Thursday, 31 October 2013

Oh, the Horror!

In the original Evil Dead - Sam Raimi's 1981 horror extravaganza - the characters unwittingly find the Naturon Demonto, the Sumerian Book of the Dead. This book has the power to release unspeakable evil into the world but, strangely, the evil doesn't escape when they read from this cursed book, but rather when they listen to a recording of someone else reading from it. I tell you this as a cautionary tale - there is no doubt that something similar will happen if you listen to this week's Nerds Assemble Podcast!

Found chained up in the creepy basement of an old shack in the woods, this recording features the excellent talents of Emily King and Paul Blewitt, and some gibbering idiot called Matthew Hurd.
The team very kindly invited me to take part in their Hallowe'en special, to talk about a selection of horror films and their more recent remakes, and I had a really great time. Y'know, until zombies started clawing at the windows and the trees started getting frisky; then it was less fun.

In truth I haven't actually listened to it, because I want to maintain the illusion that I didn't embarrass myself too much. I was stupidly nervous - I could barely speak at the beginning (I didn't insult Zack Snyder even once during the Dawn of the Dead talk) and by the end I think I was overcompensating, but hopefully some of the stuff in the middle makes sense!

While it might not necessarily release the unstoppable forces of evil, this podcast will definitely release the unfortunate forces of spoil. There's spoilers throughout for Dawn of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, Maniac, The Evil Dead, and Evil Dead, so be careful. I don't think these spoilers will ruin any of the films, but the Maniac and Evil Dead remakes, at least, are probably best seen fresh.

You can find the Nerds Assemble special Hallowe'en edition right here, and the rest of their episodes here.

I had great fun doing this, despite ridiculous stage-fright, and I really appreciate their asking me to. Thanks, guys; I hope we can do it again some time!
Now, could you let me out of this basement, please? I swear I'm back to normal now. And I'm really sorry about the thing with the pencil. Guys? Anyone? Please?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Lion-Turtles All The Way Down

There is a story (which nobody seems to know the origin of) that a flat-Earther, when asked what held the world up, answered that it rested on the back of an enormous turtle. When asked what held up the turtle, they said it was on top of another turtle. Then that turtle rested on another turtle, and so on. "It's turtles all the way down."

I'm beginning to suspect that Avatar - the cartoon, not the movie - works in a similar way.

Avatar is something I've talked about a couple of times but never actually bothered to explain. It's a Nickelodeon cartoon that uses eastern mythology and symbolism to tell an epic multi-generational story of people who can control one of the elements - known as "benders" (stop laughing) - and the one person who can control all four elements - the Avatar. It comes in two flavours: original medieval eastern flavour, The Last Airbender (or sometimes The Legend of Aang), and seventy-year-later now-they-suddenly-have-1950s-western-technology flavour, The Legend of Korra.
Both versions are fantastic. I wrote some confused and confusing praise of Last Airbender, and David did a much better job of explaining why Korra is awesome. Basically they're both great and you should watch them.

The current series of Avatar (the second series of Legend of Korra and the fifth series overall) recently revealed the origin of the first ever Avatar, a gangly street-kid called Wan.
This double-episode special - Beginnings - was gorgeous. The second series has been animated by a different studio and (say it quietly) it's not quite as good as the first, but these two episodes were handled by the original studio and they looked stunning. Wan's story is stylised to look like ancient oriental art, and the elemental effects especially are oh so pretty. Though it riffed a little too hard on Spirited Away (the Carrot Spirit was a bit much, guys) I loved what they showed us of this ancient world.
After a hilariously rushed setup - "Quick, Korra has amnesia; better dunk her in the magical memory-pond!" - it tells a great story, too. Wan is the first Avatar, a true hero, but he's also the reason the world needs a hero in the first place. He's the root cause of all the problems the many Avatars have had to face. It's really clever, and the idea of the Avatar as a melding of human and spirit is clever too, handily explaining both the reincarnation cycle and the Avatar State, and making this a story about friendship rather than superpowers.

While I loved the explanation of the Avatar's spiritual side, the explanation of the Avatar's powers - Wan's ability to bend all four elements - is far less successful.

Until now the show's lore has maintained that humans originally taught themselves to bend by watching local animals that could do it naturally - namely badger-moles, dragons, sky-bison and, um, the Moon. In Beginnings we learn that this isn't true. Humans never actually learned to bend at all, they just had the power handed to them by lion-turtles.
This even changes Aang's story. When the infamous lion-turtle-ex-machina touched him, we assumed it was teaching him the pressure-points for energybending; but, based on what we see in Beginnings, it now seems the lion-turtle was actually just dumping the power of energybending into him. It's even lamer than we thought.

This has really bothered me. It takes away the specialness of bending - it's now a gift that was just given to people, rather than something they earnt through hard work. I think the show was trying to evoke the myth of Prometheus - but that guy stole fire from the gods, they didn't just hand it over willingly. The lion-turtles seemingly bestow this incredible power upon anyone who asks, regardless of who they are or what they might do with it.
Even worse, though, is how much it devalues the Avatar. We learn that the reason Wan can bend every element - the secret of the Avatar's unique power and the central concept of the entire mythology - is that he just happened to meet more than one lion-turtle. He's no more special than any other bender or even any other human, he's just more travelled. There is nothing unique about the Avatar.

This is a real shame, and it begs the question why Wan is the only Avatar (in the bending sense rather than spiritual)? Why didn't anyone else ever meet other lion-turtles? Well, here's where the story gets kind of disturbing, and where I start to make my point.

In Wan's time, the human race only existed in cities built upon the enormous shells of lion-turtles. There were many of these cities (at least a dozen, we are told) but no city was aware that any other city existed - they all thought they were the only one. This is why no human before Wan ever met more than one lion-turtle.
There's no denying that having cities on the back of these enormous animals is a very cool image, and leads to some great moments in the show, but it also leads to some troubling questions. How did this situation arise in the first place? How long ago was that, since the humans seem to have long forgotten any other way of life? And why did the lion-turtles never tell their respective humans about the other cities?

The only explanation that seems to make sense (that I can see, at least) is that the lion-turtles have taken it upon themselves to protect humanity from the spirits. In keeping the other cities secret, perhaps the lion-turtles are trying to protect their humans from venturing into the dangerous Spirit Wilds to look for them.
Yet this doesn't seem to make much sense either. The spirits we meet don't seem particularly fond of humans, but (at least until Wan frees Vaatu) they never attack unless threatened - and the only time the humans can threaten them is when the lion-turtles give the humans superpowers. The humans wouldn't need protection from the spirits if their protectors didn't keep giving them power against the spirits.

Maybe I'm wrong, and the spirits would violently wipe out the humans if they didn't have the lion-turtles' protection. But, in that case, the lion-turtles don't seem particularly dedicated. If we accept that they don't want the humans to seek out the other cities, because crossing the Spirit Wilds is dangerous, then it's weird that they don't seem bothered about letting the humans outright invade the Spirit Wilds.
"We don't want to live on your backs any more," say the humans. "Give us the power of bending so that we may drive the spirits from the homes they have lived in for centuries, and claim them for ourselves." Without a moment's hesitation, the lion-turtles - protectors of humanity and keepers of the peace - hand over these incredible powers, which the humans don't really understand or respect.
When, predictably enough, forests get burnt down, spirits get angered, and nature itself becomes unbalanced, it seems like we're supposed to blame the humans for it, and the humans alone. This, just so we're clear, is bullshit.

The lion-turtles' attitude to bending, and their ability to just bestow it upon humans at will, is summed up best by the banishment of Wan. He is thrown out of his lion-turtle city specifically because he misused the power of firebending - he has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to use bending responsibly. He has not earnt it and he does not deserve it. And the lion-turtle lets him keep it!
That's just mindblowing to me, that one of the wise and ancient guardians of humanity would be so irresponsible with this power. It is the lion-turtle's responsibility - in the same way that if I give a weapon to a child, whatever happens is my responsibility. Yet the lion-turtles unleashed these selfish, dangerous, superpowered humans upon the world, causing untold damage and suffering, and then vanished into obscurity.

I can understand how this happened from a real-world standpoint, though. It seems like the writers, knowing what a painfully obvious plot-contrivance Last Airbender's original lion-turtle was, have tried to make them into a more relevant part of the mythology. But, in doing so, they have made the lion-turtles the cause of every single thing that happens, from the shape of human history to the existence of the Avatar. They are no longer just a plot-contrivance - they are every plot-contrivance!

I've done that that thing again where I'm unfairly critical of something I actually enjoyed, and I'm sorry for that. I really did love Beginnings and the story of Wan and Raava. It made the entire cartoon about the dying promise of two friends, ten-thousand years ago, and that's both ballsy and brilliant. But, much as I love the idea of that touching ending, I can't help questioning the specifics:

Wan, the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed, caught in a war between different tribes, each armed with different kinds of benders.

Or, more accurately, Wan, the Avatar because lion-turtles made him the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed with firebending that he was given by a lion-turtle, caught in a war between different tribes who were defined and kept separate by lion-turtles, each armed with different kinds of benders who were given their powers by lion-turtles.

It's lion-turtles all the way down...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Mangaphobia 05: Fullmetal Alchemist

A thank you, first, to everyone who's given me recommendations for Mangaphobia so far. This episode is the one where I've truly stepped outside my comfort zone - watching something I knew absolutely nothing about beforehand - and I couldn't possibly be writing it without you. Of everything suggested to me, this show has been by far the most common and popular, so it seems the logical place to dive in. Wish me luck!

There is a moment in Akira (the seminal anime movie of, well, ever) where a girl almost gets raped. I actually really like Akira - it's the most consistent anime, in terms of tone, quality, message, and every other respect, that I've seen - and I respect it greatly for playing that scene as traumatic rather than titillating (ahem). But then, after the heroes save her, one of them laughs and, for a moment, he bounces on the spot with horrible jerky animation and these little white mushrooms of air float out of his mouth. That moment is so out of place - so at odds with everything else in the film and especially that scene - that it fundamentally broke Akira for me. When I think of that film, bouncy mushroom guy is the first thing that comes to mind, and it takes a few seconds to remember all the great parts instead.

I'm sure there's a name for this - the horrible thing in anime and manga where they slap giant floating "vein" lines over someone's head, or little wiggly rivers coming out of their eyes - but I don't know what that name is. Lets go with "sweatdropping", in honour of the most common offender.
This crap doesn't even work in absurd comedy like Azumanga Daioh, so when it appears in something as serious and adult as Akira it actually makes my teeth hurt. I don't understand why anyone does this - it's not funny and it destroys the tone and drama of whatever else is going on. Just draw some actual human emotions on their faces, damnit!

Enter Fullmetal Alchemist.
This is a show absolutely littered with sweatdropping of the most gratuitous and inappropriate kind. In just the first ten minutes we go from scenes of an incredibly horrific childhood accident to suddenly having those same children turn into ridiculous chibis. Characters die in legitimately upsetting ways, and then others will do the silly waterfall-tears thing about it. In the middle of dramatic fights and vital plot revelations, people's faces will suddenly turn into emoticons. I praised Cowboy Bebop for having a varied tone that shifts gently between drama and comedy, but the tone here swerves so often and so violently that it almost gave me a hilarious anime nosebleed.

Yet, counter to all common sense and previous experience, Fullmetal Alchemist works.

This confused me for ages, but I think I've finally figured out how it works and why. The problem with the sweatdropping in Akira, and in pretty much everything else, is that it's jarringly at odds with the tone (and art-style) of the rest of the film. There's a consistent look and feel to everything that gets suddenly shattered by something totally different. But the reason it feels so inconsistent is not purely because the sweatdropping happens - it's because it only happens once. In the entire film, the breath-mushrooms are the only time we see anything like this, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, where it's happening all the time, these sudden, violent gear-changes don't clash with the tone because they sort of are the tone. The show is consistent in its inconsistency, if that makes any kind of sense.

Don't get me wrong - the sweatdropping is still by far the worst thing about the show. For the first few episodes the tonal dissonance is almost too much to cope with - alternately dark as hell and childishly stupid - and even after you settle into it there are still many moments that don't work. The most serious character in the show suddenly announces, in a scene with much sweatdropping and even a nosebleed, that his ultimate plan is to force all women to wear tiny skirts - and, because we'd never even seen him smile before, I honestly couldn't tell if he was joking or not.
On the whole, though, the sweatdropping works. It's not funny (because it's never funny) and I personally don't think it adds anything - but it doesn't cause any problems either, just becoming a (very weird) part of the show's texture.

And what a show it is! Fullmetal Alchemist is the tale of the Elric brothers - two teenage alchemists who get embroiled in war, politics and ungodly supernatural horror.
Alchemy in the show is magic treated as a science, or possibly vice versa; the manipulation of matter, at the chemical level, using arcane circles. With it, alchemists can do pretty much anything - except, as the Elrics gruesomely discover, the manipulation of human beings. The brothers' forbidden meddling leaves Edward, the eldest, missing two limbs and Alphonse, the youngest, a bodiless soul fused to an empty suit of armour.

Already, these are two of the most interesting characters I've ever seen in an anime. As what is essentially a robot, Al is invincible, immortal and impossibly strong; yet, as the younger brother, he's the more naive and emotionally vulnerable. Likewise, as the eldest, Ed is incredibly protective of his brother and feels responsible for him, despite Al being three times his size and made of metal. They're inseparable and entirely devoted to one-another, and the back-to-front sibling dynamic between them is wonderful.

Together, the Elrics set out to find the one source of alchemical energy great enough to restore their bodies: the fabled Philosopher's Stone (or "Sorcerer’s Stone" to American Harry Potter fans). Also hunting the stone are a sinister group of superhuman creatures, the scarred assassin of a persecuted religion, the entire fascist military state, and more besides.
Each of these groups comes with their own characters and their own plots, and they're all engaging and deep. As the separate stories intertwine with the brothers' the show keeps us guessing - allies become villains and villains become allies and we, like the Elrics, are never sure what's true or who to trust.

While all these colliding stories do sometimes get quite convoluted, they thankfully never get confusing. When there are things we don't understand it's only because the characters don't understand them either, never because they're explained badly or obtusely withheld from us. After suffering through Evangelion for the last couple of months this direct approach is, frankly, quite a relief.

In fact, thinking about it, Fullmetal Alchemist is almost the anti-Evangelion in a lot of ways. There's a lot of thematic overlap between the two - they both grapple with the same ideas - but where Eva loudly draws attention to its themes and then does nothing with then, Alchemist lets them simmer under the surface quietly making a specific point. Both shows are fundamentally about what it means to be human and the nature of the soul - yet only one of them bothers to explore what a soul actually is and whether or not it matters.
Both shows also deal with dead mothers, absent fathers, child soldiers, loss, obsession, ambition, sins of the past, death, resurrection, science, religion; and, in every single case, Fullmetal Alchemist is less overt about these ideas, yet does much more with them in a fraction of the time.

The strongest example of this is that, in just two episodes, it explores existentialism better than Evangelion's entire series of Shinji talking to himself. During a couple of mid-series episodes, Al panics that he has no way of knowing if he is truly Alphonse Elric or just a construct with false memories. It's a pretty touching little story thread that brings the brothers closer together; and when it unexpectedly came up again during the finale, with much higher stakes, it actually made me burst into tears.

It admittedly isn't that hard to make me cry, but Fullmetal Alchemist is the first Japanese cartoon that's ever managed it. That says an awful lot about how powerful and involving this series is.

Though it's telling an epic story with a lot of moving parts, the emphasis is always squarely on character. Yet, crucially, it maintains that single-minded focus without ever becoming melodramatic. Everything is intimate and personal, and we can't help but care.
When it's dealing with massive socio-political problems (and it often is) we see them through the eyes of the Elrics - and because we care about them, we care about what they care about. New characters are handled the same way: we meet them through the brothers and we feel however they feel. It's economical and clever and the show uses it to shocking emotional effect.
The picture to the right is from only the seventh episode, and it will instantly break the heart of anyone who has seen the series. It's a plotline that was only introduced in the previous episode, and involves a character who's, frankly, kind of annoying. Yet it's completely devastating - it tears your heart out of your chest and squeezes out every drop of emotion. And it's far from the last time this happens. Hell, I'm not even sure it's the first.

The show keeps up this same level of pathos right 'til the end, then somehow goes one further. The finale is poignant and bittersweet and amazing. It's the perfect ending for this show, too, because it's purely about Ed and Al, and their love for each other. I'm fairly certain it will stick with me forever; it did make me cry, after all. You never forget your first.

I’m kind of in awe of this series. I intended to only review the first half of the fifty-episodes and come back to it later, but it's so compelling that I couldn't stop until it was over. Even now I'm struggling to understand how it can be so engaging. It has so many problems that it really shouldn't work!
The plot is needlessly complex, for one thing, and probably has too many characters (though it uses them well). Someone trips and grabs a boob, for another. But, mainly, the tone is just all over the damn place. It's either brutally dark or aiming for (and usually missing) really immature jokes. There's one character who only exists to comically lose his shirt and sparkle like a vampire, yet that same character once participated in genocide. There is powerful, moving imagery, and there is sweatdropping. It's very clever, with deep themes and strong ideas, but at the same time it's so stupid.

Yet, somehow, Fullmetal Alchemist takes all these incompatible elements and combines them into something greater. It turns these base metals into gold, if you will. It's alchemy - and it's driven by two fantastic central characters and the unbreakable bond between them.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Waiting for ReBoot

I almost don't want to write this post; it feels too much like tempting fate. What I'm about to talk about, and the feeling of hope that it brings, is still so ethereal and fragile that I fear just typing this might cause it to shatter. But that's silly and this is important, so I'll say it anyway:

ReBoot is coming back.

ReBoot - the world's first ever computer-generated cartoon, envelope-pushing pioneer of children's television, and one of the most unique shows of all time - is finally coming back!

It feels like I've spent my entire life waiting for it to return. And, in a funny way, I have.

When my brother and I first discovered ReBoot - very early on a weekend morning, over half-a-lifetime ago - it was already well into its second series. The first episode we ever saw was one called Painted Windows which, by some incredible twist of fate, is the exact point that it starts transforming from just a great cartoon into something truly special. It marks the change from separate episodes into one grand overarching story, which meant we were waiting with bated breath each week to see how things would resolve. Then, just a few episodes later, the series ended with what I still consider to be the mother of all cliffhangers.
It blew my impressionable young mind in a way that I'm not sure has ever been topped. In just the five or six episodes we'd seen, this whacky kids' show went from minor character conflicts to all out war, tore up the rulebook, and ended on the darkest note imaginable. I'd never seen anything like it.

I don't remember how long it was before they aired the next series - I just remember the waiting. When it did come back, it was even better. It was still the same fun and silly show, but now it had an edge, and it kept taking risks. Just when it seemed to have settled down into a new rhythm, it blew our minds all over again. In a move that wasn't just dark but outright brutal, ReBoot spun off in an entirely new and unexpected direction.
Then, just as things got really good, it vanished. Mid-series, without any warning, it just disappeared without a trace. Once again we found ourselves waiting for this cartoon to return.

We would be waiting for a long time. It wasn't until broadband came along, many years later, that we were able to track down the rest of the series - which never did air in Britain. For a few brief moments, after the intense and satisfying climax (and the incredible musical number that followed it) there was closure.
But it turned out they'd also made a direct-to-video fourth series that we hadn't known about. We immediately devoured that too, and it was brilliant. It wrapped up a bunch of threads from the earlier series, and gave us backstory and depth that we never realised we were missing - there was even some heartfelt redemption for certain characters. It was as smart and funny and dramatic as ever. Then, as a shocking third-act reveal drove the tension to boiling point... ReBoot suddenly ended.
Series four, like series two before it, ends on a truly enormous cliffhanger. That was a decade ago. And we've been waiting ever since.

This is actually the default state for any ReBoot fan. We waited week-to-week to watch the show evolve. We waited desperately to see what would happen after that first phenomenal cliffhanger. We in the UK waited in blind confusion after it was nixed mid-series by CITV. We waited for the internet to be invented before we could see the rest. And, for almost ten years since, we've waited, desperately, for any news at all.
From the very first moment I saw ReBoot, I've been waiting for more of it.

I'm not the only one, either. I was at New York ComicCon a few years ago and - as well as geeking out embarrassingly hard in front of Gavin Blair, one of the show's creators - I attended a ReBoot panel. Every single person in the line was surprised by how many other people were in the line - it wasn't huge, but it was much longer than the queue for a decade-old cancelled kids' show had any right to be. It was standing-room only, and the love in that place was palpable.
So what exactly did this cartoon do to earn such love? How did it make such a lasting impression on me after only four-and-a-half episodes (because we missed one)?

Partly it's down to creating such a unique and interesting world. ReBoot takes place inside a computer, in the digital city of Mainframe. It's like Tron, essentially, but far more subtle - we're never explicitly told that's what this setting is, and the characters are only semi-aware of it. But it's shown to us through design, names, terminology ("Alphanumeric!"), and the very mechanics of how this universe works. A lot of it seems heavy-handed now, but this was before computers were ubiquitous or even widely understood. It may have been for kids, but it trusted its audience to figure all this out without any hand-holding.

I knew and understood, for instance, that the main character, Bob, was an antivirus program before I even knew there was a word for that. Bob, along with Enzo Matrix and his sister Dot (see what they did there?), protect Mainframe from its resident viruses, Megabyte and Hexadecimal - two incredible and genuinely scary villains who really elevate the show. But as well as fighting viruses the heroes must also - and here's where it gets really interesting - fight against the User.
Games, as in computer-games, are a kind of natural disaster, with all the devastation that goes along with that. They descend upon Mainframe, swallowing anything in their path and, if the User wins, the results are catastrophic. Bob and the others function as the enemies in these Games, trying to prevent the User from winning and bringing ruin to the city.
That's an incredible concept if you think about it because it sets us, the viewer, as the ultimate enemy in this series. And it's not wrong - we've all killed countless thousands of digital characters. Even the word "User" is damning. That's pretty deep for a kids' show.

This mature attitude to its themes, and the non-condescending way it presents information, really set ReBoot apart from everything else I was watching at that age. When the story began to get more mature too - when the viruses turned from normal cartoon villainy to genuine evil, and Enzo went from idealistic child to revenge-driven hardass (not to mention getting cancelled for being too violent) - it really cemented itself as something amazing.

It's a combination, then, of a setting and story like nothing else, a willingness to take risks and push boundaries, and a refusal to talk down to its audience. I was roughly ten when I first saw it - my brother was even younger - and there was a real danger that we had idealised it with far too much nostalgia in the years since. But when we did rewatch it, far from not holding up, ReBoot was actually even better than we remembered. The story is still solid and well written, the characters are still great, and now we understood all the jokes and references to things like Evil Dead and Blues Brothers. It's not just a great kids' show, it's a great show.

Maybe this is coming off as a little pathetic - devoted to a show that's been dead far longer than it was ever alive; waiting for the conclusion to a cliffhanger that will never come. It's time to move on, surely. And maybe I, and every other ReBoot fan, could have come to terms with that by now, were it not for the constant reminders.
Rainmaker Entertainment, the studio that owns the series, has been teasing us for years with tiny scraps of hope, only to yank them away at the last moment. They were going to continue the series. Then they were going to (ironically enough) reboot the series. Then there were going to be some cinema-released movies. Then just TV movies. Then there was a fan-created webcomic that was official canon. Then it wasn't canon. Then there was a weird teaser trailer and a demo clip. Then there was silence.
This newest flicker of hope, the one that spawned this post, is just the latest in a long chain of promises and disappointments.

But this time feels... different. Instead of the usual trickle of hearsay and rumours, Rainmaker built up to this new announcement with an online campaign and the launch of a new website. It's a website plastered with imagery from the four original series, too, where previous announcements have used only the logo and occasional images of the city. Maybe even more encouraging is the news that Rainmaker are rebranding their television division as Mainframe Entertainment, the original name of the company when ReBoot was in production and, more importantly, the name of the show's main city. There seems to be a level of commitment this time that hasn't been there before.

Assuming that all goes well, and that Rainmaker don't break our hearts yet again, that leaves only one question: will this be a continuation from series four, or will they be starting from scratch? The wording of the press-release, such as "all-new" and "reimagining", seems to imply the latter - but that website, which launched by selling T-shirts to fans (because who else would buy them?) and touting images and characters from the cartoon's past, suggests otherwise.
I know it's premature, and I know that I should have learnt my lesson by now, but I just can't shake the feeling that this might actually be it. There may finally be a resolution to that eternal cliffhanger.

It's been twelve years since we prepared for the Hunt.
We have waited long enough.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mangaphobia 04: Spirited Away and Totoro

Studio Ghibli are Japan's premier animation house. Under the stewardship of Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli have produced almost all of Japan's best-known and best-loved animated movies. They're anime's answer to Disney, essentially.
There are two films in particular that get mentioned the most when people talk about Ghibli: Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. Princess Mononoke gets brought up a lot, too, but Totoro and Spirited Away are the only two that have really reached beyond film and anime fans and entered the popular culture.

It's interesting that it should be these two in particular that made that jump because, despite being incredibly different in tone and content, they share one major similarity. Neither of these films has a story.

That sounds dismissive and maybe insulting, but I don't necessarily mean it that way. What I mean is that there's no clear narrative to the events. Things happen to and around our characters, but they're just random occurrences that don't connect to one another. Stories should be a chain of cause and effect - A [causes] B [but] C [therefore] D - but these films are just a bunch of unrelated things happening - A [and then] B [and then] C [and then] D.
That still sounds negative, so let's give some other examples. Forrest Gump is a great film that works this way. Sticking with animation, it's true of Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Jungle Book and, to a lesser extent, Finding Nemo. Also pretty much anything by Terry Gilliam or the Coen brothers. Films (or books or whatever) can still work without a story, but it's a risky prospect - you're only one step away from the likes of X-Men 3, Transformers 2, Sucker Punch, Sharkboy and Lavagirl or (here it comes) Prometheus.

So the question is whether or not these two Ghibli films pull it off. Can they make their lack of story work?
Well, yes and no.

Of the two, My Neighbour Totoro is definitely the most successful. This is an unashamed kids' movie, so the "and then" storytelling feels appropriate - that's exactly how young children tell stories, and it's how most stories for them are written. It's the same kind of non-story as Where the Wild Things Are (the book, not the film) and that's fine, because it's aiming for the same age-group (Totoro even kind of looks like a Wild Thing).

The minimal plot, around which all the random, irrelevant, but fun things happen, is that two young girls and their father move to a new rural home to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital for intentionally vague reasons. On hearing that mum has taken a turn for the worse one of the girls runs off to see her and gets lost, then the other one finds her and it turns out mum is ok. That's pretty much it - and that's fine! Impressively, the movie actually wrings quite a lot of emotion out of this story, even though it only amounts to maybe fifteen minutes screentime (see again: Bambi).
The rest of the runtime is made up of adventures with the titular Totoro - a giant pokémon of some kind who is the spirit of the forest or of nature or something. There's a bit where he makes their garden grow by means of a weird (and weirdly animated) dance; there's a bit where he boards the world's creepiest bus; there's a bit where he takes the girls flying for some reason. Also there's dust-creatures. None of that has anything to do with anything, really, but it's creative and entertaining and that's all it needs to be.

My one issue with the film is that, when the plot does kick in and the younger sister goes missing, its impossible not to wonder why the older sister spends all day searching by herself before going to Totoro. I could understand it if she didn't believe in him or something (which wouldn't be unreasonable since the plants he helped to grow are gone the next morning, and his home vanishes at one point), but she never has any doubts, so it seems really weird when she doesn't go straight there. The movie feels like it's treading water and, worse, feels kind of at odds with itself - like it suddenly wants to be a film that doesn't have a giant fuzzy spirit-beast in it.

Ultimately, though, My Neighbour Totoro knows what it is - a cute, fun fairytale for kids - and it fills that role perfectly. Anything on top of that is just a bonus, so the fact that it manages to squeeze in an affecting and emotional story about family is to the film's credit, even if that clashes somewhat with the otherwise featherlight tone.
I enjoyed it, though I can't say I got anything out of it other than some fun escapism - it's a snack, not a meal. But it's a very fine snack.

Spirited Away isn't a meal either; but, unlike Totoro, it seems to think it is.
This is probably the most widely known and widely loved anime movie in the West. When we talk about Miyazaki and Ghibli, this is the film most people are thinking of. It is almost universally regarded as a masterpiece and, like so much anime, I just don't get it.

I will happily admit that this is, without a doubt, the best Japanese animation I have ever seen in my life. The framerate still drops off occasionally, but it's less frequent and less obvious than usual, and most of the time it's actually gorgeous. There's a subtlety to some of it that I didn't think anime even knew how to do. In this respect the comparisons to Disney are entirely fair.
Kudos, too, for having a unique-looking main character. So many anime characters (and Ghibli heroines in particular) have that same generic anime face copy-pasted into a different haircut. Arrietty looks like Sophie looks like Mononoke; the girl in Totoro has different eyes but she, in turn, looks just like Kiki; cut their hair and they'd all be clones. Yet Sen, the lead in Spirited Away, has a round face with a high nose, low mouth, and beady little eyes. She'd easily stand out in a bald lineup - she's striking and unusual and I really connected to her because of it.
The film threw all this back in my face, of course, by giving the male lead the most generic face imaginable, but still.

The problem is that Sen, this interesting-looking character, doesn't have an interesting story to back her up. This film has, if anything, even less of a plot than Totoro. Sen and her parents are also moving house but, on the way, they find a strange abandoned village in the woods. The parents get magically turned into pigs, it turns out they've stumbled into the spirit-world, a bunch of crazily imaginative but unrelated stuff happens to Sen, then her parents get turned back and they all leave, weeks (possibly months) later.
Now, as with Totoro, this could absolutely work if the point was just to have fun with some crazy magical events - but it isn't. The tone is much darker and threatening and I swear it's trying to make some kind of point. I just have no idea what that point is.

I think this may be due to lack of setup. When Sen's parents are turned to pigs and she's left all alone in a crazy world, which all happens in the first few minutes, we feel nothing. We've not had long enough to learn who these people are or what they mean to each other, so it doesn't matter to us. It's almost implied that they deserve this fate but, because we've only just met them, we don't know why.
Similarly, I think Sen is supposed to slowly become a more confident and forceful character, and maybe learn the value of hard work, as the film progresses. Certainly, early on, everyone keeps calling her lazy and spoilt and weak, but there's never any evidence of this - right at the beginning she demands a job and refuses to leave until her demands are met. Twice. She seems more than forceful and confidant enough already, so there's no growth or triumph when she succeeds later on.
Maybe it's a progression towards making her own choices rather than being pushed around all the time, but even that doesn't really work since the only time she makes a real choice it turns out to have been unnecessary and doesn't achieve anything, and she's almost immediately back to being told what to do by other people.

The person who tells her what to do the most is probably Haku, the generic-looking boy from earlier, and, for me, he's the film's biggest problem.
We're clearly meant to empathise with Haku, but we know absolutely nothing about him. He tells Sen that he is a captive and a slave, but we never actually feel it - he looks down on everyone around him and just seems to do whatever he wants. Everyone else, incidentally, warns Sen that he's a nasty piece of work and she should stay away from him. He's alternately incredibly nice and then dismissive and horrible to her and, in both cases, he does nothing but give her instructions and warnings. Then we find out that he's actually a dragon for some reason.
If this is sounding familiar - a mythological creature in the guise of a teenage boy who treats the heroine in a bipolar way and is always very controlling of her - it's because this is a perfect description of Twilight's Edward Cullen. He even watches her sleep at one point. As with Edward Cullen, the main character is apparently head-over-heels in love with him despite only ever speaking to him twice, knowing nothing about him, and not being treated very well by him. And, as with Edward Cullen, it doesn't work at all.

The rest of the movie, outside of Sen and Haku's shallow romance, deals with Sen's employment at the spirit-world's bath-house. And, honestly, nothing that happens there matters in any real way. There's some incredible imagery here, though, with weird and crazy spirits of all shapes and sizes, all very inventive and unique. There's a witch with a humongous head; there's an enormous baby; there's a man with six massive spidery arms who works all the machinery; there's a river-spirit who's polluted with rusted bicycles and trolleys; there's a flock of paper-cutouts that move like birds; there's a group of men with potatoes for heads, covered in ears; there's a lantern with a hand on the end that does gymnastics; there's three disembodied heads that hop and roll around and say "oi"; and there's No-Face.
No-Face is easily the most famous and most popular spirit from the film - a ghostly figure in a black robe with a mask for a face - and he serves literally no plot purpose at all. He's a perfect example of the way this film is just disconnected ideas and events that just randomly happen. Sen lets him into the bath-house because it's raining. He seems quite harmless and gentle and then he starts eating people. This all happens in the background while Sen's doing something else. He gets huge and fat and goes on a destructive rampage through the building, until Sen leads him outside. It's not like this drives anything in the plot, though, because Sen was already leaving anyway for reasons we'll get to in a moment. Once outside, No-Face vomits up the people he ate and returns to his ghostly form. It seems the bath-house itself turned him into a monster, though the film never bothers to explore why. Then he tags along with Sen for a while, doesn't do anything important, and leaves. No-Face probably gets over half-an-hour's screentime devoted to him, yet he doesn't influence the plot even once.

As for Sen's reason for leaving the bath-house, that's another half-hour tangent that doesn't lead anywhere. Throughout the film we keep seeing a train-line that runs along the surface of a lake. It's a beautiful image and, from the wistful way characters look at it, it seems to be the only escape from this bath-house. When Sen finally boards this train she does so to seek a cure for Haku, who she believes is dying. She (and No-Face) ride the train all day, and then trek in the dark until they reach a cottage where they hope to find help. The giant-headed witch who lives there - the identical twin sister of the one who runs the bath-house, for absolutely no reason so far as I can tell - takes them in, feeds them, and tells them that Haku is fine. And, sure enough, Haku turns up a few minutes later, right as rain. Then he flies Sen home as a dragon.
By drawing so much attention to the train early on, the film sets up an expectation that it will be important later. The same with No-Face. By forshadowing and revisiting ideas like these, it sets itself apart from the throwaway randomness of Totoro and implies that it has more of a story to tell. But it doesn't. Instead, the train journey typifies the entire film - very pretty and imaginative, but completely and utterly pointless.

I did not like Spirited Away very much. I can see why people love it - visually speaking, it's an incredible display of imagination and creativity - but in terms of story, themes and meaning, there is nothing going on beneath the eye-catching exterior.
My Neighbour Totoro gets away with this because all it wants to do is enjoy itself and revel in some fun ideas - but Spirited Away forgoes this fun and seems to be aiming for something deeper. The result is a disjointed collection of inventive thoughts and stunning imagery that never actually leads anywhere.

It's interesting that, of all Ghibli's movies, it should be these two that are so well known in the West. I've spoken before about the strangeness of anime storytelling, and how it can be alienating to the uninitiated like me. Princess Mononoke is the Ghibli film I've actually seen the most - three or four times now - and I still find it utterly incomprehensible. The only other one that I've seen, Howl's Moving Castle, is my favourite so far because the story is clear and propulsive and emotionally engaging (even if Howl does suffer from much the same problems as Haku). Yet there's no denying that even that one's told strangely - the stuff about the war, in particular, is handled in obscure and confusing ways.
Spirited Away and Totoro, on the other hand, suffer from no such problems. The storytelling is not confusing because there is barely any story to tell. Stuff just happens, and that's universally accessible - there's no right or wrong way to explain or understand it, because there's nothing to explain or understand. Maybe that's why these two films have struck such a chord - because there's nothing to lose in translation.

And with that, we come to the end of our fourth episode. Sorry about all that, Ghibli fans - I do still love you and, with the big two out of the way, I'd love some more advice on which of their films to try next.
In the meantime, based on a great many recommendations, I've started watching Fullmetal Alchemist and, shockingly, I think I rather like it. That will be the next topic for Mangaphobia, and it may actually have to be the next post on the blog as a whole - there's no films catching my eye right now and I've sadly missed the chance to catch Pain & Gain. Either way, thanks for reading and see you soon!