Thursday, December 30, 2010

Japan in the World, Tezuka and Miyazaki

In 1951, Osamu Tezuka published a manga, Next World, that imagined Japan as a relatively small nation in a world dominated by two superpowers. Over 30 years later Hayao Miyazaki released an animated feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, where the People of the Valley were caught between two warring states. There’s no reason to think that Miyazaki meant to evoke Tezuka’s manga in making his film (or writing his manga of the same name), though he may well have known it. I rather suspect that he crafted his film in that way because that, more or less, was Japan’s situation in the world, a relatively small nation caught between two superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

Let’s take a quick look at these two stories separated by three decades. Tezuka wrote his manga in the wake of Japan’s defeat in WWII. Japan’s bid to become a world power was crushed. The Japanese had to rethink their position in the world.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and Apprentice

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where

— S. T. Coleridge, "The Æolian Harp"
0 seeds on ground:miyazaki.jpg

I want to look at two episodes from Disney's Fantasia: the Nutcracker Suite, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve chosen those two episodes because both have a ring structure, thus: A, B, C, . . . C’, B’, A’. My object is thus a formal one and its primary result descriptive: These two episodes each have a ring structure. I do, however, comment on matters other than form. I'd published this early in the year at The Valve. Now's the time to republish at my new home.

Nutcracker Suite: An Animist Fantasy

Disney chose Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for Fantasia’s second segment. This music, unlike the piece he chose for the first segment, Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, does have a program; it tells a story that has to do with Christmas Eve, large dancing dolls, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier, and so forth. But, as Deems Taylor informs us in his on-screen introduction to the episode, Disney discards that story. Disney presents us with a six-part animist fantasy of the natural world around a small pond.

In the first segment, set to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” Disney depicts fairies touching things and thus causing beads of dew to appear on them. The camera’s field of view is only a foot wide or so. This is a world of well-defined objects; but they are relatively small. The fairies would seem to be only two or three inches high. Further, while the space is well-defined in three dimensions, we have no overall sense of where things are in relation to one another, or in relation to the ground, which we see only in the beginning of the segment. The (virtual) camera moves around in this space, following the fairies as they dapple the world with dew, and weave colorful patterns in the air, but the motion is not directed from some place to some other place. It is just movement.

3 fairy.jpg

The movement is, of course, synchronized with the music. This is most apparent in those scenes where a fairy taps her wand on a flower, a leaf, a spider’s web, etc., and drops of dew appear. The taps are in time to the music. Fairies will return in the sixth episode in this segment, but they are absent in the second, third, fourth, and fifth episodes.

The second episode is set to the “Chinese Dance” and shows mushrooms dancing:

5 mushrooms.jpg

Notice that the mushrooms are dancing against a black background. There is no sense of where they are beyond the fact that they are obviously on the ground. In particular, we do not know where they are in relation to the space inhabited by the dew fairies. The transition from one space to another did not happen by moving from one place to another. Rather, it was simply a transformation from one image to another, zhoup! and we’re there.

And that – magical transformation – is also how Disney handles the transition to the next section set to “Dance of the Reed Flutes.” In this episode we see flowers dancing on the surface of a stream.

Both of these segments depict plants as being capable of autonomous movement in space, that is, of being able to move like animals. We do not see fairies prodding them to motion; their motion is their own. This segment ends as the flowers tumble over the edge of a small waterfall.

4x-flower dancer.jpg

Monday, December 20, 2010

Steak, War and Ngrams

In one of Language Log’s discussions of Google’s Ngram Viewer one commenter, named John, posted a query showing the frequency of pork chops, fried chicken, meat loaf, and steak from 1920 through 2008:

He thought it suspicious that “they all peak at the same place, in the early 1940s and are all on the rise again now.” In a later comment he elaborated:
Part of my point was that it doesn't seem to be a very balanced corpus at all, unless one can come up with a good reason why several food terms rise and fall together in frequency over a period of decades. That strikes me as more an artifact of the data set than a sign of any change in the language.
I took a somewhat different view. While recognizing that the data set surely has artifacts and that those curves might a symptom of that, I was struck by the rise in the early to middle 1940s. That, of course, is the period of World War II. I pretty much assume, on general principle, that such large-scale events have noticeable effects on the mind-set of a population and those effects would likely show up in the books published during the period.

Perhaps this odd rise in the food-terms curves was one such effect. I have no particularly good explanation of why it should be such an effect – though I’ve thought about rationing during war time. I just thought the coincidence interesting and suggestive. So I set out to investigate.

Note that, even if I am right about such a connection, that doesn’t explain the rise in the late 1990s and into the new century. For the purpose of getting on with it, I just set that issue aside. Also note that for the purposes of this post, I’m not going to recount just what I did in the order that I did it; you can follow that in the comments at Language Log if it matters to you.

First, John’s query ranged from 1920 through 2008. Let’s push the start date back to 1900 and see if World War I shows up:

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Xanadu" Revisited

Google has just released an interesting dataset. Geoff Nunberg describes it at Language Log:
Culled from the Google Books collection, it contains more than 5 million books published between 1800 and 2000 — at a rough estimate, 4 percent of all the books ever published — of which two-thirds are in English and the others distributed among French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. (The English corpus alone contains some 360 billion words, dwarfing better structured data collections like the corpora of historical and contemporary American English at BYU, which top out at a paltry 400 million words each.)
It is, he says, “the largest corpus ever assembled for humanities and social science research.” The New York Times has reported on it and there’s an article in Science based on it.

You can also play around with it online with the Google Books Ngram Viewer. You enter individual words or phrases (up to five words long) and a Google graphs their frequency over time. I’ve spent a little time playing around with it.

In particular, I’m interested in the proper noun, “Xanadu.” As you may know, it’s the name of Kubla Khan’s summer capital and is also the second word in Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan.” Several years ago I did a Google search on “Xanadu” and was surprised to come up with over two-million hits. How’d that happen? I wondered.

I ended up writing a long post on The Valve, which generated an interesting discussion, and then distilling that down into a tech report. You can download the report here (One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme). Here’s the abstract:
I treat a single word 'xanadu', as a 'meme' and follow it from a 17th century book, to a 19th century poem (Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"), into the 20th century where it was picked up by a classic movie ("Citizen Kane"), an ongoing software development project (Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu), and another movie and hit song, Olivia Newton-John's Xanadu. The aggregate result can be seen when you google the word, you get 6 million hits. What is interesting about those hits is that, while some of them are directly related to Coleridge's poem, more seem to be related to Nelson's software project, Olivia Newton-John's film and song, and (indirectly) to Welles' movie. Thus one cluster of Xanadu sites is high tech while another is about luxury and excess (and then there's the Manchester Swingers Club Xanadu).
In doing this work I had problem getting historical data. The web hits are all, of course, indicators on current usage, namely on pages on the web. But how did that current usage evolve from past usage? I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which gave examples of usage from Coleridge’s own source, a 17th century travelogue, to the present. But that’s only isolated examples, without any sense of frequency. I also searched The New York Times archives from 1851 through 1980. Here’s what I found (from the tech report):
I got 443 hits; only 3 of them were in 1900 or earlier. I checked only the first one, an article on child labor from 1870 and was unable to find “xanadu” in the article itself and so have no idea why it turned up in the search. I checked a few later articles, including a review of Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu (1927) and one of a Coleridge biography. There were a number of articles about yachting and ocean racing in the 1930s and into the 1940s. I checked two of them. One mentions a yacht named “X Anadu” and another mentions one named “Xanadu.” While the first is probably a typo, I would not automatically assume so; yachts are often oddly named. The point is that entries are sparse between 1900 and the 1940s. The New York Times review for Citizen Kane, however, was 77th in the list of 443 hits over the period between 1851 and 1980. Thus over 80% of occurrences of “Xanadu” are dated after the premier of Citizen Kane.
Of course, The New York Times is only one source and can hardly be considered as representative of usage in the English-speaking world. But it’s what I could get at the time.

Google’s new toy affords me a more complete look, though it only tracks occurrences in books, not in periodicals. So I graphed “Xanadu” from 1800 to 2008 (alas, you have to click on the link and open another window). There you see a gradual rise in usage from the late 1830s (“Kubla Khan” was first published in 1817) up through 1920. Then there’s a sharp rise in the late 1920s and peaks around 1934 (see this graph, 1910-1950), well before Citizen Cane. What’s that about? Here’s a listing of books published in 1934, a number of which mention The Road to Xanadu. I’ve not explored the whole list (there seems to be over 300).

So, at least in the world of books there was a fair amount of interest in “Xanadu” before Citizen Kane. What’s equally interesting is that 1934 remains the peak up to the present. Though here we’ve got to be careful. The graph shows percentages, not absolute numbers. So “Xanadu” is relatively more frequent in 1934 than in any year before or since. But it may well have been used more often, in absolute terms, in subsequent years.

We don’t know.

Which is how I feel about this new tool, interesting, but we don’t know. I’m sure it will tell us something, but just what . . . .

Thursday, December 16, 2010


It's difficult to see them, but there are stars in the third panel. Little teeny tiny ones.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

WikiLeaks, a distraction?

Aaron Bady (zunguzungu) on why WikiLeaks is getting so much press:
Which is why I want to say this, as clearly as I can: it’s exactly because Assange and Wikileaks are relatively unimportant (compared to the gigantic scandal of the anti-democratic security state in which we now live) that the media has made him into a superstar, has tried to make the entire story about Wikileaks and a single eccentric and interesting character, rather than about the United States government’s actions as a system. The more we focus on him – and I’ve contributed to that, which is why I particularly want to write this post — the more we take attention away from the real story, the substance of the things Wikileaks has revealed.

It tells you a great deal about how our media works, after all, that so very many of the people pronouncing moralistically on Wikileaks and Assange — either pro- or con- — seem more or less completely unblemished by more than a casual familiarity with the most sketchy and incomplete details of the case or the cabledump. .... Wikileaks has done a great deal to illuminate what our government actually does, but as Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right to point out, by far the most immediately revelatory effect of the Wikileaks dump was not in the cables, but in our government’s reaction to them.
By way of qualification, I note that it is not simply governmental secrecy that's at issue. WikiLeaks has promised leaks from a major bank. Banks, of course, are private enterprises and so do not do business in the name of the citizenry. Major banks are also international in scope. But how do they manipulate opportunities afforded them by nations? on Aaron Bady.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Real Dreams: From Seeds to Trees in Totoro

totoro fly high

Before I settle in to think about a specific sequence from the second half of the film—where Mei and Satsuki germinate some seeds they received from the large Totoro—I want to set the stage a bit.  

My Neighbor Totoro is deceptively simple. It has little or no plot; it’s just a series of incidents in the lives of the Kusakabe family: two young girls, their father, and their mother. There may be a trajectory of rising intensity in these incidents—the final one, where Mei is lost—is more intense than any that came before. Much of the dramatic interest is generated by the Totoro and their interaction with the girls. As I’ve already noted, they don’t even appear until almost half an hour into the film, and then Miyazaki introduces them gradually. Once they’ve entered the story, we’re curious about them: Just what ARE these creatures?

And one of the things we’re curious about is whether or not they’re real in the terms set within the movie, which are not the same as the terms by which we judge the characters and events from the outside. From the outside it’s obvious that the Totoro are creatures of Miyazaki’s fancy. The question is whether or not Miyazaki has made them creatures of the girls’ fancy or not.

Granny introduced one reality principle when she explained that children could see soot sprites, but adults could not. Mr. Kusakabe accepted that and had no trouble believing that Satsuki and Mei had indeed seen soot sprites. The same principle seems to apply to the Totoro. The girls can see and interact with them—first Mei, and then Satsuki—but father cannot. Yet he seems to accept their reports at face value.

But what of the audience, what does the audience think? What do we make of Granny’s reality principle? Is that a rock-bottom principle within the film itself or is Granny just a superstitious, or kindly, old lady? And what of the father’s apparent acceptance of that principle? Are the Totoro real, within the terms of the film, or not? For example, when Time Out London named Totoro the best animated film ever made, it said the film was about “two small girls retreating into their imaginations to come to terms with the responsibilities of the real world.” Though it’s difficult to know how hard to push, the obvious implication of that statement is that, no, within the film itself, the Totoro are not real. The girls are only imagining them.

That’s an easy conclusion to reach. It follows from the tacit premise that reality is reality, there’s only one of them, and children are easily mistaken about it. To rest secure in that premise one must overlook Granny’s stated belief, which is easily done, and the father’s apparent acceptance of what the children say. That is also easily done. But that is not all that one must overlook. The film is more subtle than that.

Let’s examine a sequence that starts roughly 55 minutes into the film. Satsuki has written a letter to her mother and we see her mother reading it (while hearing Satsuki narrate):

totoro letter with acorns

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"American Chartres": Buffalo's elevators

Check out Bruce Jackson's wonderful photographs of the abandoned grain elevators in Buffalo, NY. The first one's a stunner, and it's not an outlier. 39's got a tattooed elbow poking in from the right, which I like for the way it calibrates the distance between camera and subject. Geese & snow in 26. Snow panorama: 18. Fifty shots in all.

The photos will be on exhibit at the Anderson Gallery of the State University of New York at Buffalo, January 3 - March 6, 2011.

Ripples on the Pond: How Big is WikiLeaks?

I don’t mean the organization. I mean the phenomenon. Forget about whether or not it’s a bad thing, or a good, thing, or just a messy and confusing thing. How big is it?

Here’s a crude analogy: Drop a pebble into a small pond. The pebble makes waves the ripple out from the point of impact. How long before waves damp out and the pond’s surface is calm once again?

Think of a WikiLeaks information release as a pebble and . . . well, just exactly what is the pond? That’s a very good question, one I’ll leave to your imagination. The current round of releases is having what we can call first-order effects on US diplomatic relations throughout the world.

That, of course, is not all that’s going on. We’ve got second-order effects. Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its servers. MasterCard, Visa, and Paypal won’t handle donations. And so forth. In response, 100s of mirror sites have cropped up around the net and denial of service attacks have been launched against companies that have backed out of relations with WikiLeaks. Judging by Aaron Bady’s analysis of Assange’s essays, he’s looking for second order effects. He wants to change the world-wide information ecology.

Then we have the various calls for Assange’s head on a platter. What are the effects of such hysteria on public discourse? – not that there’s anything new about it. The Secret Council of Rulers, Oligarchs, Hegemons, Fat Cats and Big Cheeses is worried and sending out signals of panic – or are they just feints?

Is Assange’s arrest on sex charges a part of this dynamic, or is it something completely separate? Abstractly considered, the charges have nothing whatever to do with what WikiLeaks does as an organization. But the timeline is suspicious and some folks strongly suspect, or out-right believe, that this matter is being used as a device to corner Assange. Such belief erodes the social fabric. Would a trial simply amplify this component in the second-order effects?

How long with such things go on? As far as I can see, there’s no way to tell. And we’ve not yet seen the documents from the un-named but large American bank we’ve been promised in the new year. The first-order effects of those leaks will affect a different set actors. How will this release impact the second-order effects? Will it amplify them or cause new phenomena within the second-order realm?

It’s the second-order effects that I have in mind when I ask: How big is WikiLeaks? To return to the pebble and pond analogy, I figure the first-order effects will damp out. But the second-order effects, will they blast the water out of the pond?

The analogy breaks down at this point. What I’m looking for is an analogy that gives us a way to suggest that the pond, the system, will be changed forever. Such change might be good, it might be bad, we can’t tell.

The Persistence of Summer, 16 Nov 2010


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Maximum Irony, the US, WikiLeaks, and Press Freedom

Straightwood offered a wry comment on a discussion of WikiLeaks at Crooked Timber. Unesco is holding World Press Freedom Day in early May of next year. The US Department of State will be hosting it in Washington. Here, I kid you not, is a paragraph from the press release:
The theme for next year’s commemoration will be 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.

The Animal Within: Some Quick Notes on Spirited Away

I’m puzzled about Spirited Away. Consider the sequence where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs. They smell food, then they see it, and then they sit down and eat it, ravenously. They ‘pig out,’ as the idiom goes – I don’t know whether there’s a Japanese equivalent. As that food was not intended for them, it was intended for the spirits, it seems apt that, in punishment for this transgression, they be transformed into pigs. They acted like pigs, ergo, they are pigs.

When we consider the whole film, however, there’s little or no sense that Miyazaki is toying with the idea that they’re somehow pigs or that there is something problematic about their nature. This is quite different from Porco Rosso, where Marco/Porco is a pig man from beginning to end, and it is his nature that is under scrutiny throughout: What kind of creature is this? What does it mean to be human? Spirited Away has an entirely different feel. Why?

Boundary Crossing

Boundary Crossing

Monday, December 6, 2010

Follow the Acorns: Revealing Totoro

totoro camphor
Camphor Tree

Last evening I decided to take a break from pigs in Miyazaki and look at My Neighbor Totoro. Specifically, I wanted to take a close look at how Miyazaki introduced the Totoro, fantasy creatures that Miyazaki himself devised for this film. Having watched the film several times I knew that he introduced them on the sly, but I wasn’t sure of the details.

So I checked. The details astounded and delighted me. So much so that I couldn’t sit still as I stepped through the DVD from scene to scene and even frame by frame. Every few minutes I had to get up and pace the room a bit as I assimilated more evidence of Miyazaki’s consummate mastery.

The man knows how to make a film!

As you know, the story is set in rural Japan in the 1950s. The story centers on two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, and the Totoro. Along with their father, the girls have moved into a rural house that’s near the sanitarium where their mother is hospitalized. As the story opens the three of them are in a small moving truck traveling the final distance to their new home. They arrive, stop the truck, and start moving in.

About six minutes in – the film is roughly 86 minutes long – Satsuki and Mei notice a huge tree towering over the forest. Their father tells them it’s a camphor tree (that's it, at the head of the post). We’ll see this tree again; it’s a major motif in the film.

About a minute later – 6:41 – Satsuki notices an acorn on the floor in a room in the house. And another. For the next minute or so she and Mei will chase down acorns. Father suggests they’re evidence of squirrels . . . or rats (ewww).

The girls begin to investigate the rear of the house and, upon entering, detect soot sprites, which will have their attention for the next eight minutes or so, to about 16 minutes in. Soot sprites are small fuzzy balls of soot with eyes. There are lots of them, and they seem to have something to do with the acorns. The girls report back to their father, who has been joined by Granny, the old woman who’s been taking are of the house. She’s the one who identifies the little creatures as, yes, soot sprites, and tells the family a bit about them.

We now know that there’s a bit of fantasy in this world, and it's visible to children, but not adults – that’s what Granny said.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sita Sings the Freakin' Gorgeous Blues

Since I've got so much Nina Paley material here I thought I'd retrieve my original 2009 review of Sita Sings the Blues from The Valve and copy it here. That way it's surrounded by more Sita stuff.


I suspect I first heard about Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues in a January 2008 post at Cartoon Brew. The film had been selected to premier at the Berlin International Film Festival but Paley had to scrounge up $35,000 so she could have a 35mm print made. “Fat chance,” said I to myself. But she did it and I kept reading more about Sita here and there, watching clips, getting interested. Finally, Mike “The Curmudgeon” Barrier saw it on DVD and said “It's one of the very few animated features of the last few decades that I can recommend enthusiastically.” And he's seen Pixar, and Miyazaki!

That cinched it. I went link link z00m! on the internets, gave up a credit card number, and a couple of days later had my very own DVD (you can also stream it or download it free of charge).

Yes, it’s all that: imaginative, gorgeous, seamless, original, art.

Since the DVD contains a press kit, I’ll save myself some think-write time and simply copy the synopsis:
Sita is a Hindu goddess, the leading lady of India’s epic the Ramayana and a dutiful wife who follows her husband Rama on a 14 year exile to a forest, only to be kidnapped by an evil king from Sri Lanka. Despite remaining faithful to her husband, Sita is put through many tests. Nina (the filmmaker Nina Paley herself) is an artist who finds parallels in Sita’s life when her husband – in India on a work project – decides to break up their marriage and dump her via email. Three hilarious Indonesian shadow puppets with Indian accents – linking the popularity of the Ramayana from India all the way to the Far East - narrate both the ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the epic.

In her first feature length film, Paley juxtaposes multiple narrative and visual styles to create a highly entertaining yet moving vision of the Ramayana. Musical numbers choreographed to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw feature a cast of hundreds: flying monkeys, evil monsters, gods, goddesses, warriors, sages, and winged eyeballs. A tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment. Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as "The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told."
Now you know roughly what Sita’s about. And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.

Urban Pastoral: Hoboken




Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pigs in Spirited Away

Spirited Away is the only other Miyazaki film where pigs play a role, and the film is quite different from Porco Rosso. Except for the portrayal of Marco/Porco, and the aerial parade of dead pilots, the film is in a naturalistic mode. Relatively little of Spirited Away is naturalistic. Most of the action takes place in an alternative world centered on a bathhouse for spirits; many of the workers in the bathhouse appear to be frogs. The bathhouse is run by, Yubaba, an old woman with magical powers who flies to and from the bathhouse as a bird; her henchman, Haku, is sometimes a boy, sometimes a dragon. The spirit clients have many forms, none of the human.

Chihiro is the central character. She’s a 10 year old girl whose family is moving to a new house. She doesn’t like it one bit.

The family gets lost and finds themselves at the gate to an abandoned theme park. They enter the park – her parents do so eagerly, Chihiro is reluctant – and explore it. As night falls lights begin coming on in the otherwise abandoned buildings. Wonderful aromatic food appears here and there. Her parents begin eating, though there’s no one to serve them, but Chihiro refuses to eat and continues to explore. When she returns to them, they have become pigs:

Spirited pigs-eat

Her father’s to the left, her mother to the right. Notice that their bodies have bloated and their clothes no longer fit. If you look closely at the father’s left ‘hand’ you’ll see that it’s not a human hand; it’s a pigs foot. They are not pig-human hybrids like Porco, who has a human body and can talk. They have become pigs. They cannot talk nor do they understand Chihiro when she talks to them. They don’t even appear to recognize her.

A few seconds later we see a close-up of the father’s head:

Spirited pig-barf

Notice the spittle in his mouth, though, given the sounds he’s making, it may be vomit. The overall effect is that this REALLY is a pig. Miyazaki never depicted Porco so grotesquely. Porco often referred to himself as a pig, and others did as well, but he was never reduced to unyielding animality in the way Chihiro’s parents have been.

Leaks of the Times

Now that the webtubes are leaking, I’ve been wondering how The New York Times will react when its internal deliberations are leaked, not to mention its confidential communications with governments, corporations, NGOs and, above all, with the Secret Council of Rulers, Oligarchs, Hegemons, Fat Cats and Big Cheeses. No, I don’t actually know that WikiLeaks is about to blow a gasket on the Grey Lady. I’ve got no confidential information, nor even intimations of such.

I’m just thinking.

We know that much of the leak-worthy information they’ve got is from the info-sumps of private corporations. We’ve been promised a major bank early next year – rumor suggests the Bank of America. Do they have info-bilge on a major media organization? The Walt Disney Company is the largest, with News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom behind it (see the Wikipedia article on media ownership). Considered as a money machine, the New York Times Company isn’t in that league, But its flagship property, The New York Times, prides itself on being ‘the paper of record.’

Well, who chooses the record? Who's spinning the platter?

It’s not you and me, that’s for sure.

If WikiLeaks, or a clone, were to release Times-Confidential into the web, would the Grey Lady cover it? She’d have to, no? Would she cover it straight? Could she afford not to? Who’d she being playing to? The hands that crank the platter, or those who listen to the music? What happens if people stop listening? Then the crank won’t turn news into profits, will it?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Some Animals and Animal/Humans in Miyazaki

In private email Tim Perper suggested that it would be interesting to compare Marco/Porco, pig-man, with the animals and “hybrids” in other Miyazaki films. Interesting, yes. But also exhausting.

Still, I decided to at least map out the “space.” In this post I list each Miyazaki feature, listing them in the order in which he created them. I then make some brief remarks about animals and hybrids in those films. At the end I conclude that Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle provides the most interesting comparison with Marco/Porco and Gina/Fio in Porco Rosso. Thematically, Ponyo makes an interesting comparison with Porco Rosso, though that takes a little explaining. I do not even attempt to formulate an overall statement about Miyazaki's use of animals and animal-human hybrids. That's way beyond the scope of these informal notes.
Note: You might want to view this post as a complement to the earlier post in which I sketched out the different worlds in many of Miyazaki’s features.

* * * * *

Castle of the Cagliostro (1979): This is a naturalistic film, albeit one with a great deal of physically implausible action. There is one significant animal in the film, a dog that is the beloved pet of Princess Clarisse and that remembers Lupin. This dog is just a dog.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984): This is a strange world, filled with strange creatures. In particular it is filled with insects that are large, horse-size, to very large, whale-size. The ohmu appear to have telepathic powers and are able to communicate with Nausicaä. While these insects are strange, they are not ambiguous within their world. They are what they are.

The world also has one living Giant Warrior, which seems to be an organic creature constructed by humans as a super-weapon. Again, strange, but within its world, it is not ambiguous.

Castle in the Sky (1986): No animals play a significant role in this film. There are two very large robots which, as such, have been artificially constructed. And there is a mineral, etherium, which has some kind of bond with Sheeta, legitimate successor to the throne of Laputa. As for the few animals, I recall some birds and some ancient fish on Laputa, but that’s it.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988): This film has some very interesting creatures. There are dust gremlins, several totoro, and the cat bus. Though the adults seem to know of such creatures (Granny especially) they are visible only to the two young girls, Mei and Satsuki. They are ambiguous in that it is not clear whether these are simply creatures of the girls’ imagination or whether they are real enough, but simply invisible to adults. As far as I know all of these are creatures that Miyazaki has made up, though the cat bus owes a debt to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat.

While the movie is named after the Totoro, they are not the protagonists; Mei and Satsuki are. Within their world there is nothing particularly problematic about the Totoro.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): Kiki, the title character, is a witch. She can fly; other witches, such as her mother, apparently have other powers in addition to flight. Kiki has a cat, Gigi, who appears to be able to talk. However, midway through the film Kiki looses her witches powers and can no longer fly. Nor can she understand what Gigi is saying. When Gigi “talks” she, and we, hear only ordinary meowing.

This seems similar to the moment in Porco Rosso where the sleeping Fio awakens to see, not Porco Rosso, but Marco Pagot. And we see him too. This is a ‘deviation’ from the ‘baseline’ state of the movie, which is that everyone in the film sees him as Porco, including us. So, in Kiki, the baseline is that Kiki can understand Gigi, and so can we. When the baseline fails for Kiki, it fails for us.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Leaks R Us

I’ve been doing some more thinking about WikiLeaks. Nothing rigorous or systematic. I’m afraid if I attempted that I’d only be drawn deeper into incomprehension about this Brave New World in which we live. I know, I've been reading, for the past 50 years or more pundits have been proclaiming a brave new world, one built on tech and computers and communications. Did they foresee that one day we’d all get offers of big bucks from Nigerians writing a new brand of English? Or digital viruses crawling the net and bringing it down?

Or WikiLeaks?

Of course, it’s not about Assange, or even his close associates. I'm sure that the Secret Council of Rulers, Oligarchs, Hegemons, Fat Cats, and Big Cheeses would like to believe it's all and only just One Charismatic Aussie. If that were true, then stopping the leaks would be a simple matter of figuring out just the right legal strategy. That strategy would allow local authorities to act on Interpol’s DefCon Red and pack Assange off to Sweden.

And so they put his picture on the front of Forbes. Forbes “Capitalist Tool” Magazine. It's Him, there He is. The Evil Demiurge. I wonder what old man Forbes would have thought, he with the Harleys and leathers and his crew of jolly bikers?

But hey, Forbes got the interview, so they get to draw the page-views, newsstand sales, and subscriptions. And those get them the revenue. I wonder if they’ve gotten a Wall Street quant to work out a model that gives them the trade-offs between putting Assange the White Hair out there to draw traffic and solidifying his status as Knight of Transparency in the 21st Century?

Remember the scene in Spartacus when all the slaves raised their arms and proclaimed “I am Spartacus”? How’s that going to work out when Assange is put on trial for whatever they can pin on him? Rape is serious, more serious than the tax evasion that got Al Capone. But how’s that trial going to play when there are a million Assanges in cyberspace, each itching to spill the dirt on some company or government agency?

I am Assange!
I am Assange!
I am Assange!
I am Assange!
. . . . . . .  

How to Govern in the 21st Century

Limits to Speech

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Porco Rosso 3: In the Minds of Women

In the previous post I argued that, while it may be natural to see Pagot’s porcine appearance as a symbol or metaphor for his nature, such a reading is implausible. He’s not fundamentally piggish. He’s alienated, but that’s not, in any ordinary sense, piggish. Pagot’s appearance seems more an index of his relationship to society (e.g. the warlike regime) and to others than an index of his character.

Now I want to consider, at one and the same time, a thematic issue and a technical one. The thematic issue concerns Pagot’s relationship with women. The technical one is about how Miyazaki deploys his virtual camera.

Consider this shot, which is roughly two-thirds of the way through the film:

porco fio sees marco

We’re on Porco’s island hide-out. The woman in the sleeping bag is Fio, the young engineer who redesigned Porco’s plane and who has accompanied him to the island so that she can make adjustments as needed. Who is that man?

That’s Marco Pagot appearing, not as an overweight middle-aged pigman, but as a handsome and slim middle-aged man. The camera moves in for a close-up and, in the process, assumes Fio’s point of view:

porco fio sees marco2

She speaks to him: “Porco…” He replies: “Hmmm? You can’t sleep?” As he replies he looks at her:

porco fio sees porco1

He’s now Porco. The camera moves back behind Fio and thus out of her point of view:

porco fio sees porco2

And they continue talking. Porco tells her how he came to be a pig.

WikiLeaks: Is the genie out of the bottle forever?

Early next year, Julian Assange says, a major American bank will suddenly find itself turned inside out. Tens of thousands of its internal documents will be exposed on with no polite requests for executives’ response or other forewarnings. The data dump will lay bare the finance firm’s secrets on the Web for every customer, every competitor, every regulator to examine and pass judgment on.
It seems that half the material now in WikiLeaks’ possession is about private corporations, not governments.

The question, then, becomes: Is anything secret? Even as private individuals worry about Facebook providing their information to advertisers and about Google tracking their moves, employees of governments and corporations are sending information to WikiLeaks. Perhaps Julian Assange will be arrested somewhere and extradited to Sweden. Perhaps not. If so, will WikiLeaks survive? If not, does that really matter? Will some other organization emerge from the web as a distribution point?

Can the genie be put back in the bottle?

Here’s the conclusion of an essay by Aaron Bady that’s been getting a bit of buzz recently:
According to his essay, Julian Assange is trying to do something else. Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.



Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Porco Rosso 2: What's a Pig?

What then do we make of the fact that the protagonist in Porco Rosso is an anthropomorphic pig? We might say that, well, it’s symbolic, it’s a metaphor.

Of what?

Let’s review the opening scene, which I discussed in my opening post. Even before we see the protagonist’s head, before we know he’s a pig, Miyazaki leads us to believe that his protagonist is lazy – sleeping on the beach in mid-day – and slovenly – cigarette butts, etc, lying around. In short, that he’s piggish, as that notion is understood. When we see that, yes, he IS a pig, well . . . just what are we being told? We’ve already seen that he’s piggish. We don’t need to see a pig’s head in order to know that. We know it from his attitude and actions. But perhaps the appearance provides an account of that behavior: he’s piggish because he’s a pig. It betrays the protagonist's essence.

Later on in the film he’s chatting with Curtis in the bar of the Hotel Adriano. Here’s a bit of that conversation:
Porco Rosso: That's the plane that beat an Italian boat at the Schneider cup, two years running.

Curtis: It's not only fast, it's good in aerial combat. I hear that a pig named Porco Rosso has quite a reputation around here.

Porco Rosso: If you make a deal with the air pirates, watch your tail, young'un. They're a bunch of penniless cheapskates. They stink 'cause they don't bathe.

Curtis: Yea... that's for sure.*
Now we have Pigman criticizing others for a failure to bathe. Given the conventional implications of piggishness, that would seem to be a bit hypocritical, no? Yet, while the pirates overhear the remark and bridle at it, there’s no suggestion that Pigman stinks. He appears to be well-groomed, and even a bit of a dandy, with a white scarf around over his flight suit. Maybe he isn’t such a pig after all.

The fact is, as Tim Perper pointed out to me in private discussion some years ago, Pagot does not, in fact, act like a pig in this film. Yes, as Patrick Drazen has explored in “Sex and the Single Pig: Desire and Flight in Porco Rosso” (Mechademia 2, pp. 189-199, 2007), Pagot has a reputation as a rake, and there’s no reason to believe that he doesn’t deserve that reputation. But we don’t see him womanizing in this film. In particular, he refuses to respond to Fio’s overtures, however tentative they might have been. The Pagot we see in this film is a brave, resourceful, and courteous man. Not a pig at all.

Peer Review

Not a Good Idea

Monday, November 29, 2010

Porco Rosso 1 Meta: conventions, worlds, roles

I’ve got two comments that are ‘meta’ to yesterday’s post on Porco Rosso.

Funny Animals, NOT

Somewhere near the middle of that post I observed that, while talking animals are a convention often used in cartoons, the fact that Marco Pagot appears to be a talking pig cannot be attributed to that particular convention. Miyazaki is doing something else in Porco Rosso and is not calling on that convention. He’s just calling on the normal license of story tellers to include fantasy elements in their stories.

That seemed obvious to me when I drafted it and it remains obvious in retrospect. I note here that that observation didn’t occur to me until I drafted it yesterday, and that despite the fact that I’ve been thinking about this film off and on over several years and had written perhaps 20 or 30 pages of notes and correspondence prior to writing that post.

Why’d it take me so much time and effort to arrive at something so obvious? Perhaps it’s because I simply don’t think of Miyazaki in the context of thinking about “Three Little Pigs” or Porky the Pig. They’re different worlds. As such it simply didn’t occur to me to deny the convention of one world (funny animal cartoons) in the course of thinking about a film in a different world (Miyazaki features). Whatever the reason, I do think it useful to have made the connection and thus to have pointed out that different conventions apply to Porco Rosso.

Imaginative Worlds

My other comment is a bit obscure. It has to do with thinking about fictive worlds, which is common enough. That is to say, it’s common to think about the characteristics of the world invoked in this or that narrative. In doing so we separate the world from the particular narrative and ask: What kinds of things exist in this world? What kinds of actions and events can take place? I’ve done a post doing just that kind of thing for the worlds in most of Miyazaki’s feature-length anime.

I think that can be misleading. In the case of Porco Rosso it led me to ask whether or not it would be possible to have other pigmen in this world, or perhaps donkeymen or foxwomen. Yes, the story we’ve got has only one such creature; but could the imaginative world in fact admit of others? To be sure, I didn’t mention such questions in that post, but I asked them of myself as I was thinking about this film. And I had the sense that somehow they’re beside the point.

This anomalous person, this Marco Pagot slash Porco Rosso, exists not simply as a character in some imaginative world floating around in the imaginative ether, waiting for us to tell tales about it. That person exists specifically as a creature of the tale Miyazaki has crafted about him. As I emphasized in yesterday’s post, that person is THE PROTAGONIST in this story and his anomalous nature is as much a function of that role as it is of the imaginative world. Though the two things can be teased apart analytically – the world, the role – one cannot understand the creature (Marco Pagot slash Porco Rosso) except in the conjunction of the world AND the narrative.

Just why that is so I attribute to the mostly invisible and unknown machinery through which we tell and understand such stories.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Porco Rosso 1: Pig as Protagonist

porco cockpit

Recently I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking about the films of Hayao Miyazaki, re-watching them too, time and again. In the large I’ve been thinking how each film involves its own assemblage of naturalistic and fantasy elements. In some films the naturalistic seems to be a pendant on the fantastic, think of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. In others it’s the reverse, Kiki’s Delivery Service or the film I want to examine now, Porco Rosso, that is to say, The Crimson Pig.

The film’s central conceit is that the protagonist, Marco Pagot, is a man who, at some point in his life, became a pig. That is how he appears in the film. That, and a closely associated aerial parade of dead fighter-pilots in their planes are the only fantastic elements in the film. There are no elixirs and potions, no spells, no semi-divine and / or supernatural creatures, nor giant insects, no dream worlds, no flying about on brooms, none of that. Just a man who looks like a pig, and his memory of those dead pilots, their planes streaming upward. The memory takes but a minute or two on screen, but the porcine visage, that’s constant, from beginning to end.

Given any of Miyazaki’s films one might wonder what would happen if the fantasy elements were eliminated. Do that to Spirited Away and the film all but disappears. Eliminate the fantasy from Porco Rosso and most of the film remains, so much so that one might wonder whether those those two fantasy elements serve any compelling purpose.

I assume they do, but nonetheless find myself compelled to ask: Why a pig? What does Miyazaki accomplish through that conceit that he could not otherwise accomplish? While I find the film compelling in immediate experience, I don’t know how, upon reflection, to rationalize the protagonist’s porcine head.

Isn’t it symbolic?

Isn’t everything?

This is the first of two or three posts in which I examine how Miyazaki deploys this central device. In this post I will examine something that is so obvious that it hardly seems worthy of notice, much less analytic commentary, namely the fact the pig is in the protagonist role.

Porco in port

The Protagonist is a Pig

The pig in this film, Marco Pagot, is the protagonist. He’s not a secondary or tertiary character. The other characters exist to fill-out his story, not he to fill theirs.

By way of examining the obviousness of this fact, imagine the same film, but with Pagot appearing human at all times. Instead, some minor character shows up with a pig head, a donkey head, or a chicken head, choose your animal. Imagine that it’s the bank teller, or the boy who pumps the gasoline when Pagot refuels on the way back to his island. We see this minor character with an animal head. No fuss is made about it, and it’s the only animal-headed character.

How would that go over? It seems to me we’d be forced to think of it as a DUMBASS MISTAKE. What else could it possibly be? We have some being acting the role of a human. All of the creatures acting in such roles are ordinary humans, all of them except this one. If that’s not a mistake, then it requires an explanation.

What kind of explanation could possibly work? Perhaps the person really is just a person, but is wearing an deceptively convincing mask. If that’s the case, then the film has to show us that it is a mask, and must somehow account for that mask. Or perhaps the person really is a donkeyman, or maybe even an extraterrestrial donkeyman. That too must be somehow explained. However this anomalous creature is rationalized, the rationalization will threaten to enlarge the character out of minor status into major status or even . . . even the protagonist slot.

All of which is to make the obvious point: If there’s going to be one, and only one, anomalous character in the story, the implicit logic of story construction demands that that character be the protagonist. Further, the story must account for how the protagonist became anomalous.

Cartoons with talking anthropomorphic animals are ubiquitous. No one wonders why the taking creatures are animals. But those cartoons are pervaded by such animals. They are understood as conventions of the imaginative world in those cartoons. As such, they require no account. Porco Rosso is not one of those cartoons. Pagot’s porcine nature thus does not follow from that convention. It requires a different justification.

The Malibu, 24/7