), rather neatly re-enacts the history of anime movie-making on a miniature scale. It marks itself as shoujo anime – anime for girls and young women – in its emphasis on the experiences of a group of misfit schoolgirls just coming to the end of their Junior High School years, who are about to undergo the terrifying transition to High School and the whole new set of pressures and responsibilities this entails. But it’s typical of much anime in that it casts this moment of transition as a moment of crisis for an entire world. The world in question is the Valley of Time, where the titular Popins live. It’s a small place populated by sentient stuffed toys, but its wellbeing determines the smooth functioning of time itself in every universe – including the one that contains the planet Earth as we know it; and it’s currently being invaded by a host of malevolent monsters called Kigurumi (which means something like ‘furry costumes’ or ‘animal onesies’, bizarrely enough, and should encourage us to look out for the role of costumes as a marker for the changing psychology of the young protagonists as the film goes on). Saving the Valley would seem to be a fairly straightforward task: the girls must learn a dance within a certain set time – the time of the film, which in our world is about an hour and a half, in the girls’ world the few hours before their Graduation Ceremony, and in the Valley itself ten days – and after this they can go home, their task duly accomplished. Ten days is plenty of time, you’d think, to learn a new dance; but the problem is the five girls brought together to dance it have all been made loners or outsiders by some specific trauma in their past, and hence find it difficult to cooperate. One by one it emerges, too, that they don’t in fact want to go home; that they find the childish Valley of Time, with its simplistic opposition between good and evil – as embodied in the Popins and the Kigurumi, both of whom look very like playthings – and its simple landscape of mountains, woods and seas, vastly more attractive than the complicated environment they’ve come from. If the girls don’t succeed in reconciling themselves with their past traumas – and hence with their home world – in time to learn the dance, then there will be no future, not just for them but for anyone at all. As a result, the entire film is constructed as a ticking clock, an instrument for measuring time which is literalised in the appearance of the sky and the various other clockwork mechanisms they encounter in the Valley of Time.

The action culminates in a showdown between the past and future versions of one of the girls, a fight which will determine whether she joins the other four dancers in a symbolic performance of synchrony between past, present and future, or whether she will continue to hold herself aloof, draining the energy from everyone around her in a bid to retain a sense of her own unique importance and worth. This is the challenge anime offers its audiences: to engage emotionally and intellectually with the synchronization or harmonious fusion of the many different elements, with their different time scales, that make up contemporary culture. These time scales include the slow chronology of organic growth, whether of trees or stalactites or people; the clockwork regulation of school and workplace; the precious units of leisure time we preserve for activities we enjoy, either alone or with others; the stopwatch timing of a track event; the extended memories of the old, the organizational efficiency of the mature adult, the endless play-time of the young. If we don’t find a way to enable all these competing time scales to cohabit and cooperate, at least to some extent, we won’t be able to live with each other, and the future of the world looks bleak indeed. Anime movies such as Pop in Q encourage us to believe that cohabitation and cooperation with one another and with the world itself is possible, despite all the obstacles twenty-first century living has put in our way.

One final word: my colleague Saeko tells me that in Japan it’s considered rude to stop watching a film before the end of the credits. In the case of Pop in Q you’ll miss some crucial information if you do, about what the future holds in store for our five heroines…

Enjoy!

Popins

My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart

eks3afnmq3xk4wvpcrvkA few weeks back I put up a post about Howl’s Moving Castle – both the book by Diana Wynne Jones and the film by Hayao Miyazaki – using the notion of synchrony as an analytic tool. This post uses the same approach to consider two more films in which Miyazaki had a hand: My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart. I shall therefore begin with a reminder of what I take synchrony to mean here, which you can skip if you remember it from the earlier post. If you choose to skip it, please begin at the asterisk!

Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the artist tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the unsettling conviction that adults can never really understand what makes youngsters tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists may fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them totally redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades.[1] The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists.[2] So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and even of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider community.[3] Researchers have investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation between members of a group, such as an army unit, church, or children’s organization.[4] There have been sociological studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between cohabiting generations.[5] Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – that is, how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of any given group may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to adults and children by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like here to think about two art works that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between cohabitants while enabling them to live in harmony, so to speak – that is, to get the most out of their cohabitation. Taken together with Howl’s Moving Castle – book and film – these films amount to an extraordinarily rich representation of the many time zones that have intersected in British and Japanese domestic space since the calamity of the Second World War.

1449441476-24118fe1309c4fadc185ab7b3b43bb1c*Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) chooses to explore synchrony by retreating into the world of the artist’s childhood and youth. Set in 1950s Japan, the film recounts the adventures of two young girls and their father forced to relocate to an old house in the country, near a hospital where the children’s mother is being treated for a life-threatening illness.[6] The house turns out to be occupied by kami, spirits that can only be seen by children; yet it’s the father who explains the spirits’ identity, recalling his own encounters with the spirit world in his childhood – like Miyazaki’s avatar addressing the audience – despite the fact that he’s excluded from it now by the demands imposed on his time by his job as an academic.[7] Meanwhile the spirits provide a conduit between the children and the time-zone of the seasons, and of the beings that inhabit it: from the gigantic camphor tree where the titular troll-spirit, Totoro, hides himself in daytime, to the trees the children plant with Totoro at night in the house’s grounds, to the freshly-picked corncob they leave as a gift for their mother at the end of the movie, whose miraculous appearance on the hospital window-sill helps the sick woman understand she’s on the road to recovery. Social time, spirit time and the cyclical time of nature operate side by side throughout the narrative, sometimes at odds, sometimes coming together; and the necessity that drives the plot is to achieve synchrony between these different time zones – to find a way for them to combine productively, for the good of the human community and the ailing body of the girls’ mother.

[Doki] Tonari no Totoro (1920x1038 Hi10P BD FLAC) [9BB2B505].mkv_002835.670_1The encounter between the three principal time zones in the movie is enriched by smaller chronological differences between the characters. The little girl Mei, for instance, experiences the passage of time quite differently from her big sister or her father. Her first encounter with the spirits takes place while her sister is at school and her father working at his desk. Mei plays outside as her father works, and her detachment from the regulated schedule of work and education is indicated by her wish to eat lunch in the middle of the morning. At this point in the movie, only Mei occupies the imaginative and geographical vantage point that enables her to see the pair of tubby spirits which comes trundling through the grass as she is playing, drifting between visibility and invisibility like daydreams. Her lack of a timetable gives her leisure to follow the spirits to their home, just as her lack of prejudice concerning the possible threat they pose enables her to embrace their companionship, to occupy their space as if it were her own. The problem in the rest of the film is for the other people who share Mei’s home – in particular her elder sister Satsuki, who is growing out of the sorts of fantasies that dominate early childhood – to learn how to synchronize themselves with her time zone for a while, unlearning the sense of urgency that has been instilled in them by work and education for long enough to share her vision.

totblu07Satsuki learns to do this as a result of a disruption to her regimented daily schedule. One evening she finds that her father forgot his umbrella when he went to work; it is raining, so she decides to go and meet him with it at the bus stop. She and Mei wait at the stop till dark, growing increasingly uneasy as the shadows lengthen and their father doesn’t arrive. Rain falls, night falls, and Mei falls asleep on Satsuki’s back. The uneven dripping of water replaces the ticking of human clocks, signalling the girls’ entry into an alternative time zone. Abruptly Satsuki notices Totoro standing beside her, sheltering from the rain under the inadequate protection of a leaf. She lends him her umbrella, which he accepts – though less for its intended function than for the pleasure of the sound of the rain drumming on the fabric, as on the skin of a drum. Soon afterwards a bus arrives; but it’s not the petrol-driven machine the girls expect. Instead it’s the celebrated cat-bus which furnishes one of the film’s most famous images: a tabby twelve-legged vehicle whose ribcage opens to admit passengers into its fur-lined interior, and whose journeys display a cat’s contempt for conventional roads and pathways, a preference for telegraph wires over carriageways, for fields and hedges over tarmac.[8] The cat-bus veers away into the night carrying Totoro; and soon an ordinary bus looms out of the darkness, with the father safely on board.

The fusion of cat and bus in this scene seems specifically calculated to conjure up the notion of what I have called synchrony: the fruitful combining of different time-zones – different ways of measuring or experiencing time – in the household or elsewhere, to enable successful dialogue or other forms of social interaction. Cats are domestic pets which notoriously ignore the rigid spatial and temporal structures of the human household. Buses knit the family home to the socially sanctioned destinations of work and school, operating to a structured timetable and unchanging routes; they are inextricably linked with the notion of accurate timekeeping, even when they’re late. Combining cats with buses gives you a form of public transport that ignores timetables, turning up when it’s least expected and cutting across the regulated rural geography to reach, not a place of work or education, but the object of its passengers’ desire. And there’s another fusion here too. Cats make a great show of being solitary, yet inhabit human communities, while buses serve those communities unambiguously. The cat-bus, with its slightly menacing Cheshire-cat smile, is clearly singular – nothing like it has existed or been drawn before; yet it also supplies a collective need, in this case both transporting Totoro to his unknown destination and heralding the restoration of the father to his children, a return to the safe routine of family life, a timetable that has been under threat since the beginning of the film because of the mother’s absence through illness. The individual and the collective, human, animal and spirit, all are embodied in this heterogeneous creature, whose impeccably timed appearances draw them all together in the face of fear.

CatbusIt’s not surprising, then, that the cat-bus should show up again when the little family and its routine come under threat for a second time. On this occasion it’s the girls’ sick mother who fails to come home on a scheduled visit. She catches cold and is told to stay in hospital, an incident that conjures up the spectre of a permanent dissolution of the family unit by death. Fear for her mother makes Satsuki lose her temper with Mei, who then sets out on an unscheduled cross-country journey of her own to take the sick woman what she thinks of as a healing corncob. Mei’s disappearance sparks off a frantic search by the whole of the local community, and sends Satsuki to ask for Totoro’s help at his tree. The troll’s response is to summon the cat-bus, which first takes Satsuki to Mei, then transports both girls to the hospital, where they leave the corncob on their mother’s sill. More even than in the bus-stop incident, this journey binds together all the time-zones of the story: adult and child, human and spirit, urban and rural, much as a cat binds together the human and natural worlds in its comings and goings, or a bus binds place to place within a city, and city to country within a nation. The cat-bus itself is part public transport vehicle, part spirit, part maternal womb, and its successful marriage of these elements anticipates the eventual reunion of parents with children, and of Satsuki’s family with the rural community, both of which are celebrated in the evocative stills that accompany the film’s end credits, where they are watched over by Totoro and his benevolent fellow spirits.

f7da0360969a06d2fe5567d51bef6232Part of the power of My Neighbour Totoro springs from its recognition that the ability to occupy any particular time zone – above all, that of childhood, with its ready recognition of the interaction between seen and unseen, humans and spirits – will necessarily be a temporary one, and that this transitoriness need not be perceived as frightening or repugnant. At the end of the movie Satsuki’s parents still cannot see the spirits, even though they have received material confirmation of their presence in the form of the corncob, which appears where it could not possibly be, inscribed with a message from Mei. It’s clear, too, that Satsuki will soon move on to occupy her parents’ time-zone. Her awkward but friendly relationship with the boy next door predicts her approaching puberty, just as the boy’s grandmother, who seems to remember her childhood vividly, anticipates the girls’ old age. Even the stills of the final credits, which recall snapshots from a family album, remind an adult audience, at least, that they have been watching a historical reconstruction, a cartoon representation of the film-maker’s past, no longer accessible except through photographs, films and drawings. Owing to the pressures of twentieth-century life – above all its mobility, as exemplified in the luggage-laden car that opened the film – moments of synchrony are fleeting, though their impact on those who experience them may be lifelong, as the very existence of My Neighbour Totoro testifies.

Whisper-of-the-Heart-耳をすませば-BD_14A few years after Totoro, Miyazaki explored the concept of synchrony from a new angle in his script for Yoshifumi Kondo’s movie Whisper of the Heart (1995), based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Here the young protagonist Shizuku is a few years older than Satsuki, and where Satsuki needed to achieve synchrony with her neighbours – her sister, the boy next door, the spirit Totoro – Shizuku’s problem is that of finding a neighbourhood at all, in a world where urban sprawl has broken up long-standing communities.

pompoko_porch_970The same theme was developed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata in his immensely successful film of the previous year, Pom Poko (1994), which is set in the suburb of Tokyo where Shizuku lives, Tama New Town. In Pom Poko, raccoon dogs or tanuki fight against the incursions of suburban development on their territory; but their resistance is ineffectual, and the tanuki end the film by using their traditional powers of metamorphosis to merge themselves with the city’s population, walking among men and women in human form. For Takahata, then, Tama New Town consists of two time zones superimposed on one another: that of the old land and its cultures, for which the tanuki fought, and that of the new suburbs, where human beings dwell unknowingly side by side with the region’s original inhabitants. This is not synchrony but colonization, even at the poignant moment towards the end of the film when the tanuki use their powers to give the audience a fleeting glimpse of the rural landscape that underlies the urban. Reconciliation between the time zones of people and animals may be possible in the twentieth century, but the movie doesn’t offer a clear indication of how it might be achieved.

In Whisper of the Heart Shizuku’s neighbours, too, turn out to be separated from her by time, much as the tanuki are forever separated from their human neighbours, culturally and emotionally speaking, despite cohabiting with them. Shizuku has to look for these neighbours in the spaces and times that open up in her official timetable. She is abetted in this – for much of the time without her being aware – by her eccentric family, whose tiny apartment, squeezed into a hillside block in the new suburb, resembles a book-crammed annexe of the library where her father works. Shizuku’s parents give her elbowroom to dream and write and read, while around her throughout the summer vacation her schoolmates, such as her best friend Yuko, are sent to the notorious Japanese cram schools to get the grades they need to attend the best high schools. Shizuku, meanwhile, explores her neighbourhood, hurrying up hidden alleyways and over locked gates marked ‘no entry’ in pursuit of stories and ideas. Her wanderings are accompanied by the ceaseless buzzing of the summer cicadas, playing music from a hidden insect world ignored by the city’s residents but full of emotional resonance for lovers of Miyazaki’s earlier movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), whose protagonist communicates with the insects shunned by the rest of her community.

mimi_totoroIn Whisper of the Heart, the first clue to the existence of other neighbours besides the insects – neighbours of the heart, as the English title suggests[9] – occurs when Shizuku discovers, from library stamps, that someone in her school has been borrowing the same books as her, though at different times. The mysterious reader turns out to be a boy called Seiji, who is in another class and therefore separated from her geographically as well as chronologically, occupying a different section of the school building. She finds him with the help of a cat: another of those independent occupants of human space represented by the cat-bus in Totoro. In Whisper, too, the cat is linked with public transport; indeed, it’s in a sense a public cat, ownerless and known by different names to different people, so that it plays a role in a range of different stories throughout the city, connecting disconnected lives, as it were, with its amiable presence. Shizuku first meets the cat on a commuter train, following it at a whim when it alights at her station. It leads her to an old shop full of bric-a-brac from different periods and places, mostly European, though the shop is called the ‘World Emporium’: a cheerful jumble of clocks and statues and furniture assembled at random, which makes it the architectural embodiment of synchrony. Here she runs into two figures who might equally be said to embody synchrony: an old man called Nishi, who she later learns is Seiji’s grandfather; and a small statue of a cat with coat-tails and a walking stick, which Nishi calls the Baron. And it’s in this shop, not surprisingly, that Shizuku learns about the importance of synchrony in the late twentieth century.

whisper-of-the-heart-baron-2The story behind the cat figurine is the story of the arbitrary fracturing of relationships by history in the century’s turbulent middle years. There was once a female counterpart for the Baron, a statue known as Louisa; and Shizuku learns that the woman Nishi loved, also called Louisa, bought the Louisa statue in Vienna at the same time as he bought the Baron. The lovers were then separated by the outbreak of the Second World War – an event as calamitous for Louisa’s people, the Europeans, as for Nishi’s, the Japanese. The lovers Nishi and Louisa swore to reunite the statues – and each other – after the war; but the opportunity never arose, and the couple never met again. From then on the statue has stood for a moment of serendipity that brought two people of different cultures together, a moment that may never be repeated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.05.52 AMAnother object in the shop that catches Shizuku’s eye is a clock Nishi has been working on, with the figure of an armoured prince on it gazing soulfully up at a window. The person he longs to see at the window is his lover, a fairy princess; but the clock is so constructed that the lovers only glimpse each other twice a day, when the clock strikes twelve. In fact, when Shizuku sees the clock they haven’t seen each other for several years. The clock’s mechanism was broken, and Nishi has mended it so that the two figures can again become a symbol for the complex workings of life and love, showing that lovers, like neighbours in a modern suburb, only coincide at certain moments, when the pressures of work and history permit (the prince in the clock is a working man, the prince of the miner-dwarves who inhabit its belly). Nishi’s labour on the clock confirms something else: that such intersections can themselves be achieved through hard work, and that waiting for synchrony to occur without labouring to fulfil one’s desires may well be futile.

whisper-of-the-heart-shizuku-and-seijiAs the film goes on, Shizuku and Seiji – the girl and boy who read the same books from the library – are transformed into the working prince and princess, as it were, of Tama New Town, victims of the common twentieth-century condition of being out of sync, despite their mutual attraction. Seiji’s ambition is to work as a violin maker, for which he must serve a long apprenticeship in far-away Italy. Shizuku’s dream is to work as a writer. The young pair’s aspirations are incompatible both with the budding relationship between them and with the rigorous demands of the Japanese school system. Seiji cannot become an apprentice if he stays at school; Shizuku cannot write her stories if she works hard enough to get good grades. The solution, it would seem, is for them to pursue their careers simultaneously, apart from school and apart from each other, labouring to achieve their artistic dreams in different locations. When they meet in Nishi’s shop, Seiji is about to leave for a three-month trial period of violin-making in Italy, which if successful will be followed by a much longer apprenticeship. On hearing his plans, Shizuku is inspired to write her first novel while he is away, regardless of her studies and grades, aiming to complete the novel by the day of Seiji’s return. By this means the period of Seiji’s absence is transformed into a clockwork mechanism, a fragile chronometric device that counts out the hours till the moment when the young people can get together to compare their experiences. Separated in time and space, the boy and girl will be united imaginatively through their work – in Shizuku’s case, strenuous and exhausting – and through their consciousness of the approaching moment when the cogs of the world’s inner workings will reunite them.

whisperThis moment, when it comes, is marked both by further hard work and careful timing. Shizuku wakes before dawn one morning to find Seiji waiting below her bedroom window – the most perfect example of synchrony in the film. He invites her to mount his bike behind him, then cycles up a hill to a nearby viewpoint, from which their neighbourhood can be seen spread out below. The pair arrive at the moment just as dawn is breaking, transforming Tama New Town into a magic world a little like the surreal landscape Shizuku created in her novel. Here, then, perfect timing brings beauty, just as it did in the earlier sequence when Shizuku sang a song to Seiji’s accompaniment, and they were joined unexpectedly by Nishi and two elderly friends, who provided additional accompaniment on the antique instruments they happened to have with them. The transformation of Tama New Town by dawn recalls the transformation of John Denver’s song, ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’, both by Shizuku and Seiji’s performance and by the two sets of new lyrics Shizuku gives it. One of these lyrics, ‘Concrete Roads’, describes the transformation of countryside into suburb, as recorded in Pom Poko. Country roads get overlaid by tarmac, but with the ghost of the countryside peering through it, so to speak, much as the new words for John Denver’s song both obscure and recall the original.

In this way, both the song and the journey to the viewpoint testify to the possibility of finding time and space to discover creativity in the pressurized context of suburban Japan – or of the world, given the presence of Italy, Austria, and the World Emporium in the equation. The possibility of being creative depends on a synchronic co-operation between generations, as exemplified in the instrumental support given by Nishi and his friends to Shizuku’s singing, and by Nishi’s and her parents’ moral support for Shizuku while she is working on her novel. The synchrony between generations also brings together the stories of the Baron and the figurine Louisa – who become characters in Shizuku’s novel – and of Nishi’s love affair with the European girl who was lost to him in the War. At the point when Shizuku finishes her novel, just before Seiji’s return, she takes it to Nishi’s shop for him to read. The old man is dozing in a chair beside the fire, dreaming of Louisa; and as he wakes, Louisa’s face merges with Shizuku’s. In the process, his support for the girl’s artistic efforts effectively completes the unfinished narrative of Nishi and his first love, bringing past and present together in a satisfying resolution, like the precisely-timed resolution of harmonies in a piece of music. And the transformation of Tama New Town at the viewpoint – its fusion with the fantastic landscape Shizuku invented for her novel, a novel she could only write with the support of Nishi, Seiji, and her parents – extends the possibility of creativity throughout the community she’s part of. The notion of synchrony between generations, and between the imagined and the real, has never been more richly imagined on the screen than in this brief closing sequence.

00053m2tssnapshot011500_original

[1] One psychologist’s definition of the term is as ‘The carefully coordinated interaction between the parent and the child or adolescent in which, often unknowingly, they are attuned to each other’s behavior’, John W. Santrock, Adolescence, twelfth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), Key Terms: Synchrony. Some psychologists prefer the term ‘alignment’ to synchrony, since it implies the establishment of links between interlocutors in several domains simultaneously: timing in dialogue (e.g., speech rate), word choice, planning, memory, even posture. See e.g. Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering, ‘Joint Action, Interactive Alignment, and Dialog’, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009), pp. 292-304. I am grateful to Dr Kerry W. Kilborn, School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, for a discussion of this topic.

[2] See e.g. Ruth Feldman, ‘Parent-Infant Synchrony and the Construction of Shared Timing; Physiological precursors, Developmental Outcomes, and Risk Conditions’, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 48 nos. 3-4 (March/April 2007), pp. 329-354.

[3] See e.g. Daniel B. Klein and Michael J. Clark, ‘The Music of Social Intercourse: Synchrony in Adam Smith’, The Independent Review, vol. 15 no. 3 (Winter 2011), pp. 413–420, where the notion of ‘sympathy as coordinated sentiment’ is applied, among other things, to a complex commercial society.

[4] See e.g. Scott S. Wildermuth and Chip Heath, ‘Synchrony and Co-operation’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 2009), pp. 1-5. In an economic context

[5] See e.g. Michelle Thomas and Nicholas Bailey, ‘Out of Time: Work, Temporal Synchrony and Families’, Sociology, vol. 43 (2009), p. 613ff.

[6] For Totoro as a representation of Miyazaki’s childhood, see Colin Odell and Michelle le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2009), p. 79; and more expansively, Phillip E. Wegner, ‘“An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity”: Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, ImageText, Vol. 5, no. 4, http//www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v5_2/wegner/, consulted 24.9.12.

[7] For an explanation of the complex term ‘kami’, see Michael Ashkenazi, Handbook of Japanese Mythology (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 29-36. Miyazaki’s term for Totoro and the soot-spirits is translated as ‘goblins’ in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt’s translation of Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point 1979-1996 (San Francisco: Viz, 2009), pp. 255-6.

[8] Miyazaki calls it a ‘mountain-lion bus’, which makes it less domestic than ‘cat-bus’, but the vehicle’s resemblance to a tabby is unmistakable. See Starting Point, p. 257.

[9] The Japanese title is If You Listen Closely. This is also the title of Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, on which the film is based (Mimi wo Sumaseba, Shuueisha, Ribon Mascot Comics, 1992).

Synchrony in Howl’s Moving Castle

howl-moving-castle-1Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.

howls-moving-castleThe concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older.[1] Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.

Grandma-sophieThe protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers.[2] Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.

Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.

When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.

Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.

The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.

424248_3164633998754_1352491418_3259108_263889306_nTo put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy.   And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.

howlsMiyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.

4699995196_27fa6302fa
Albert Robida’s Future
robidavie08
Albert Robida’s Dreadnoughts

The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars.[3] The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century.[4] Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.

howls_moving_castle_battleships

Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.

airships-howlThe first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.

Howls20Moving20Castle01065_from_we-The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men;[5] enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.

08-howlsOne of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.

Witch's_henchmenThe most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action.[6] She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.

21e63264e1ed9b48c5cf7c5b5e92a182War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.[7]

tumblr_lk11muJQKe1qe0xgwo1_500From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.

Howl.full.150241Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden;[8] his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.

o-oSophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.

1446593538-5260766be0110108a38b58383f966fe3The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Howl-5Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.

[1] For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 9.

[3] See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.

[4] For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.

[5] The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.

[6] The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.

[7] For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.

[8] The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.

The Empire of Corpses by Ryotaro Makihara

tftf3ffsv3ctfopnyfaq The movie Empire of Corpses, which had its world premier outside Japan in the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 11 October, had everything that attracts me to anime in insane profusion: a vast sprawling plot, an ornately beautiful cataclysm at its climax, an impenetrable philosophy which inexplicably roots itself in your mind for days afterwards, and a magnificent soundtrack. That these elements don’t really cohere – there are gaping plot holes which one can only ascribe, like the holes in Takashi Nakamura’s Tree of Palme or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, to the likelihood that it has been cut down from an even vaster and more insanely ambitious director’s edit – hardly diminishes its attractions. And it made me think quite hard about two things: the powers that drive the subgenre called Steampunk and the passionate love affair between anime and books.

The first of these is something many people have written about, but Makihara’s film drove it home to me: how well Steampunk is named, since the term for the genre incorporates the energy source of an era. Steam isn’t always, though, as central to the plot of a Steampunk narrative as it is in Steamboy, which is full of massive metal components being propelled at appalling forces in all directions by compressed superheated water vapour, to devastating effect on the London landscape. Indeed Adam Roberts’s novel Swiftly, which takes as its premise the notion that all the lands discovered by Jonathan Swift’s egomaniac traveller Lemuel Gulliver have been colonized by various global empires, contains no steam at all. Why invent the steam engine, after all, when you have Brobdingnagians to lift your heavy loads, Lilliputians to do your delicate work, and Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to stock your armies? The power that drives the British Empire in Roberts’s mid-nineteenth century is slavery, and the pattern of the enslavement of smaller species by larger ones – and of more or less organized rebellion against oppression – seems to be repeated throughout the physical universe.

In Empire of Corpses the empires of the world are powered by the dead. Soulless hordes of staggering zombies have replaced the working classes as the components of every industrial enterprise and imperial war machine on the planet. What has become of the actual working classes we aren’t told, but by the middle of the movie it seems distinctly probable that they have been turned into zombies before death, through the horribly aggressive method, depicted in the movie’s opening shots, of inserting an oversized syringe into the brainstem – thus overriding their personalities with an artificial compound of music and opium (a witty take on Marx’s famous conflation of religion with a hallucinogenic drug). The premise satisfies because it brings together a number of themes associated in viewers’ minds with the nineteenth century: decline of religious faith, religious and moral hypocrisy, alienation of labour, men conceived as mechanisms, a morbid fascination with mortality, an inhuman ruling class who preach the highest ideals (one especially ambitious proponent of zombyism insists that filling the world with walking dead will bring universal peace at last – an assertion it’s hard to deny). And the fact that the movie’s central character shares the imperialists’ obsession with reanimating corpses for what may well be entirely selfish motives is equally satisfying. John Watson – yes, that John Watson – is literally hell bent on restoring his dead friend Friday to life; and his exploitation of Friday’s zombiefied corpse as a servant, bodyguard and amanuensis while ostensibly working for his benefit makes a neat point about the ease with which selfless high ideals can mutate into a cover for self-interest – a situation Makihara implicitly extends to the whole of the British Empire (and every other imperial power) in this movie.

But Empire of Corpses also reminded me of anime’s love affair with books, and that’s what lingered in my mind after the end credits (which are well worth watching to the end – Japanese audiences, I’m told by my colleague Saeko Yazaki, consider it rude to leave the cinema before the screen goes blank). Not only is the film stocked with literary figures – John Watson, Friday from Robinson Crusoe, the brothers Karamazov, Captain Nemo (or at least his ship), Mary Shelley’s eloquent creature (as well as James Whale’s dumb one, who unaccountably makes an appearance towards the end) – but the plot is unabashedly literary in character. The quest throughout is to recover Victor Frankenstein’s lost notes, which are said to contain the secret for reanimating the soul as well as the body – thus enabling zombies to speak, as Friday cannot. The villain – James Bond’s M – aims to overwrite the minds of the intransigent subjects of the British Empire with a more docile model of consciousness; in other words, he’s more interested in soulless zombies than articulate creatures of the sort Frankenstein created. Watson, by contrast, hopes to find a way to overcome Friday’s muteness by having him write down everything that happens to him as the two of them traverse the globe in search of that earlier set of notes. Dead Friday, then, writes living Watson; M seeks to rewrite the imperial citizen as a docile animated corpse; Frankenstein’s creature seeks to rewrite the android woman with the consciousness of his uncreated bride – acts of writing, over-writing, co-writing and rewriting fill the plot, till one could be forgiven for losing track of the characters’ motives altogether.

All these acts of posthumous writing and rewriting are rendered poignant by the fact that this movie is an adaptation of the last novel by Satoshi Ito – Project Ito – who died of cancer while writing Empire of Corpses, leaving it to be finished by his friends. The clearly homoerotic relationship between Watson and Friday – which precedes his quasi-homoerotic relationship with Sherlock by a decade – looks like a passionate tribute to a much-loved writer by friends and fans, who are determined to continue his project in spite of his death (there are two more full-length animes planned, which will make this movie into the first part of a trilogy). Indeed, one could say that this bid to film Ito’s work is powered by his death, lent passion by it; the zombie empire in the film can be read as a metaphor for grief, which so easily becomes a struggle to keep a lost one’s memory alive, to defy death’s tyranny, to promote the words that are all that survive of a writer’s mind after her demise. Reading a dead writer’s words is an act of reanimation, and this film indulges in this particular form of Frankensteinian re-creation with flamboyant enthusiasm.

Of all forms of film, anime is perhaps the one that’s most obsessed with books. It’s not just a matter of the dozens of adaptations of novels with which it’s stocked, from Isao Takahata’s TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps to Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty, from Satoshi Kon’s swansong Paprika, based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, to Nakamura’s post-apocalyptic versions of Pinocchio (A Tree of Palme) and Peter Pan (the TV series Fantastic Children). There are also the shows that dramatize the love of books itself, such as Koji Masunari’s OVA Read or Die (itself adapted from a series of light novels), featuring a bespectacled, shy librarian with superpowers that enable her to make anything out of paper, from full-size planes to bullet-proof shields; Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island, in which two young brothers are sustained through the Russian occupation of their island home by their passion for Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad; or Yoshifumi Kondo’s masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, whose heroine finds herself drawn to a boy in her high school by their mutual love of reading. Hayao Miyazaki (who scripted Whisper and Arrietty) is famously literary in his inspirations: Treasure Island underlies Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, Andersen’s Little Mermaid haunts Ponyo, while the success of his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle added insult to injury when his son Goro enthusiastically mashed together the Earthsea books in the critically panned Tales from Earthsea (for which I have a not-so-sneaking admiration). The labour of drawing characters, backgrounds and successive frames by hand for animated movies seems to yoke them to other forms of visionary, labour-intensive activities such as those of the solitary novelist, the mangaka or the attentive reader.

Unknown

Reading and writing have never been more violent than in Empire of Corpses, nor so perversely erotic. I say ‘perversely’ because the central character has necrophiliac tendencies, which finally find an outlet in his willingness to embrace corpsedom himself (no spoilers here) to get close to his departed friend or lover. Is the film suggesting that reading books by dead authors (and Friday becomes a dead author by virtue of his note-taking) is, like orgasm, a kind of death? It certainly seems to suggest that encountering the past through books resembles a battle with enraged zombies – an idea which surely has some weight in these zombie-obsessed early decades of the twentieth century. The film’s greatest perversity, though, is the absence of female characters. The only prominent woman in it is an android with outsized breasts who spends half her time wielding a flamethrower and the other half flailing around in agony as Mary Shelley’s creature strives to convert her into a vehicle for the resurrected soul of his lost bride. There are some Victorian imperialist attitudes that aren’t worth reviving – and others that have shuffled on into the twenty-first century, gnashing their corpselike teeth in a vain attempt to fend off the forces of feminism. A shame that this film chooses in the end to align itself with the latter.