Dear Imaginary Reader:
It was one of my first weeks on campus, ("once upon a time, long, long ago," this tale should have begun) and I was at the quad perusing the many opportunities that higher education was shoving in my curious, expectant face: would I join the breakdancing club? Maybe the world of athletics had a place for me! (It didn't.) Ooooh, perhaps I would get into one of those, whatchamallthem, "fraternities"? They seemed to have something to do with Greek culture, and I did enjoy the plays of Sophocles. (Well, the early, funny ones.)
So I picked up a frat hand-out, followed its instructions, and showed up at a small auditorium where presumably there would be some orientation. The lights were off, and a strange movie which I would later learn was called "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" was playing. I was a little confused- they hadn't mentioned animated Japanese epics about ecology in "Animal House"- but all the same I was captivated by the way Princess Nausicaa was chasing a giant insectoid creature called an Ohmu through a fantastic forest of poisoned spores. Hey, this frat thing was a great fit after all!
ABOVE: "Oh me! Oh my! Ohmu!"
About half an hour into "Nausicaa," the lights went up, and there was some bustling at the door. The fat kid with glasses who had been running the artifactal VCR was stuttering something to two tall, handsome dudes who looked like they were about to squeeze the lard out of him; then the fat kid turned to the rest of us and said:
"Er, sorry everyone, it looks like Kocka Kocka Kocka* wants to have their meeting here. So, I dunno...We can hang out at my dorm and watch the rest of the movie?"
The movie-goers meekly stood up and headed toward the door, so I asked their fat leader: "Aren't you guys Kocka Kocka Kocka*?"
He snorted: "Noooo way, we're not those LOSERS, we're Anime Nation*. This is the Anime Nation* room, but sometimes the KKK uses this room when their VCR gets broken, and we have to cancel."
(*Names have been altered to protect the parties involved.)
Me: "Wait, I'm confused. This is YOUR room? So how come they can just tell you to leave?"
The fat kid stared at me like he would at an uncomprehending Ohmu: "Because they're a fraternity and we're just the anime club and they can easily kick our ass? Duh."
I gasped at the outrage: "They can push you around just because you're clearly an intelligent group of people who doesn't mind straying from the mainstream and learning about the aesthetically pleasing art forms of distant cultures?"
Him: "Noooo man, they can push us around because we're a bunch of NERDS who watch CARTOONS!"
I looked around. Almost everyone in the anime club was either too skinny or too fat, too short or too tall, too religious or too burned out on horse tranquilizer, too pale or suffering from third degree burns. Here, a pimply girl was dressed like a Victorian prostitute for no particular reason; there, a dude that looked to be over 50 wore a Dragonball Z sweater designed for someone who was under 10. Wheelchairs and braces and Radiohead T-shirts abounded, and the stench of virginity was in the air.
It struck me all at once: "OMG!!! You guys must be the school's freaks and geeks!!! Doesn't matter, I won't allow this injustice. Listen, I'm practically in Kocka Kocka Kocka already, let me talk to my brothers, maybe I can reach an arrangement and help you poor excuses for human beings."
I walk up to the two jocks with a diplomatic smile and said:
"'Sup, bros, I see there's been some misunderstanding-"
"Hey, little man, are you deaf? We have a meeting here, so pack up and go watch Pokemon somewhere else. Cool?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
And for the next four years, every magical Thursday night, I went to no keggers and got laid very very little, because I was with my fellow freaks at the Anime Nation learning aaaaaaall about the wonderful world of Hayao Miyazaki.
ABOVE: Nerds are O-kay!
"Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" is the first "real" movie from Miyazaki, ("Castle of Cagliostro" doesn't quite count), and already it contains all the recurrent elements: a courageous leading princess; inexplicably charming creature designs (even when the creatures seem conventionally "scary" Miyazaki teaches us to care for them); a fascination with flying machines; and an environmental message so striking it counts as eco-terrorism. But I think it's a disservice to refer to it in these terms: It makes it sound it as if it was a rehearsal for "Laputa" or "Princess Mononoke," but I think Miyazaki started with a masterpiece and just kept on making OTHER masterpieces that were equally as good- in slightly different ways.
There is this imposing Western narrative where an artist is supposed to climb uphill from a "promising debut" ("Nausicaa") toward a masterpiece (usually this means a masterpiece of COMMERCIAL POPULARITY- that would be "Princess Mononoke"). Then they're expected to produce an even "DEEPER" masterpiece, which the critics appreciate more than the public ("Spirited Away"). Then they're just supposed to produce slight disappointments after their inspiration burns out, (it's hard to recall because they're such damned good movies and nay-sayers eventually shut up, but "Howl's Moving Castle" actually got mixed reviews at first, and "Ponyo" was considered a slight kids movie.) Eventually, when the critics change their minds with time and kindness, then it's a time for an "autumnal return to form" (Miyazaki ain't dead yet. Just wait.)
This applies to film makers, rock bands, and Mickey Rourke. It's our "Behind the Music" affection for cliches (they do comfort one) that makes us see this pattern everywhere.
Except it's no use here. All Miyazaki films are about equally well-made, with lots of love; some are just more likely to hit you than others for whatever chance of mood, hype, age or circumstance. What are we Westerners to make of Ozu's career? He pretty much made the same good movie over and over again, feeling no need to drastically change every time, (he was famously slow to adopt both sound and color- in fact Ozu was slow to adopt anything "new" that wasn't a new type of sake.)
ABOVE: "Oh no, tentacles! I know where this is headed!"
Disney's canny appropriation of Studio Ghibli's catalogue has had at least one happy result, (aside from actually selling anime to American families and ensuring the Anime Nation legacy of chastity and not showering will be embraced by new generations): and that is the very decent dubbing. Those nerds at the anime club would froth rather than admit there's such a thing as decent dubbing, because they're by definition a desecration of artistic intent, but Disney's work here is an exception and they somehow rope amazing talent every time they release a Ghibli movie. Of note here are Alison Lohman as Nausicaa, Shia LaBeouf as her friend Asbel, Patrick Stewart as the grandfatherly Lord Yupa, and Uma Thurman as the villainous Princess Kushana- who will earn your sympathy in the scene where she reveals insects ate her hand, and adds with a bitter smile: "That's nothing; the lucky man who gets me for a wife will get to see a lot worse." There's rarely any ummitigated evil in Miyazaki's world: there are just people doing villainous things for reasons that make sense to them.