Floating Weeds: a graceful work of compassion for human frailties

Yasujiro Ozu, “Floating Weeds” (1959)

In the hands of a lesser director, the soap opera plot of this film would have become sensationalist drama, soon to be forgotten, but because the director is Yasujiro Ozu, the story becomes a comment on the generation gap and a society undergoing profound change under Western influence leading to the death of tradition, family break-up and people lost and anchorless on life journeys. A small struggling troupe of actors who perform kabuki plays comes to a sleepy seaside town in 1950s Japan. Its main actor, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), drops in on an old lover of his, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), to see how his son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has progressed in his absence. Progress might be an understatement: the son has just left high school and hopes to go away to college to study electronics – an unbelievable ambition for a child of humble village origins. Kumajuro’s mistress in the acting troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is jealous that her man has gone to see an old flame and plots revenge: she persuades fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi, aware that a liaison would ruin Kiyoshi’s plans and thus his future. Kiyoshi falls hard for Kayo and is prepared to throw everything away for her. In the meantime, Komajuro’s acting troupe, failing to draw full houses for their tired stage productions, break up and Komajuro is faced with having to depend on Oyoshi for a living and admitting to Kiyoshi that he, Komajuro, supposedly his uncle, is really his long-lost dad.

The style of the film is very understated and the acting is restrained, rendering the intense emotion bubbling beneath the actors’ quite stoic veneers all the more acute. Tension when it breaks out is sudden and shocking. We get a real sense of things careening out of control as Komajuro finds that his hitherto neatly compartmentalised life breaks down thanks to Sumiko’s scheming. People get upset, fall into messy and socially embarrassing relationships and Komajuro lashes out violently; his behaviour just leads to more misunderstanding and fall-out. What could have been reunion, reconnection and reconciliation becomes instead alienation. Komajuro has to learn what is of real value and where his loyalties should lie; they do not necessarily lie with traditional family structures but with family based on common experiences and life-long bonds, whether blood-based or not.

Apart from Komajuro and Sumiko, the characters are one-dimensional and represent particular stereotypes in the Yasujiro Ozu universe. The real glories of “Floating Weeds” lie in the creation of atmosphere and in the camera’s delight in stills of house interiors and village life. Sometimes the camera is placed on the floor or at knee level which affords a very intimate viewing of the action that occurs and the conflicts that are brewing. The camera rarely moves and the action takes place as if on a stage. In several scenes, we really do see plays within a play. The film’s approach tends to be cool, remote and objective, very formal, and the actors move and behave in restrained and formal ways as if the whole film itself is a kabuki performance. Even Komajuro and Sumiko’s first vicious argument is staged in an unusual way that at once stresses the distance between them personally and between them and the audience, yet intensifies the heated emotion: the two argue across an alley during a heavy downpour of summer rain. At one point in the film, Komajuro and Kiyoshi together discuss the troupe’s first performance: Kiyoshi jokingly tells Komajuro that he overacts but then later says that the troupe and its repertoire are too old-fashioned and stale for younger audiences who want something more current, while Komajuro tells Kiyoshi his troupe’s plays appeal to unrefined tastes and therefore Kiyoshi shouldn’t waste his time watching them. The two might very well have been talking about Ozu’s movies, the state of the Japanese film industry and popular tastes in cinema at the time!

Slow in pace, picturesque in a small-scaled way, intimate and revolving around human relationships rendered intense by studied acting, the film won’t appeal to everyone but to those not afraid of watching Ozu’s particular style of story-telling, “Floating Weeds” is a graceful work that casts no judgement on human frailty but instead urges compassion for people as they struggle and cope with life-long consequences of decisions they foolishly made years ago and now must come to terms with.


The Eel: tale of redemption labouring under too many complex abstract themes

Shohei Imamura, “The Eel / Unagi” (1997)

Japan’s boys in blue have an enviable record in obtaining a near 100% rate of criminal convictions and never more so than when the criminal walks into the police station, calmly announces that he’s just killed his wife and places the bloody knife on the customer services counter. Thus begins a complex character study in which a man, burdened with guilt and a heavy past, claws his way back into society and thus redeem himself. After eight years in prison for killing his wife whom he caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) moves away from Tokyo and with the help of his Buddhist priest parole officer makes a new life for himself as a barber in a country town. The community is populated with some oddball types who include a young man who borrows Takuro’s barbershop pole in the evenings to attract UFOs.

Initially business isn’t great because Takuro is a morose taciturn fellow who talks only to his pet eel, acquired at the prison. Then into his life comes a mysterious young woman Keiko (Misa Shimizu) who has just attempted suicide. Takuro saves her life and in gratitude Keiko offers to work as his assistant. The priest parole officer approves of the arrangement and soon Keiko starts attracting business for the barbershop in town and beyond with her grace and beauty. She falls in love with Takuro and Takuro himself struggles to repress his desire for her. But as life would have it, Takuro’s former prison-mate Takasaki turns up as a local garbage collector jealous of Takuro’s luck in finding a new life and threatening to expose Takuro’s secret past; and Keiko’s past catches up with her as an old flame (Tomorowo Taguchi) tries to extort money from her mentally fragile mother and comes to threaten Keiko herself.

The film’s style is smooth, graceful and studied with moments of intense emotion and slapstick humour that don’t really sit well together. The early scenes suggest that a gritty hardboiled drama is in the offering but as the film progresses, director Imamura seems to find handling some climactic scenes rather too confronting and intense as these are turned into improbable farce. The film is mainly driven by its characters and in this the two leading actors excel: Yakusho as Takuro combines patience, stoicism, self-guilt, remorse and repressed desire in the one taciturn character and Shimizu plays a complex self-conflicted woman who at first appears submissive and virginal but is later revealed as a passionate and assertive businesswoman who beats up her gangster boyfriend.

The film is an interrogation of contrasts within and between people and what these say about the rather schizophrenic nature of modern Japanese society. Individuals may deal with these contrasts and the stresses they create by indulging in odd and eccentric pastimes: Takuro by talking to his eel, Keiko’s mother by imagining herself as a flamenco dancer and the young townsman by trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Takuro’s dead wife Emiko and Keiko are compared and contrasted in their sensuality and their homely domesticity, most notably in their offerings of lunch to Takuro. Takuro finds redemption in running a barbershop and talking to his eel while Takasaki is unable to find authenticity and a path in life despite chanting Buddhist sutras constantly. Madness appears to be a constant theme: Keiko frets that she might have inherited her mum’s unstable nature and Takuro has periodic hallucinations. At the end of the day, we don’t really know if Takuro really did catch Emiko with a lover. This possibility together with some disturbing implications are dealt with rather flippantly by Imamura by having Keiko fall pregnant with a baby whose paternity is unknown. Takuro accepts Keiko in her pregnant state but one wonders whether the way in which he passively agrees to support Keiko and her unborn child really does signify a wholehearted acceptance of Keiko with all her faults and foibles or if this merely suggests Takuro’s accommodation with society and its pressures.

It may well be that Takuro was truly himself when he killed Emiko, only to lapse back into his deadened self to face the consquences. His behaviour towards Keiko as their working relationship becomes close may either be interpreted as Takuro rediscovering his true emotional self, or paying off his karmic debt or simply acting as he should since he is on parole and must behave properly. The tension throughout the film comes from viewers’ knowledge of Takuro’s early intense rage and whether it will erupt again to such devastating effect. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), there is a real possibility that Takuro will not return to Keiko and that Keiko herself may return to her old job in the city.

The letters that Takuro receives in the film may or may not be real and the film suggests that Takuro’s real problem is his inability to be true to himself and to give and receive love. Takasaki plays on his mind quite a bit to the extent that Takuro has difficulty accepting his hallucinations about the man for what they are and projecting his hallucinations outwardly in ways viewers may find disturbing.

Ultimately the film suffers itself from the burden of its abstract complexity and the various mind games it plays with the audience. The movie starts off strongly but then doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or a drama of passion. Most of the support cast tend to be one-dimensional and parts of the plot appear as an after-thought: Takasaki is introduced quite late in the piece as a foil for Takuro and Takuro’s relationship with his eel is rather undeveloped – the eel is made to symbolise aspects of Takuro’s life that remain hidden and also carries him through his transition from prison life to civilian normality. Though when at last Takuro releases his eel into the sea, one must ask whether this means Takuro has regained what he lost in his distant white-collar job or whether he has finally accepted that mainstream society requires him to stay emotionally dead.

Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise: a handsome coming-of-age film about individual and communal redemption

Hiroyuki Yamaga, “Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise / Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa” (1987)

A very visually handsome and often stunning film to watch, “Royal Space Force …” reflects something of the global politics and various conflicts, expressed in war, society and culture, of the time when it was made. In a parallel universe to ours, on an alternative Earth, a kingdom and a republic – both representing the pinnacle of industrial civilisation – are on the verge of total war. In the kingdom of Honnêamise, a young man, Shirotsugh Lhadatt, lacking in direction fails his entry exam into the royal airforce and drifts into the nation’s moribund space program. He meets a young religious woman, Riquinni, who sees in him a potential messiah of sorts and who urges him to try out for the project to put a man in space for the first time. Shirotsugh follows Riquinni’s advice. There then follows a sequence of events that test Shirotsugh’s character and those of the other men in the project: they are assailed by doubt, technological problems, the disdain of the airforce, their government’s machinations and the pressure arising from their media celebrity and the kingdom’s hopes and dreams. The men discover that the rocket that will launch Shirotsugh into space is to take off from a launch-pad in a demilitarised zone between the kingdom and the enemy republic; this was planned deliberately by the kingdom’s top military personnel to provoke the enemy into a hot war. Sure enough, the republic reacts with extreme firepower and the project to send Shirotsugh into space is in doubt due to the danger from war.

The film’s greatest achievement perhaps is in the creation of a convincing world and civilisation that mix tradition and modern technology, out of which emerges a complex society with distinct values that are often contradictory and which give rise to social and cultural tensions. The kingdom is a hierarchy and its government appears to be bureaucratic and corrupt. The space program has been neglected at times and is the butt of humiliating jokes about its worth. At the same time, viewers are aware that this civilisation is an alien one, albeit one they accept quickly on its own terms: weapons, planes and other technology seem vaguely familiar and look like an amalgam of major late 19th / early to mid 20th century technology squished together until they blend into fantastic shapes and sizes. Thus at once we recognise them as familiar and as strange. Although a significant element in the film, the style of technology as a kind of cyberpunk retro-modern is consistent and it is very much at the service of the humans in transport, communication and fighting.

The path that Shirotsugh takes to become his planet’s first astronaut shapes his character and outlook and the film can be seen as a coming-of-age flick in which the protagonist finds new purpose in life and gains redemption and enlightenment in an endeavour which initially brings him scorn, then fame and celebrity, and finally a realisation that he is being used as a pawn. Nevertheless Shirotsugh achieves a significant goal for humanity and becomes an intercessor for his planet and the cosmos beyond. In this, he conveys a message of peace to his people far below, urging everyone to lay aside weapons of killing and war and to work towards repairing the damage they have wrought upon their planet. Redemption might come to humanity as a result of restoring their relationship with nature.

The film can be seen as a subtle criticism of religion, especially the type of unquestioning and passive religion which threatens to turn Riquinni into an eternal submissive victim. The very personal and intimate spiritual enlightenment Shirotsugh achieves can be compared to institutional religion and religious cults with the latter shown up as wanting. There may or may not a subtle critique of the patriarchal hierarchy that dominates the kingdom’s life and culture: nearly all significant characters are men and the one notable female character, Riquinni, appears as a figure of pathos.

Everything in the film flows steadily, enabling major characters to fill out as rounded individuals whom audiences can warm to and identify with. The first half of the film can be quite slow and most of the heavy action is in the last half-hour. Even so, in scenes of fighting and violent destruction the film’s emphasis remains on the Royal Space Force’s attempt to send Shirotsugh into space. The fight scenes are not treated as huge spectacles of complex technology being mashed up under a hail of bombs and fire-power; there is just enough action and killing to demonstrate the intense nature of the war between the kingdom and the republic.

Shirotsugh comes across as a likeable everyday man and most other characters have their quirks and eccentricities. Riquinni fails to inspire much sympathy even during an attempted rape by Shirotsugh; her later apology for bopping Shirotsugh and stopping him from ravishing her might shock viewers but is in agreement with her character.

One disappointment about “Royal Space Force …” is the mostly forgettable music by renowned musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; there are some musical passages of delicate emotion but on the whole the soundtrack is not outstanding and has a staid air.

Although over 25 years old as of this time of writing, the film hasn’t aged much and stands up well against more recent animated competition thanks largely to the strength of its plot and themes, and of the well-rounded characters. While the plot is not complex, it is a character-driven piece and much of the pleasure in watching the movie is in seeing how Shirotsugh grows in maturity and wisdom. The art of the film is detailed though not too much so and background scenes can be very beautiful and serene in a self-sufficient way. As family fare, the film may be a little advanced for young viewers and older children who are not quite teenagers might need repeated viewings. It’s a film that believes wholeheartedly in the potential of the human spirit and the gifts that await when that potential is fulfilled.



Steamboy: epic cyberpunk film shooting its load too quickly and running out of steam

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Steamboy / Suchimoboi” (2004)

A decade in the making, Katsuhiro Otomo’s second full-length film is an epic cyberpunk fantasy that carries a message about how science and technology should be used to benefit humans and promote peace over profit and war. The fairly basic story revolves around a young boy, Ray Steam, living in an alternate 19th century Britain, whose father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd have invented a revolutionary machine called a steamball. It contains immense power that is self-renewing and the Steam family’s financial backers intend to profit from the steamball by selling it to the highest bidders. Lloyd Steam flees the United States with the prototype after an accident has felled Eddie and sends the steamball onto his family in Manchester. No sooner does Lloyd’s daughter-in-law Emma receive the steamball than agents immediately surround the family home and Ray escapes with the steamball on his own monowheel invention. He meets Robert Stephenson, for whom Lloyd Steam had intended to send the steamball, but is quickly whisked away by the agents. Ray soon finds himself hostage with the Ohara Foundation which has continued to hire his father (whom Ray had believed dead) to work on more steamballs.

Ray learns that his father and grandfather have fallen out over how the steamball’s power should be used. Lloyd is a utopian idealist believing that the steamball must be utilised for peaceful purposes and its benefits given freely to all, rich and poor alike. Eddie is drunk on the power and influence he imagines the steamball will bring to him. As is the case with epic action sci-fi family-friendly flicks, whether the steamball falls into the hands of people with noble intentions or not comes to depend on young Ray being able to decide if his father or his grandfather is right. In this unenviable situation which has the potential to change the course of history in this alternate Victorian universe, Ray finds an unexpected ally in the unlikely form of the spoilt heir to the Ohara Foundation, Scarlett (groan!) and maybe her pet chihuahua.

Aiming for an international audience, perhaps to recoup the immense costs of its production, the film features a bland story that packs in as many implausible narrow escapes for Ray as possible as he navigates the treacherous currents resulting from the moral dilemma that he shouldn’t have to face. Both Eddie and Lloyd represent two extremes – one collectivist, one individualist – of a continuum that reduces them to warring mad scientists. Characters are stereotyped to the point of giving offence to most people – the brave boy, the spoilt rich girl, the grim jut-jawed father figure, the eccentric grand-dad – and many viewers may recognise the stereotypes as typical Japanese stereotypes drawn from samurai dramas. Honour in the form of family honour and personal moral honour becomes important. Too many coincidences exist for the plot to be plausible: Lloyd arrives home after a long absence in the nick of time to warn Ray just as the agents have parachuted into the family home and Ray meets Robert Stephenson very much sooner than he anticipates. Surprise, surprise, we discover later on that Dr Stephenson is not such a good guy either and this really poses a moral problem for Ray who realises that maybe grand-dad Lloyd, for all his knowledge and wisdom, might not be entirely altruistic himself.

The animation has been lovingly worked over but the film moves at such a cracking pace that viewers are unable to fully appreciate the intricate detailing that has gone into many scenes. Too many dark neutral colours such as fifty shades of grey feature throughout the film. It’s as if Otomo and his team, once they started working on the visual technical details, lost sight of the overall work and allowed it to escape too far away from them. The film divides into two distinct halves, the first half being mostly exposition and the second half turning into no more than a serious of explosions, crises and the narrowest of escapes in which luck figures more strongly than quick thinking, ingenuity and skill. The second half of the film is so crowded with cliched cliff-hangings (and equally banal dialogue about being masters of the universe with scientific knowledge) and cor-blimey explosive scenes in which most of London is destroyed that viewers might well consider fast-forwarding through the lot of them and return to normal speed in the closing scenes where Ray and Scarlett leave his squabbling forebears going down with their proto-Titanic in the Thames River.

There are parallels with Otomo’s earlier work “Akira” and a number of characters could have been lifted straight from that film and deposited into this one with no difference at all apart from a change of clothes. Many viewers are likely also to compare “Steamboy” with the Studio Ghibli classic “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” which features similar protagonists, one of whom also has a compromised relative, and which takes place in an alternative Victorian universe where airborne technology got a head-start over our part of the cosmos.

I’m rather sorry that “Steamboy” founders on such a weak and derivative story and cartoonish characters (well, yes, it is a cartoon but it could have been more than just a cartoon) as the animation is stunning and really deserved a worthy plot and original themes.

Laputa, Castle in the Sky: a joyful adventure film with an earnest social responsibility message

Hayao Miyazaki, “Laputa, Castle in the Sky / Tenko no shiro Ryaputa” (1986)

One of Studio Ghibli’s great joys, this film has everything you could possibly want: a poor orphan boy’s dream of flying and of seeing a magical island paradise in the sky fulfilled; a girl lost and found who is the heir to a long-vanished civilisation; sky pirates with hearts of gold; and a sinister government agent ready to betray anyone and everyone in his monomaniacal desire to harness a secret power to rule the earth. Throw in a message about the use and misuse of powerful technology and a lesson on how to handle great knowledge and energy weapons responsibly, and you have yourself a wondrous family movie that stands the test of time nearly 30 years after it was made. That’s “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” in a nutshell.

All right, a bit more detail is needed: the orphaned miner’s son Pazu finds a young girl, Sheeta, apparently fallen from the sky and saved by a mysterious blue crystal on a necklace she wears around her neck. No sooner have they become acquainted than they are on the run from sky pirates led by elderly matriarch Dola and government forces led by Muska the spy. The two children literally go on a rollercoaster ride down a train track into a mine, then into a garrison that’s torn apart by a giant robot, thence into a flying pirate ship and a tiny glider plane, to land on a floating island high in the atmosphere powered by an ancient technology utilising a strange mineral element. Pazu discovers that the legend of Laputa his long-dead parents told him is true and Sheeta learns about her family heritage and the nature of her crystal and its source of power.

Pitched at a general family audience, the film is relatively uncomplicated compared to some of Studio Ghibli’s other films like “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Princess Mononoke” and there is not such an epic feel to it. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and quite conservative in their portrayal, and the princess Sheeta is less independent and coherent than most of Miyazaki’s famous pre-teen / teenage heroines. There’s just enough ambiguity in the film to satisfy adult watchers who can fill in patches in the narrative with their own imaginations and to intrigue children wondering at the immense knowledge and command of technology the Laputans had, why they decided to abandon this technology and their powers, and why the Laputan craft is destroyed, leaving behind a giant floating tree that presumably will have to rely on storm clouds for the rest of its life for water. The film deteriorates into a series of clichés in its last half hour in order to resolve the plot and drive home its earnest anti-war message about how humans must use the resources of Earth wisely and with love and compassion for their fellow beings.

As is usual for Studio Ghibli films, the visual details and backgrounds are stunning in their beauty and the alt-world steampunk technology is at once original, inventive and faithful to the style of 19th-century steam-age Victorian technology before it leapt onto air travel decades before the Orville brothers took off in their little plane. The most inventive and memorable scenes in the film are those in which Pazu and Sheeta in their tiny glider are forced to separate from the pirate mother-ship and dive into the storm circling Laputa: the blackness illuminated by lightning and the terror and wonder on Pazu’s face close up are very impressive. On the other hand, the drawing and portrayal of the characters varies from good to mediocre: Pazu is called upon to perform endless feats of strength and endurance without taking so much as a sip of water, let alone a swag of performance-enhancing energy pills, and the pirates might have come straight out of old 1960s TV adventures of “Astroboy”.

The major letdown with the film is the schmaltzy movie soundtrack music which is par for the course for Japanese family movies.

As it’s pitched to young children, “Laputa …” delivers less complexity than other Studio Ghibli creations and does not immerse viewers as fully but it is one of the studio’s most joyful pictures.




Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: visually beautiful film with a strong but naive and woolly-brained ecological message

Hayao Miyazaki, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind / Kaze no tani no Naushika” (1984)

Based on his own manga of the same name, Miyazaki’s film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” established the style of the Studio Ghibli films with its compassionate young heroine, complex story-telling in which there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and a strong environmental message that humans can and should exist together with nature and not harm or exploit it for short-sighted selfish purposes. The action takes place 1,000 years after our time in a post-apocalyptic world in which Nausicaä is a princess of a small isolated kingdom called the Valley of the Wind (hereafter called the Valley) untouched by pollution. A toxic forest known as the Sea of Decay and protected by giant arthropods called the Ohmu is spreading throughout the world through airborne spores. The princess is engaged in a long-term project to find a way of stopping the spread of this forest and help preserve her kingdom, and in doing so find a cure for her father’s terminal illness caused by the forest toxins.

Into this world an airship from the distant war-like kingdom of Tolmekia, carrying a lethal embryonic bioweapon called the Giant Warrior, crashes after being attacked by giant insects: Nausicaä tries to rescue the dying Pejite princess hostage who warns her to destroy the Grand warrior embryo. Next thing you know, the Tolmekian fleet, led by Princess Kushana and her deputy Kurotawa, moves into the Valley and occupies it, taking charge of the embryo also. Our heroine is taken as hostage and is forced to accompany Princess Kushana back to Tolmekia. The fleet is attacked by a solo Pejite plane and Nausicaä, Kushana and a few other Valley hostages barely escape alive. They all are lost in the Sea of Decay and Nausicaä determines to find the Pejite pilot. She does so but both are swallowed by quicksand and fall into a purified world below the Sea of Decay. Here Nausicaä discovers that the Sea of Decay jungle is cleansing the soil and purifying the water, and realises that the normally hostile arthropod Ohmu are protecting the jungle to stop humans from discovering the new world being born and trashing it before it can realise its potential.

Various other complicated shenanigans ensue, culminating in total war between the kingdoms of Pejite and Tolmekia, using both Ohmu and the Giant Warrior respectively to inflict massive casualties on each other and damaging the Valley’s environs. Nausicaä bravely stops the war but is severely wounded as a result and her life hangs in a precarious balance.

While the animation often leaves a great deal to be desired – Nausicaä looks far too young to be doing the things she does and she and other youthful characters look no different from most other young anime heroes and heroines – the landscapes and backgrounds are at least beautifully painted and detailed, and give an excellent impression of an alien world that partakes of futuristic post-apocalyptic dreamscapes and a prehistoric Carboniferous era of giant insects and forests of fungi. The behemoth bugs look convincing and move as realistically as their ancient forerunners might have done. Details of giant aircraft – a mix of old and new aeroplane technologies are imagined here – are a wonder to behold, especially during the attack scenes.

Characters are credible in their complexity and duplicity. Nausicaä shows unexpected ferocity in avenging her father’s death and Kurotawa is as much of a threat to Kushana as he is towards Nausicaä and her people. Other major characters such as Lord Yupa and the Pejite pilot Asbel are rather more one-dimensional; Miyazaki has never been able to handle male characters, particularly mature male characters, very well. The plot and sub-plots, however undeveloped some of these may be, convey something of the concerns of Miyazaki about the world we live in, in which great powers bluff one another, conduct their wars on smaller and vulnerable third parties’ territories and also engage in constant arms races that have the eventual effect of threatening the survival of the planet as well as themselves and the rest of humanity.

For a film made in the 1980s, “Nausicaä …” has aged very well: some of the electronic keyboard music, distinctively 1980s in sound, actually enriches the film with modern psychedelic melodic tones and ambience. The animated backgrounds and landscapes, and the careful depiction of the Valley’s culture hold up very well; on the other hand, there are very twee moments, during which Nausicaä either experiences anew a distant childhood memory or achieves spiritual union with nature, which deflate the film and risk turning it into a bit of a laughing-stock. The film’s denouement apparently did not satisfy Miyazaki and I suspect he probably preferred something more tragic which wouldn’t have gone down well with most film audiences. There are blunt references throughout the film to the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of his Kingdom.

There is a strong though very naive (and in parts, wrong-headed) ecological theme: the Sea of Decay apparently has evolved to cleanse the earth of toxins left behind by centuries of human activity and the Ohmu exist solely to guard the toxic jungle so it can do its work. This suggests a utilitarian, even moral purpose for evolution. Such a view reduces the complexity of Nature, its creatures and its systems to a vague and simplistic concept in which everything about Nature is good or moral, and anything that humans create or do which might harm some of Nature’s creations is bad or immoral. The Ohmu play the role of avenging angels that more or less force humans to accept their place in their environment; there is no sense that they, too, might be individual creatures longing in their own way for freedom. The giant arthropods possess a hive mind which knows better than the wayward and often conflicting minds and behaviours of the humans; this also is a very troubling implication as it privileges a mysticism and group thinking without giving good reason why such thinking and behaviour based on consensus should be superior than an array of divergent individual opinions.

For all its good intentions, “Nausicaä …” interprets its ecological message in a way that fails to appreciate the complexity of Nature’s systems, the indifference of Nature towards humans, the possibility that there’s no such thing as evolution with a purpose (let alone a good purpose), that intelligent creatures like the Ohmu might be capable of self-interest and even malevolent and destructive tendencies, and that technology is as much a natural extension of humans as their arms and legs are, and can be used to work with and for Nature. I suspect this narrow view of Nature must have failed Miyazaki at some point later in his films because, as of this time of writing, his recent film meditations (such as “Arrietty”) on Nature show a deeply conservative attitude towards human capacity for change and a pessimism about the future of humanity and its ability to reconcile with the natural world.




Blancanieves: silent Gothic melodrama of a brief summer of shining innocence before a long winter of fascism

Pablo Berger, “Blancanieves” (2012)

In the style of old 1920s expressionist silent films, Berger’s “Blancanieves” is a witty, layered and lavish Gothic retelling of the fairy-tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Set in southern Spain in the 1920s, the innocent beauty becomes Carmencita, the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his beautiful flamenco-dancing wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta). The child’s birth is attended by tragedy: Villalta becomes a quadriplegic after a goring by a bull (because he was forced to look away by a thoughtless news reporter flashing his camera) and Carmen dies during childbirth. Enter the gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) who marries Villalta and banishes Carmencita (Sofia Oria), who is brought up by her aunt (Angela Molina). Unfortunately Aunty dies while the child is still young so she is sent to the Villalta household where Encarna promptly banishes her to the servants’ quarters. Carmencita manages to find her father in his room and learns basic bull-fighting techniques from him. After his death, she (Macarena Garcia) is banished from her rightful inheritance and is nearly killed by Encarna’s chauffeur lover; traumatised, she suffers from amnesia when found by a troupe of bull-fighting dwarves(!) who welcome her into their nomadic way of life and christen her Blancanieves. Freudian psychology and nature-over-nurture racially based inheritance will out: Blancanieves finds her calling as Spain’s first female toreador, culminating in acclaim and recognition as Villalta’s heir in the prestigious Seville corrida. However, the wicked Encarna has found out about Blancanieves from a fashion magazine and plots the girl’s demise.

The film uses a maximalist expressionist style to tell its nuanced story: the excellent and camera-friendly Verdu camps up her role as the evil stepmother and several wonderful scenes in the film highlight Encarna’s depraved nature and fashion sense. The only thing lacking is evil cackling, as this is a silent movie. Berger employs several experimental filming techniques typical of a number of arthouse films from the early 20th century: Dziga Vertov (“Man with a Movie Camera”), Jean Vigo and Luis Bunuel are obvious inspirations. Alfred Hitchcock is also an influence in many scenes of voyeurism and the Villalta mansion, complete with Hitchcockian staircase which also becomes a murder weapon, might be a nightmare labyrinth from one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories.

Scenes are shot from different angles and the corrida becomes a microcosm of gladiatorial battles between life and death, youth and old age, and innocence and the kind of sophistication that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, embodied by both Encarna and the bull-fighting agent who cunningly takes advantage of Blancanieves’s naivety by tricking her into signing a contract that allows him to exploit her bull-fighting talents and eventually everything else she has. Berger brings a self-reflexive dimension to the reworked fairy-tale: the news media and the cult of celebrity are always present in some way, whether through the reporter’s gaffe that sets the train of tragedy, the fashion magazine as the substitute for the mirror on the wall or the freak-show exploitation of Blancanieves as she lies comatose in her glass coffin while the ghoulish queues of Prince Charming hopefuls line up to pay for the privilege of kissing her; and there are motifs of the eye-as-camera and voyeurism. The dwarves know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and with Blancanieves bill themselves as such: the fact that they’re missing a seventh dwarf bothers only one of their number but no-one else, least of all the public.

At times, the film trembles under the weight of the plot and the multi-layered symbolism and the narrative denouement does not hold up too well under the high tragedy of Blancanieves’s downfall and the creepy freak-show fade-out.

The film’s highlight is its rousing and passionate music soundtrack which includes heavy yet glorious doses of flamenco and militaristic music appropriate to a bull-fighting ritual. Something of the pagan nature of bull-fighting and its probable origins as a fertility rite and test of masculinity makes an appearance.

The subtext is perhaps obvious and banal: the character of Blancanieves represents a life-giving force that is continually thwarted by forces of evil in capitalism: the cult of celebrity, materialism and selfishness, exploitation and competition expressed through various support characters. It seems appropriate that Blancanieves should fall victim to Encarna’s wiles just before the Spanish Civil War breaks out; one presumes that she will have to sleep through General Franco’s rule to 1975 at the very least before she will finally find her Prince Charming.

The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

Garden of Words: small-scale character study of adolescent infatuation is a lesson on desire, loneliness and alienation

Makoto Shinkai, “Garden of Words / Koto no ha no niwa” (2013)

Makoto Shinkai is a new name to me and he has been billed as the next Hayao Miyazaki so it’s just as well that I caught this film at the 2013 Japanese animé film festival in Sydney. Unlike his more famous compatriot who likes to deal with wide-ranging plots and themes, Shinkai prefers a small-scaled scenario centred around two characters in the 45-minute “Garden of Words”. Set in Tokyo over summer and autumn, the film focuses on a 15-year-old schoolboy, Takao Akizuki, who skips morning classes during rainy days to visit a park where he whiles away the early hours sketching shoes and dreaming of becoming a shoemaker. A mysterious young woman, older than Takao, visits the park as well and the two become friends. The friendship develops into a romance, albeit one burdened by a secret on the woman Yukino’s part. Takao and Yukino’s friendship however comes to a crisis when Takao discovers who the mystery woman is and why she seems to have so much free time in the mornings.

The film’s narrative focuses on the obstacles that lie in the way of ambition or desire, and the loneliness and alienation that accompany the individual’s determination to forge his or her own way in life and ignore convention. Takao’s desire to make shoes makes him an oddball at home and at school, and blinds him to common school gossip about Yukino. Yukino herself suffers alienation from the school community due to harassment by students and cover-ups by other teachers anxious to preserve the school’s reputation. The loneliness the young teacher and the student experience brings them together, and the connection they feel fuels Takao’s determination to pursue his shoemaking dream.

The film’s strengths lie in the poetic beauty of the natural world in which Takao and Yukino spend early mornings while rain falls around them, the way it changes and how those changes reflect the changes in the two characters’ lives through the summer. Shinkai captures the different forms of rain from early morning shower to tropical summer downpours accompanied by cold winds and hail in his animation (much of it hand-drawn) and uses these forms to help flesh out the film’s ambience and characters’ moods, and advance the plot. Much attention is also devoted to the portrayal of changes in the general city environment around Takao and Yukino as early rainy summer becomes stinking-hot late summer and early autumn. The film often adopts bird’s-eye view points in its delineation of the Tokyo city skyline, urban scenes and train journeys taken by Takao. Birds and trees are drawn and given life in graceful detail.

Actual characters are not drawn very well but the voice actors playing them are very good. Kana Hanazawa is particularly good as the shy and uncertain Yukino who gives every indication of battling depression and lack of confidence in interior scenes where she is alone. The plot unfurls at a leisurely pace, giving just enough information about characters when needed to keep the audience involved yet allowing viewers the space to imagine how Takao and Yukino came to be the alienated characters they are and being pleasantly surprised to be proven right (or wrong).

The film fails at its overly melodramatic climax when it cuts away from Takao’s anger when Yukino makes a decision that has the potential to end their friendship and a melancholy pop song appears over a sequence of city scenes. The conclusion is satisfying if appearing incomplete: Takao continues to beaver away at making shoes in his spare time and Yukino is in the process of making a new life for herself that may or may not have room for Takao.

Takao and Yukino’s paths in life may not cross again but their journeys may serve as a parallel for Shinkai’s own journey in becoming an animé creator and director in his own right, not content merely to be a Miyazaki clone but one to be reckoned as a rising force in the animé industry.

Shadow of a Doubt: innocence, a happy family and insular small town America menaced by an outside force

Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1942)

A dark film that explores the potential for violence beneath the patina of an apparently happy family, “Shadow of a Doubt” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourites. While the film is not distinctly Hitchcockian in most of its set pieces, it does feature strong characterisation and builds tension steadily but surely to its unexpected and shocking climax. The film’s cast may not be hugely famous but main actors Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright give strong performances as Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie respectively.

Uncle Charlie suddenly appears in the small community of Santa Rosa, surprising his sister and her husband’s family who are wealthy and prominent folks. He quickly charms everyone in the family and the wider community with his good looks and worldly manners. He inveigles his way into his eldest niece Charlie’s affections: the girl herself has just left high school and is biding her time waiting for a suitor to woo and marry her. At the same time, two detectives posing as local news reporters looking to do a story on her family show up and Uncle Charlie, on seeing them, behaves rudely and abruptly towards them. The detectives spot this odd behaviour and warn the girl Charlie. Gradually the girl realises that Uncle Charlie may be a serial killer wanted by police across America for having married and then murdered various rich widows. At the same time, Uncle Charlie suspects that his niece knows who he is and he decides to get rid of her once and for all before she can warn her family.

It’s not often that two characters develop and mature into rich and realistic characters and Cotten and Wright seize the opportunity to fill their parts convincingly. Cotten plays the part of the suave and charming but sinister outsider who has the potential to split a whole family apart; Wright plays the innocent and sheltered young woman who must discover her inner courage and who learns something of the ways of the outside world with natural style and warmth. The other cast members basically fit around the two actors but special mention must go to actors Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn who play young Charlie’s father and his neighbour who keep up a running patter of jokes about killing each other as a humorous and tension-easing counterpoint to the main plot narrative.

Parts of the narrative may strain credibility but there is real tension that is sustained throughout and the film moves smartly and confidently to the inevitable (though rather unbelievable) showdown between Uncle Charlie and young Charlie. Unusually for films of its time, “Shadow …” features a climax in which the heroine is forced to fend for herself; the expected knight in shining armour cannot help her in her hour of need.

Hitchcock manages to insert many of his beloved themes into “Shadow of a Doubt”: the notion of an innocent world, represented by Santa Rosa, invaded by dark forces from outside; the contrast between appearances and the underlying dark reality; the social restrictions on young women like young Charlie, at the start of the film yearning for a more interesting life, who as a result are made vulnerable to predatory men in their quest for love and marriage; and familiar things and concepts turning out to be sources of menace and life-threatening danger. There might also be a sly dig at the American worship of family as an institution where one feels safe and secure, everyone gets along well and there are no closeted skeletons that rattle at inopportune times.

Refreshingly for a tense psychological thriller about a serial murderer, there’s no violence until the very end and even there Hitchcock deals with that brief scene of violence efficiently with quick edits. The climax is hokey and looks cut-and-paste clunky after everything that has built up towards it. Shame.

The use of camera is very deft in suggesting that the family home has hidden secrets and dangers. Long-range shots and voyeuristic scenes seen through windows or from the top of a staircase feature throughout the film. The use of light and shadows as contrasts to illustrate the action and heighten the conflicts boiling through the film is excellent.

Other directors like David Lynch would follow in Hitchcock’s foot-steps in portraying happy families and small town communities that turn out to be dysfunctional in some way; Hitchcock made sure to set the bench high for them to jump with this film.