Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade


Edo-period katana and Ainu tonkori (fretless zither)

When I was a child, among the highlights of my life were my visits to the tiny neoclassical building where my father’s stepmother (the only grandparent I ever got to know) was spending her autumnal years. At the center of its courtyard was a dried fountain where I launched a thousand imaginary ships. The house was an Aladdin’s cave of nooks and crannies, doors with panels of etched glass, clouded mirrors, boxes that held feather boas and yellowing photographs. Its guardian was a cat as fastidious and dignified as my grandmother.

In the evenings, my grandmother unfolded tapestries of stories while she cooked sophisticated dishes. A diaspora Hellene, born in Bulgaria of parents who fled Asia Minor, she was one of the first women to become a teacher in early 20th century Greece. On top of this scrumptious cake was a tart, sweet cherry: a nearby movie theater dedicated exclusively to cartoons. The fare was mostly Warner and Disney. I watched ecstatically the occasional avant-garde short from the Eastern block, whenever a “centrist” government made the censors relax their grip.

Then one time I saw something so different that I almost forgot to exhale while I watched it. For one, it was as long as a “real” film. The plot demanded attention, the characters engaged and compelled. There was derring-do; conflicted loyalties and betrayals; a doomed romance. Even more distinctive was the style: dynamic, fluid, sophisticated, with a distinct edge lacking from the sugary American cartoons. I never forgot it, nor saw anything like it again — until I came to the United States and found out the name of the genre. Somehow, a Japanese anime film had meandered into that tiny Athenian movie house on the afternoon that I happened to attend.

I have seen a good deal of anime since then, including the classics (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop). The combination of animation with adult themes is totally un-American, resembling the unexpurgated European fairytales before they got sanitized for “safe” consumption by children. However, I’m neither an expert nor an aficionado of the genre. Anime contains too much violence and too little sex for my taste and the gender stereotyping in most of it is disturbingly reminiscent of sixties sitcoms. Too, like the vast majority of comics and films across cultures, most anime is obsessed with maintaining proper order, safeguarding boundaries, battling monochromatically defined evil — and if saving the universe requires balletic decapitations, so much the better.

Exported anime is skewed towards what the Japanese assume Americans will find interesting, including plots and characters recycled from Western comics — very much like the late 19th century faux-exotic tchotchkes produced in Japan exclusively for gaijin consumption. There is a fascinating double distortion here: Americans watch what they think are true Japanese cultural products, while the Japanese have jiggled the content to make it palatable to outsiders, who miss most of the subtler cultural clues that are unavoidably embedded in the narratives.

But a few anime have been branded into my awareness as deeply as that nameless one I saw as a child: Mononoke Hime, Howl’s Castle and four arcs of Samurai Champloo: Misguided Miscreants, Lullabies of the Lost Verse, Elegy of Entrapment and Evanescent Encounter. Like the samisen and tonkori chords that haunt the Champloo arcs, these pluck almost painfully at my heart. And like Theseus in the Labyrinth, I decided to follow this Ariathne’s thread to the center.

At first glance, the three works make a grouping as unlikely as the Champloo protagonists. Howl’s Castle is a cultural hybrid, based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Samurai Champloo (as its name denotes) mixes eras and styles with unrepentant brio. Mononoke Hime is sui generis — a dark myth of sundering that is probably as disquieting to Easterners as it is to Westerners. They do share the large commonalities obligatory in the quest genre, from the Argonauts to Firefly: the chosen family created by misfits and outsiders, the defiance of oppressive social customs, the search for a larger meaning.

So what makes these three anime different? For one, they seethe with feisty, non-demure women — in fact, the women are the engines that move these worlds: the men often just react to the women or bounce off each other, whereas (in sharp contrast to the norm) it is the women who create the fellowships and launch the quests.

At the same time, all three reject the black-versus-white divisions of most comics. There is no absolute evil in the stories, only different (often irreconcilable) points of view. They show the viewpoints of the forgotten, the marginalized, the lost: the heroine of Howl’s Castle is an old woman. In Mononoke Hime, all sides harbor outcasts of different sorts. One of the Champloo protagonists is Okinawan, and in one arc the main character is an Ainu whose village was destroyed by the Shogunate’s representatives. Both these cultures were “normalized” out of existence by the Japanese, their fates closely parallel to those of the American Indian nations.

The refusal to categorize goes beyond good versus evil. These works are truly animist in their seamless fusion of realms usually kept separate: reality and dreamscape, the mundane and the spiritual, comedy and tragedy. And at the end, they have real endings: separations, irreversible losses, deaths. Hence their searing impact upon the mind and the heart. Other anime are stylishly gothic, or fashionably cyberpunk — or merely gorefests, albeit sophisticated ones. Mononoke Hime, Howl’s Castle and Samurai Champloo break the mould of the anime genre, just like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials decisively redefined young adult fantasy.

15 Responses to “The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade”

  1. intrigued_scribe says:

    This is a wonderfully in-depth, eloquent glimpse into a unique art form that has indeed broken ground on more than one level, especially those you mention here. I wholly agree that Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke (I’ve never viewed Samurai Champloo) not only place unconventional characters in the forefront but makes them highly effective, whether they are antagonists or protagonists. To me, this quality–one of those I’m most partial to where both these films and others are concerned–enriches the material all the more. Thanks for sharing this brilliantly written essay, 🙂

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! As you point out, anime has been a tremendously influential art form, creating a feedback loop in the visual media (the original Aeon Flux comes to mind, but that’s only one example). For me, this essay completes a circle that began to be inscribed when I saw that long-ago first anime. But there is no question that the two Miyazaki works plus the four Champloo arcs are unique and uniquely powerful. I watch them repeatedly — a rare thing for me.

  3. rocketscientist says:

    ‘Scuse me: MY brain. 😛 (once and future typo queen)

  4. Athena says:

    I’m with you, Kathryn, I hope anime never becomes mainstream. It would be like an outlaw becoming a provincial governor (*shudders*). It does its best work hovering at the edges, attracting (and absorbing) the storms and winds of change. And one of its most vital tasks is the one you mentioned: to keep us connected with that Dark River of myth that runs beneath our lives, and nourishes us whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.

  5. rocketscientist says:

    Athena, I love offering morsels for your muse to chew because what emerges is something that always sets me back on my heels.

    You know how much I like that.

    When you told me (unsolicited) how much you enjoyed Cowboy Bebop back when we first met, I knew I’d met a kindred soul. I knew you’d understand what I saw in Champloo, a series that didn’t find that much welcome in it’s own culture – largely because it pushed on every bounry – and is rather obscure in this one. Pretty much only the anime connoisseurs have even heard of it. Art is always like that though, isn’t it? I was quite moved by how daring the creator, Watanabe Shinichiro, was with this – even the most episodic pieces were inspired imo.

    Anime is in a unique position in our culture today – at it’s best it’s the underground movement that inspires a generation. I hope it never becomes mainstream. (but that’s me for ya)

    Your thoughts on how anime (the best – and there are more titles out there then the ones you mention – but those are without a doubt some of the very best) in general continues the mythic human arc are quite eloquent and I love hearing how your Aegean sensibilities evaluate things that brain simply says “Dude, it rocks!” LOL!!!!!!

  6. Caliban says:

    Although I’ve watched even less anime than Athena, I too am very fond of Miyazake’s films such as Mononoke, Howl’s Castle, and Spirited Away. Even his lesser anime sport many of the same themes that Athena touched upon. Particularly interesting, as she noted, is the lack of absolute good and evil. For example, the mistress of Irontown in Mononoke has a loyal cadre of lepers and former prostitutes who rightly feel rescued from terrible lives; on the other hand, Irontown has desolated the forest and all but declared war upon the animals and spirits that dwell within.

    I’ve realized I’ve writing a lot of spirited female characters, and in part I think I am channeling Miyazake’s heroines.

    The sheer visual inventiveness of Miyazake–who is obsessed with flying machines, pigs, old women and young girls–is also just astounding, as is the emotional range, particularly in his later films (Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s castle). Even his early films, such as the charming My Neighbor Totoro and the slightly wacky Porco Rosso (wherein a pig flies, and fights seaplane pirates and an obnoxious American) are far more satisfactory entertainment than most of the drivel in mainstream media.

  7. Caliban says:

    I’ve often thought, and said, that Princess Mononoke is the film that George Lucas was trying, and failing, to make. It has many of the elements of [i]Star Wars[/i] only much better done: the tension between spirit and technology; the young man as warrior forced on a journey of discovery, battling the darkness within himself; a mad emperor’s quest for power and immortality. It goes beyond Lucas in that it has three strong yet ambiguous female characters; although it has much violence in it, it does not revel in violence but reacts against it. Miyazake is clear that violence is a poison that blackens everything; Lucas’ Jedi may preach against violence, but they seem to take a great deal of pleasure in whacking off limbs and whatnot.

  8. Athena says:

    Calvin, that’s an absolutely brilliant observation! I hadn’t thought of it, but it makes perfect sense. In addition to the strong women, Princess Mononoke has something else that Star Wars preaches but conspicuously doesn’t practise: the desire for fusion, lack of artificial boundaries, both within one’s self and in the world.

    And, of course, from my Strange Horizons article you know how much I agree with you regarding Star Wars in general and the Jedi in particular…

  9. intrigued_scribe says:

    I agree; that is an excellent observation! I never thought of the similarities between Star Wars and Princess Mononoke either, but the comparisons are highly fitting and wonderfully pointed out. Also, that makes three of us with like views concerning the Jedi…

  10. Athena says:

    I’ve noticed (and, needless to say, liked) your feisty heroines! (*smiles*)

    To some extent, Miyazaki’s attitudes and obsessions are distilled in Princess Mononoke — and within that, in the Forest Spirit/NIghtwalker. You are right, his range of vision (both technically and emotionally) is astounding.  A great pity he didn’t get to do the Earthsea project. If he had, it would have been a triumph, like Jackson’s LOTR.

  11. Marie says:

    I am not a great aficionado of nor an expert in Japanese anime but like this genre of films. Most of the comments already posted on this blog indicate that the majority of you have seen and critiqued a fair number very knowledgeably so I will only express a simple view of those I have enjoyed.
    Of course, as usual, I will be showing my age and this is becoming depressingly evident. I saw my first animated series in the mid 60s when a close friend in our Railroad Society (a great collector of Japanese animation and film) presented me with the first 30 of the 52 episodes of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom) created by Osamu Tezuka. They were generally grainy Beta tape reproductions in Japanese with English sub-titles. I was immediately captivated by this little robot boy created by an anguished father hoping to replace his lost son. It was not to be because human children grow and appreciate the natural world whereas an artificially built imitation proved unresponsive. Astro Boy’s trials and triumphs were well displayed from his stint in the circus where he was sold to being the nation’s defender against evil. The series explored issues of morality, responsibility, racism, prejudice, true heroism, and loss. These issues were a trademark of Osamu Tezuka because much of his stories had messages about equality and peace as well.
    Incidentally, Astro Boy is in production for release in 2009 with director Colin Brady of Lemony Snicket and Toy Story fame. Although Tezuka the creator is one of the writers of the animated film, I cannot tell how well it will be reproduced for American consumption.
    Another example of his anime came out in the early 80s but only in the Wilmington/Philadelphia area and titled Kimba the White Lion. If you have seen Disney’s “The Lion King” you will witness Kimba’s tale on the Big Screen. A question of identity theft on the part of the Disney studios has been a source of controversy over the years.
    I drifted away from the anime scene until my friend introduced me to the adult venue of the “dark future science fiction romance”. It led me to the Vampire Hunter D series created by Hideyuki Kikuchi. This is a very sophisticated horror film filled with bizarre imagery and exotic characters. The mood is so fully realized that it is easy to forget it is only a cartoon. Oh, yes there is definitely a shadowy side to this old bird. I have the English version but have seen the Japanese and completely concur that it is better to watch in the vernacular and read sub-titles.
    Finally, during a visit to Athena’s home, I became ill with an intestinal disorder and while in the recovery stage, she suggested I watch one of her favorite anime movies. I was completely entranced by the wonderful “Howl’s Moving Castle”. I admired the stalwart courage and determination of Sophie, puzzled over the complex character of Howl from his cowardice in facing realities, his vanity and yet he still maintained a soft heart to those for whom he cared. How I laughed over the wise cracks spouted by Calcifer and cringed over the pomposity of the Witch of the Waste. I would have to see it a few more times to understand the complexities of the war and its ramifications to the story but still, after the last credits were scrolled through I sat back and sighed with a feeling of satisfaction. I can truly say that after watching, I not only felt better physically but also emotionally.
    This is about the extent of my journey into the world of anime. Although, the trip was brief and limited, I can now view the above mentioned titles and get a more in depth idea of the different ideals put forth by their creators.
    Thanks to you all for posting some great points and suggestions.

  12. L says:

    You make me long for an intelligent conversation, though I believe I’m a few years beyond the point of return in regards to cranial activity. Blame what you will for it: the pressure of society, the stripping of freedom and youth, stereotyping and segregation…forced conformity that rapes your imagination and leaves your beloved muse lying dead and broken upon the floor.

    I’m happy to know there are people like you still out there, letting it all sink in, seeing with eyes unclouded. It reminds me of what Einstein said, that energy exists forever, perhaps changing shape and context, but something infinite and never-ending. I like to think the passions and dreams I once held are much the same, that–even though they are no longer within me — they have moved on and found better, more worthy outlets.

    I found this blog because I was just picking up where I left off in Samurai Champloo. I was researching Ainu and Okuru’s instrument which you have a picture of at the beginning of this entry. I enjoyed this entry greatly, and I will no doubt read more when the mood strikes.

    Thanks for making me pause.

  13. Asakiyume says:

    Princess Mononoke is one of my favorites ever. It grew on me gradually, and now I’m deeply, deeply in love with it. So many parts resonate with so many aspects of reality. Yes: it is full of powerful women, and no side has all the good or all the bad. Everything about the forest spirit I found truer than words. I made a mask of his face; it’s above my desk. The indefatigableness of the characters, their determination–especially Ashitaka and Toki’s determination–to never give up, to keep on struggling so long as they are alive, I found inspiring. San’s anguished cry that she didn’t want to become a demon–and the fact that she feels herself becoming one anyway–this too is something I can deeply relate to.

    Such a wonderful movie.

  14. Athena says:

    I have seen most of Miyazaki’s films, and I think Mononoke is his best by far. It has none of the tics that can mar his movies. It’s a tributary of the dark river that flows underneath all myths. The forest spirit — shape shifter, life-giver, life-taker — is kin to the old triple goddesses, who were inexorable forces even when they were gentle.

  15. Alinear says:

    Reading this so many years later, I can’t help but wonder whether you’ve seen/read Nausicaa? Princess Mononoke feels like an echo of Nausicaa, or, perhaps, what resulted from the echo Nausicaa as it matured many years down the line. I prefer Mononoke, but I can’t see one without thinking of the other.

    I would disagree that what anime is exported is more due to what “Japanese assume Americans will find interesting”. (In part due to being in China, as we get far more exported anime than you do in the West.) Japan is skilled at doing nothing more than taking a little bit here and there from other cultures and distilling it into something of its own. A bakery in Japan, for example, will serve French-style pastries of excellent quality, yet they will be slightly different — a slight twist per Japanese taste. So too with comics and animation. An excellent girls’ television series I recall well from my youth, Girls’ Revolution Utena, pulls from Jung, Ovid, Hesse, has songs with lyrics that only make the vaguest of sense in Japanese and references to European architecture, mythology, history, and philosophy that none of the 14-year old girls it was nominally intended for could have understood, yet at its focus was the myth that girls are told of a prince of their dreams, and relationships between characters who are superficially stock characters in any girls’ comic or animation. A bit pulled from here and there, but still Japanese in the end (and that itself is rather Japanese). What is exported/imported is, I would think, more at the whim of the Western/Chinese companies which choose to import based on what they think their audiences would like, perhaps — for those in the US — based in part on the popularity those series and films already have online through fansub efforts and the like.