Monday, March 20, 2006

Howling mad

I watched two very different animated films this weekend: the Wallace and Gromit movie, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Hugely enjoyable as the former is, it’s the latter, a Japanese anime movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away fame, that sticks in the mind. Spirited Away was perhaps the first anime film to really achieve mainstream success in the West, and the fact that it and Howl’s Moving Castle have been successful at all in the West is pretty remarkable.

It’s remarkable not because of any lack of quality in the film-making – Spirited Away especially is full of haunting, beautiful, strange images (like the one below) which live long in the memory – but because the Japanese seem to have a fundamentally different approach to storytelling.

Indeed, the Japanese films dispense with the two absolute basics of Western story conventions: the linear plotline, and the concept of ‘Goodies and Baddies’.

All western children’s films, even the really good ones like Wallace and Gromit, The Incredibles, Shrek etc – are essentially very predictable. The Baddies will threaten the Goodies’ way of life, the Goodies will suffer a reversal then triumph against the odds, the Baddies will have their deserved comeuppance and finally the Goodies have a happy ending.

But Howl’s Moving Castle has none of this. There really is no predicting what will happen next, which is very disorientating for the Western viewer, who is taken far out of his comfort zone.

And there is a completely fluid approach to characters. There are no absolute Goodies or Baddies: ambiguous characters perform alternately selfish and selfless deeds throughout. The apparently wicked witch, who turns our young heroine into an old lady, is adopted by the ‘Goodies’ about halfway through the movie for no apparent motive. And although there is a Happy Ending, this is not achieved through any destruction of the ‘Baddies’, but because individual characters break free of their self-imposed spells and the World War is for some reason just called off.

In other words, it’s a whole bunch of people doing one damn thing after another. If it weren’t for the mutating blob-men, demons in the fireplace, walking castles, hopping scarecrows etc, it would almost be just like real life.


Hey Skipper said...

I happen to love W & G (as well as all those others you mention).

I have never given anime a try, probably because my attitude towards Japanese animation was formed by Speed Racer (which, even as a kid, I loathed.)

The task facing the writer of a linear plotline is to create a world where the audience, despite knowing the outcome, will still be in suspense. And, to be successful, that plot line (I am pointedly omitting science fiction/fantasy from this, becuase those genre can recover from anything with a plot device.) has to cohere in some reasonable fashion.

Based upon your description of anime, which I shall not taint with any sort of actual knowledge, the audience still gets the ending it desires, but without any, or at least fewer, coherence constraints.

In other words, kind of like the fantasy genre. Harry faces an hour underwater? Simple -- create gillyweed.

As I suspect I shall find with anime.

Not that this is any way a criticism of the different modes of story telling; they all have their strengths, and weaknesses.

I suspect part what is to be gained is some insight as to how Japanese see the world as opposed to Americans.

Brit said...

I'm not sure it's just about how Americans view the world, though Hollywood does tend to prefer exaggerated Good vs Evil battles.

A while back Peter B talked about how British spy novels (Le Carre etc) are meditations on the boundaries of loyalty, while American spy movies feature the superhuman hero blowing up hordes of very very Bad Men.

But really it's a European/Western tradition to follow the linear plotline of conflict /reversal/ Happy Ending.

Of course, Hollywood can and does do ambiguity and anti-heroes, even in mainstream films - The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Tax Driver etc.

But I can't really think of any Western children's movies that treat their audiences so like, well, adults.

Even the French don't do it: Belleville Rendezvous was a fantastically imaginative animation, but the underlying plot structure was entirely conventional.

And these Japanese films go far beyond ambiguity and anti-hero: they just do away with that structure completely.

Incidentally, the only anime I've enjoyed has been these children's movies. The 'adult' ones, with blood and gore and even sex, I find unwatchable.

Brit said...

(ps. 'Tax Driver' was that thriller where Robert De Niro played an Inland Revenue inspector driven to the very limits of his fragile sanity by the ever-increasing complexity of the Self-Assessment system.)

Hey Skipper said...


What about those American spy movies based upon very British James Bond novels?

Your point about children's entertainment is very well taken.

Brit said...

Ah, but in the Fleming novels, Bond is a ruthless, amoral, almost unpleasant character: more Sean Connery's menacing killer than Roger Moore's smirking clown.

It'll be interesting to see how the new guy gets on: he's the first ugly Bond.

Duck said...

I think that one of the best expressions of the western convention of goodies vs baddies was a line delivered by Arnold Schwarzennegger in "True Lies" when he's been captured, along with his wife Jamie Lee Curtis, by the terrorists, and Curtis, who up to this point had no idea that Arnold was a spy, confronts him with a question.

Curtis: So, did you kill people?

Schwarzennegger: Yes, but they were all bad.

Duck said...

I cannot think of any Western children's stories that do not use the linear plot line and do not emphasize the triumph of good over evil. I think it has to do with moralizing influence of parents over any fare aimed at children, which I see as a good thing. But as you've mentioned, a non-linear plot line is not even that common for adult movies.

Cint Eastwood's movies tend to blur the distinction between the good and bad characters, and the triumph of good in the end. I think that "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River" are two examples of that. Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" thoroughly confuses me as to who is the good guy. It is more like the deluded and the bad. And David Lynch's films seem to mock the whole convention.

Brit, I think you are confused about Taxi Driver. DeNiro played a deranged taxi driver who was planning to assassinate a politician to impress a woman, but ends up blowing away some low life pimps and gangsters and becomes a hero.

Brit said...


Thanks, but I definitely preferred Tax Driver. Those scenes of hardcore double-entry bookkeeping were white-knuckle.

Duck said...

Oh, Tax Driver! I didn't realize there was such a movie.

Hey Skipper said...

From the dept of trivia:

Speaking of James Bond, but having absolutely nothing to do with linear story telling (unless this serves as a mini example), part of Octopussy was filmed at RAF Upper Heyford while I was stationed there.

Roger Moore had to stop and wait for me to taxi my F-111 by after landing (not during filming, so don't go rushing out to the videoplatz).