Monday, January 31, 2011

The Supporting Cast is the Lead – Memnon

In my continuing quest to read historical fiction based on ancient Greece, I ran into “Memnon”, a tale that takes place during the age of Alexander the Great. Last year I read the novel Virtues of War that presented Alexander’s rise from his point of view. It was an intriguing character study that worked well.

Author Scott Oden took a different tact, by basing the novel around one of Alexander’s enemies, and so we get a very different view of the Macedonian conqueror. The story revolves around Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek mercenary who finds himself allied with the powerful Persian lord Artabazus. We follow Memnon from his youth in Rhodes, and through the forging a powerful leader of men. Oden even has Memnon meet Alexander while Artabazus is in exile in Macedonia.

Things get really interesting as Memnon comes to realize that Alexander presents a greater threat than his father ever did. Being experienced in battling with and against the Macedonian forces Memnon attempts to bring his knowledge to the famous battle of Granicus River. But internal politics on the Persian side keeps Memnon’s advice from being heeded. Disaster results. The climax of the story occurs when Alexander reaches the city of Halicarnassus. He begins his siege and Memnon comes up with a plan to make Alexander pay for the city with as many lives as possible.

Memnon is a pretty interesting character. He’s smart, able to read people very well, brave to a fault and not willing to give up. But he does suffer from a plight that many heroic figures end up with in novels. He’s never wrong. A little of this goes a long way, but I think Oden wanted to show that Memnon was an equal to Alexander’s strategic powers, but it was Alexander’s luck that allowed him to defeat Memnon. Still, the protagonist never makes a bad decision or misjudgment. Sure, it may appear to be so at first, but he’s always proven right in the end.

Honestly this is a minor quibble. The story has so many interesting characters, and a perspective that I don’t see often in fiction based in this time period. Usually its Alexander or his men we are linked to, it’s rare to see it from the opposing side. Picking Memnon was a great move. Little is known about him for certain, so Oden was able to give him an intriguing back-story and interaction with the Persians and his brother Mentor. This combined with the exciting historical details made for an excellent read.

Have you ever read a book that took place from the point of view of a lesser known historical figure, or one that was on the losing side of a conflict? Did it work? Do you think this would be easier or more difficult to write?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From Animation to Epic - Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind

Hayao Miyazaki is known for his animated feature films. He is often called the Walt Disney of Japan. I’ve blogged about him before, and I will get some review for his films up over at my movie review site. But there is another piece of work that Miyazaki did in the mid 1990’s that doesn’t get as much discussion as his film work. That is his graphic novel (or manga in Japanese) called “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”.

This was also the title of Miyazaki’s first animated feature that he funded and produced on his own. Prior to this Miyazaki had been a director for hire working on many popular programs and movies including “Sherlock Hound” and ”The Castle of Caligastro”. But this was the first time Miyazaki was able to create a story he wanted to tell. And what a story it is. It takes place on a world that has been consumed by a toxic jungle, after humans have decimated the planet during a horrible war. The survivors attempt to survive on the edge of the toxic jungle, and one of these bastions of civilization is the Valley of the Wind. Princess Nausicaa and her people live in peace, until an airship crashes near their town. The people of the valley try to help the survivors, but there are none. The next day another airship appears, this one bearing an army bent on taking back what the first airship had in its cargo. War has come to the Valley and Nausicaa must defend her people from it, and keep the war from causing an invasion of giant insects that populate the toxic forest.

The movie was done in the early 80’s and while some of the animation looks a bit primitive now, the design and thought put into the world and the story is top notch. Miyazaki shows all the elements he would be come a master of in his later films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”.

The difference between the film and the manga is that Miyazaki takes the world he created in the film and expands upon it tenfold. In the film there are three factions on this world, the valley of the wind, the warlike Torumekians, and the city of Pejitei. The manga has countless more, all pockets of humans that are tied to one another by war or dependence. Each one plays a key role in the story and adds to the main themes of compassion and man’s relationship with nature.

Nausicaa is the same character, a young woman who is so compassionate and caring that she is nearly perfect. Normally this kind of character is really hard to identify with and not be annoyed by. But Miyazaki keeps her human by having her struggle with her anger at first and then with despair. Most of the decisions she makes are the right ones, and she tends to always know when thing are going to happen or how they will play out. But we begin to feel bad for her. This world is filled with death and destruction. She can’t understand why people do what they do to each other. She can’t understand why they won’t change. It really begins to take its toll, and in the last third of the story, she begins to wonder if fighting to help these idiots is even worth it.

All along the forest and the powers of nature work against the humans, because the humans keep working against it. Miyazaki is a notorious ecologist. Many of his films include some kind of ecological message and to be honest he can feel preachy. The film of Nausicaa being one of his earliest seems to really slam it home at times. The novel isn’t exactly subtle but it works the message into the story of compassion, and makes it a bit more palatable. Humans are part of the natural world, and Miyazaki’s message is that no matter how hard humans struggle to dominate it – they are never going to be the masters. They must learn to live with nature. The toxic forest appears to be a cancer creeping across the world and destroying human civilization. While humans do their best to destroy themselves. But the truth is that the toxic forest is the first stage in a cleansing for the world, and if humans could only understand that, they would be able to look forward to a bright future.

The novel of Nausicaa retains much of the amazing art design and feel of the animation, but gets to really explore more facets of it. We get to see more giant creatures, more technology from the various factions, and more characters with other costumes and equipment. Miyazaki put a lot of effort into keeping the original feel and just delving into it.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese manga before, I heartily recommend this series. You don’t have to be familiar with the movie to enjoy it. It contains a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. The art is excellent and the story, while it may be a bit familiar or heavy handed at times, is still very enjoyable. It’s in print in a six book format (I have the older four book format). For me this was an excellent transition. For the most part anime is based on a manga series and the results are usually poor. But because we have the same creator for both and because he took a story that was roughly 2 hours and developed it into a true epic (the events of the movie take up two thirds of the first book, and then the story goes into a new and interesting direction), its like reading a totally different animal.

Have you ever read or seen “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind”? Do you have a favorite transition form graphic novel to movie or vice versa? What do you think about characters who appear “perfect”?