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In Praise of Polite Heroes & Strange Worlds

So for the last couple of days, Kevin and I have been working our way through Miyazaki films in the evening. Last night was “Spirited Away,” which is my all-time favorite movie, hands down, ever. In the world.

There’s a couple of reasons I like it. Part of it is that the themes of the movie, such as they are,* is that the world is very strange, you should always be polite, and don’t be afraid of hard work.

As these are more or less the themes to Digger, obviously I was pre-disposed to like the movie. (Come to think of it, that was more or less the themes to Jinian Footseer, my favorite comfort book, too. Hmmm.)

I think, as stories go, we have far too few polite heroes. Nobody answers “Conan! What is best in life?” with “Treating people courteously and using a napkin.”

That’s part of why I loved Hannibal Lector. Sure, he might eat you, but he’d use the right fork. It’s certainly why I loved Number Ten Ox from Bridge of Birds. And there’s a really wonderful bit in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards books where, when you meet the Lone Power, you give a very polite little speech, because even if you’re about to fight evil, there’s no sense in being rude about it.

This is particularly uncommon, I have found, in books targeted to teenage boys, where you can more or less count on the hero doing the “I don’t have to listen to you! You’re all just scared and stupid! I’m going to do the thing you told me not to do, despite the fact that I just got here and you probably know more about it!” thing.

And because he’s the hero, he will probably get away with it and come out covered in roses, in which case I will throw your book across the room with great force, because I hate that trope like I hate few other things on earth. (Kevin tells me that this is because I have never been a teenage boy and this is purest of pure wish-fulfillment for much of that demographic. He may be right. I seem to recall thinking it was stupid even when I was a teenage girl, mind you.)

And yet, in fairy tales, which are right down at the bone as story-telling goes,  it’s always the polite ones that win.

Ahem. Getting back to “Spirited Away.”

The other thing I love about it is that it’s as close as any movie has ever come to duplicating the stuff inside my head.

It’s brilliant and baroque and gorgeous and it has lots of bits that I could probably come up with.

Don’t get me wrong—Miyazaki’s twice the genius I’ll ever be. Possibly three times.  I couldn’t animate it, I couldn’t shoot the scenes, I am no cinematographer, that’s a whole nother skill set, and furthermore, the notion of having to paint some of those architectural backgrounds makes my brain bleed. That gorgeous scene where night falls and the lanterns come up and shadows with eyes appear in the buildings and the music is marvelously sinister—that requires a sense of timing and orchestration and is another couple of skills, none of which I possess and which Studio Ghibli has coming out its ears.

But all the critters and the plots? I understand those. I could get there. Maybe not as well, certainly not in the same media, but the stuff inside my head mostly looks like that, albeit more European and with fewer flying machines and more animals. But much more like that than like any other movie I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, there’s a scene in the movie version of “Fellowship of the Ring” where the Ringwraiths are riding out of Minas Morgul, (I think it’s Minas Morgul, and am confident that I will be corrected nigh-instaneously if not.) And the camera swoops crazily around the towers and you see all this insane architecture and the screaming wraiths riding out across the bridge, and if I lived to be a hundred years old, I could never duplicate that.

It’s not a matter of being better or worse, it’s just—there is nothing like that in my head. Whatever I pictured when I read that scene, it was just not even in the same league. The only way I would build Minas Morgul is if I happened to find a Ring of Power in a Cracker Jack box and had a few thousand years as a bored Nazgul to play around with crenelations. (This assumes that being a Nazgul is kind of like eternal torment with Minecraft.)

My brain is stuffed full of weird little creatures, not cathedrals.

There are very few examples where somebody made up a purely brilliant movie out of weird little creatures, and I think all the rest I know are Henson. And as much as I love those, and they have some glorious set pieces, they can’t, for the sheer limitations of plush and puppet wire, go as far as “Spirited Away.”

It’s incredibly cheering to see something that takes stuff that looks an awful lot like the stuff inside your head and makes a movie out of it and holy crap, it’s amazing. Even knowing that you couldn’t do that yourself, unless you decided to make a mid-life career change and work until you were Miyazaki’s age, and that ain’t gonna happen—still, it’s wonderful that someone did.

And of course, the final reason that I love Spirited Away, perhaps more than all the rest:

Radish Nipples.

I would so build a little shrine to Daikon-sama in my vegetable bed, if I had anywhere to put it.



*And it’s dangerous to say what the theme to anyone else’s work is, so take this with a grain of salt.


Wordcount: 6800

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Here now, you may not build spires that extend to the heavens in your stories, but let's not underestimate the merits of a good underground cave system for the imprisonment of gods. ;)

The only way I would build Minas Morgul is if I happened to find a Ring of Power in a Cracker Jack box and had a few thousand years as a bored Nazgul to play around with crenelations. (This assumes that being a Nazgul is kind of like eternal torment with Minecraft.)

Bwahahahah! X3

There are very few examples where somebody made up a purely brilliant movie out of weird little creatures, and I think all the rest I know are Henson.

The two others that come immediately to mind for me are Monsters, Inc. and The Maxx. Also, I suppose, Fantasia.

Edited at 2012-11-04 04:54 pm (UTC)

But sometimes the weird little creatures do build cathedrals...

Somehow I picture the weird little creatures building weird little cathedrals... Like a banyan tree. An Ursula Vernon cathedral would totally look like a banyan tree decorated with windows and gables. ^_^

If you're thinking of the same scene I'm thinking of, it's Minas Morgul.

There's room in the world of storytelling for epic and enormous and for small and quirky as well. I know it's entirely natural to compare yourself to other people and what they can do, but it's still a false comparison.

But you totally should make room in the vegetable garden (or make the vegetable garden big enough to have room) for a shrine to Daikon-sama!

Weird little creatures:
Princess Mononoke's little head knockers
Some of the enemy critters in Phantom Tollbooth
Fern Gully
A troll in central park

Should have had more in Shreck.

Good choice. I slightly prefer Howl's Moving Castle, but it's an anxiety thing - Howl is less triggery for me.

We started Aiden with Ponyo last month, we may do Mononoke this year (I have to re-check it; how rough!)... At 4yo, the others are too scary.

Mononoke is really rough--I'd hold off. I mean, I cry like a little girl, and I'm 35.

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Yes! And we totally need to start actually *socializing* boy-children instead of telling them, yes, do whatever you want, you're the only one who really matters, after all.

(I can think of no way that sort of attitudinal enabling could possibly lead to adverse consequences. Oh, wait ...)

Really, to still be thinking that way, once one is able to form complete sentences? How can that be acceptable?

Though there's some trade-offs. Occasionally, what society wants IS stupid and wrongheaded. Not necessarily often, but at least occasionally.

However, little boys are horrible little monsters, pretty expendable, and not all that useful for practical work; and so, they get encouraged by their elders to do things like learn about how electricity works via sticking forks in wall sockets. The exploration process occasionally turns up some more general benefits, along with the pockets filled with frog eggs.

There's probably a better way to run an adaptable civilization....

ALL the love for the squeaky Radish Spirit.

If, by some strange chance, you have managed to miss seeing Kwaidan, I humbly recommend it. Also, Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams".

I second Dreams. OMG.

Important point I always feel is brushed over, Studio Ghibli is exactly that, a studio. Miyazaki might come up with the base ideas, but it's by getting the studio involved that it becomes something special. He's like a conductor for an orchestra, he chooses the music they'll play and directs where it goes, but that's not the same as sitting down and playing a tuba

If you were to assemble a fantastic team like the one Miyazaki has and spend the same time Miyazaki does on a film, I don't doubt you could, well, get close to his earlier stuff anyway (hey, ideas are one thing, but experience in running a team is an entirely different skill set :p)

This is true, especially for things like the music and stuff, but Miyazaki is and always has been a noted perfectionist. He writes the stories and he did ALL the key animation for his movies right up until Spirited Away, which means that he's creating the backbone and a good deal of the musculature of the films. Since Spirited Away he's slowed down a bit, because he's getting pretty old, so that is becoming truer with each progressive film, but for the majority of his work he's always been renowned for being almost over-involved in the creation of his movies.

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Ahh, the radish spirit. I have a terrible fondness for the hugely oversized baby chickens myself. In a piece of concept art, you can see them filing off an old-fashioned bus, ready for their holiday.

Miyazaki films are pretty much my favourite things in the world, especially Spirited Away and Totoro. I own so much stuff from the Ghibli stores it is faintly ridiculous. But they've got, like you said, messages that are good and solid and sensible, and on occasion those messages have been at just the right time, and just the right thing for me to hear.

DAIKON-SAMA! Best Spirt Ever!!!

The Cat Returns holds second place for me, but a large part of that is Carey Elwes as Baron. OMG, Sexy Voice!

I think it is awesome that you like Spirited Away. Just so's you know.

And yeah, I know what you mean about "that's what's in my head, too, kinda-sorta!" In my case, it's a large chunk of Seanan McGuire's songs, that reach in and... and I know how the story goes.

Also, you have some awesome turns of phrase, but you hopefully know that. (And my kid is a Minecraft addict, so now we know why the Nazgul didn't do much for a while; they were busy exhausting the Minecraft potentials for painting everything black and sticking skull decorations on everything like WoW's Lich King.)

Ursula, really. One must make ROOM and TIME for Daikon-sama shrines. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

Definitely needs doing, and who better than you?

I always liked Kremlin, one of the villains in Nemesis the Warlock because he was always scrupulously and painstakingly - but never hypocritically - polite, in comic contrast to his ruthless actions. "With respect, we're going to slice you up...and use you as laces for our boots!"

My favorite polite villain was the Mayor from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". He was amazing.

I don't know.... "The [spoiler] Cave" in Digger is up there with the Nazgul. IMHO

I adore Pom Poko. (Surprise, surprise.)
The Japanese spirt parade amazes me.

The parade usually gets lost in the... "pouch magic" to use the translation we had. That movie is actually really good, and the ending is pretty sad, too, which is surprising considering how upbeat the whole thing is. All in all, it's a fun movie about industrialization, adaptation, and courage. With, y'know, tanuki magic testicles.

Watching the English gets confusing if you know what a tanuki is, though, because they insist on translating it to "raccoon." Wrong stripey-tailed mammal, localization team!