Sunday, February 21, 2010

Art of Animation – Miyazaki

Since “Ponyo” was released on American shores this past summer, I decided to revisit a book I had about Hayao Miyazaki, ironically called “Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation”. It gives a nice basic overview of the man’s career up to the release of “Princess Mononoke” in 1998. So it’s a bit dated. In a way it was a neat look back at the type of book that would be released before the internet really took off for all things Anime and a time when most of Miyazaki’s work hadn’t been released in the states. Reading now was a bit odd, because the bulk of it is synopsizes for movies that are readily available. But back in the late 90’s only three of his films were available (uncut) in the US market, “Princess Mononoke”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro”. It is the history of his animation work as well as the creation of his own studio, Ghibli, that makes this an interesting read– if not covered in a lot of depth.

But why should anyone care about Miyazaki? Japanese animation is pretty prevalent now and it’s impact has crossed over into much modern American animation. For one thing Miyazaki is actually a master storyteller in the animated medium. Just looking at his filmography and you can see a wide variety of topics: a comedy adventure film about a thief with a heart of gold, an epic post-apocalyptic legend, the story of a young witch trying to make it on her own in a big city, the war of man against nature staged in a mythic samurai setting, and the tale of a little mermaid who nearly destroys the earth. What is amazing is that all the films are successful and a few would be considered gems in anyone’s career.

Comparisons between Miyazaki and Disney usually occur. Miyazaki strikes me as less of the showman and more of a storyteller. The writer of the book actually compares Miyazaki to another famous Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa of “Seven Samurai” fame. That does seem to fit a bit better. Miyazaki picks his stories with care and makes sure that even in the simplest story a couple of key themes are realized. One of these themes seems to be man’s place in the world with nature. This has been a key element since his first independent film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and continues twenty some odd years later into “Ponyo”. For some, and this includes me, it comes across a bit preachy, but if you look at Miyazaki’s main conceit, it isn’t that humans are bad and nature is good. It’s more like humans are a part of nature – neither above or below it. Humans must understand that when they harm nature they harm themselves. “Nausicaa” and “Princess Mononoke” show this most clearly, but “Totoro” and “Ponyo” have elements of this as well.

One thing that Miyazaki does excel at is making his character relatable and human (even if they aren’t strictly speaking human). This is something that Disney seemed to loose it’s grip on in the late 90’s and that Pixar quickly figured out. Nearly all the main characters in a Miyazaki film connect with the viewer on some level. We’ve all been the new person in a situation, or felt like we’ve been put into a situation we weren’t ready to accept, or just dealt with losing a friend because they move away. His use of animating the world around the characters in a way that allows us to view it as they do works wonders.

One of my favorite moments of this is when Kiki, the young witch looking for a place to set up her new life, flies into the city for the first time. Up to this point Miyazaki has kept things moving at a measured pace, keeping motion leisurely and relaxed. But the minute Kiki gets into the city everything is in motion. There is noise all over the place, and Kiki nearly ends up run over by a bus. The anxiety is perfectly captured in the animation, facial expressions and music of the scene. Kiki and the audience wonders if she’s just stepped into something way bigger than she is.

I could write reams about what Miyazaki does right in his films. But I urge you to check out one of his films if you haven’t already. Different people will need different starting points. Those who enjoy a bit more mythic and epic feels to their stories would probably want to start with Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind which could fall into fantasy or sci-fi respectively. Looking for something more along the cute and harmless route? I suggest Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro. Enjoy Alice in Wonderland and want to see a darker Japanese version, Spirited Away is perfect for that. Love WW1 airplanes and screwball comedy, Porco Rosso is the movie for you. Jules Verne more your speed, Castle in the Sky is the one for you. Looking for a modern day fairytale: check out the “Little Mermaid” inspired, Ponyo. The only one I don’t have a category for is Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s very much like a fairy tale, but has an old world feel to it. Visually it’s amazing. But it’s the one place where it feels a little off in the story department.

My favorites? “Spirited Away” amazes me each time I watch it. Visually stunning, a solid story and an excellent score to boot. My second favorite would be “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The movie fits the definition of delightful. Kiki’s a great character and her struggles in the second half of the movie will appeal to just about anyone who feels they have a talent, but also feels that they’ve lost touch with it. The movie never fails to make me smile.

Ever seen any of Miyazaki’s films? Do you have a favorite? Do you think animation can be used to tell a story with impact, or is it only a place for kids entertainment?

Check out a blog about Spirited Away and it's take on fantasy here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

One man’s mania – Virtues of War

Good old Alexander the Great, one of those historical figures that fascinates and torments historians. Was he a great leader, a mad man, or some combination of the two? Films and books have struggled with the man and his exploits, each tackling a different angle on him. Most recently I ending up reading “Virtues of War” by Stephen Pressfield.

The first thing Pressfield had to do was figure out how to approach Alexander. He doesn’t shy away at all. The book is written in the First Person point of view, so right off the bat you are put into Alexander’s mind. I thought this was a bold and unexpected movie. It presumes a bit that the author understands Alexander enough to give us an accurate picture

The story starts in India with Alexander facing what could be his greatest challenge. Not only is a vast army arrayed against him, but his men are losing faith in Alexander’s mission and without their fighting spirit Alexander fears that he may be unable to grasp victory. He brings in one of the young squires to see if the boy can give him a new perspective. Of course he has to bring the squire up to speed, and in the process he brings the readers up to speed as well.

This is Alexander’s history according to Alexander, and in a way it provides us with a view of his accomplishments and why he is so driven. It’s a character study with lots of battle scenes, plotting and of course dealing with the problems of a world conqueror. We come to understand Alexander’s drive, or at least see why he is so driven

Pressfield gives Alexander a belief in dualism of self. There is Alexander the friend and companion. Then there is Alexander the monster – a thing driven by the desire for glory and desire for the unobtainable. The two are often one being, but Alexander fears the monster inside him and what it will drive him to do. But this isn’t a split personality. It is part of Alexander, something he can not forget or ignore.

The book was a very good read. It provided a very interesting and believable view of Alexander the Great. It also gave a pretty interesting view of the most famous battle Alexander waged. Historians don’t’ really understand how some ancient warfare worked, but Pressfield does a great job of throwing you into the action and making is accessible and entertaining. Definitely a recommendation for anyone interested in Alexander or ancient battle campaigns.

What did you think of “Virtues of War”? What is the best version of Alexander the Great’s story you’ve encountered? Is there another way to approach the story of historical figure who is a real puzzle?