Category Archives: Animated Mythology

Castle In The Sky

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From: Castle in the Sky (1986, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

On a weekend visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, I was in their renowned Asian art gallery when I noticed it: an ancient Chinese painting of paradise. I stared at it for quite a while. It showed a floating landscape with hills and mountains. A spacious cave or hollow space at the center of this landscape contained what appeared to be a palace or city. There were symbolic elements in the picture, as well, but I won’t belabor all of the details. This painting influenced my own concept of paradise for a story I was writing at the time and which I am in the midst of slowly revising. When I went back to the museum on a subsequent visit, the painting was no longer on display. I have been unable to find it since.

Examples of floating cities or islands can be found in religion, art, literature, and animation. The book of Revelation mentions the new Jerusalem descending from heaven.  I doubt that this is what the artist of the following painting had in mind, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of concept. Since it shows a restored Temple of Herod along with the current mosques (not to mention the ruins and human figures in the foreground), this painting raises questions and draws the eye. Click on the image to see it in more detail.

Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox
Floating Jerusalem by Howard Fox

The floating island of Laputa appears in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

From: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)
From: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (illustrated by J. J. Grandville)

 Everything I’ve said so far is background. Castle in the Sky from Studio Ghibli incorporates this idea and even borrows the name, Laputa, for its floating city. Without going into too many details, the story is centered around Sheeta, a descendant of a royal line with supernatural insight, and Pazu, the boy who befriends and helps her when he finds her floating down from the sky, as they try to foil the plans of the sinister Muska, another descendant of the royal line.

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Sheeta and Pazu
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Sheeta and Muska

The point of contention on which the characters are focused is a stone of mysterious power which is released by an incantation that only Sheeta and Muska know.

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Sheeta wearing the Laputa stone

The city of Laputa, the apparent source of the stone,  is a supernaturally wonderful place corrupted in the past by the use of its power to develop destructive technology. Added construction has converted it into a fortress of cataclysmic capability. Their is an interesting scene in which all of the wrong-minded embellishments are stripped away to reveal the righteous and beautiful core of Laputa.

Laputa purified
Laputa purified

The animation is, as usual for a feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, wonderful, and the story is an imaginative blending of mythology, science fiction, and social commentary on war and environmentalism. Also typical for Miyazaki is the refreshing portrayal of self-sacrificing friendship between children of opposite sexes.

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If you haven’t seen this one yet, I definitely recommend it.

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Anime And Life

I moved to the small town in which I am currently living and working right out of graduate school over 25 years ago. Imagine going from a Big 10 university town to hearing a rooster crow somewhere outside your property in the morning. I could sometimes hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on the street out front. How you regard that says a lot about attitude and expectations, and that brings me to the point of this post.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

During Christmas at our home a few years ago, I was speaking with my son-in-law, Michael Greenholt. He is an animator who has worked for Disney/Toon Studios and is recently employed by Warner Brothers. I told him that I did not care for the general quality of anime, and he informed me that I needed to watch features directed by Hayao Miyazaki. As proof, he showed me My Neighbor Totoro.

From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
From: My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Studio Ghibli), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

My attitude toward where I was living was, to say the least, under-appreciative. During this charming animation, I was struck by its sense of peace, pastoral simplicity, community, and appreciation of the simple features of relationships and rural life. I remember thinking, “I want that,” and then realizing, “Wait – I already have that.” It was all around me, and I had been disregarding it.

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The story is a wonderful application of mythology to the mundane aspects of human life. Some benevolent spirits of various sizes help two sisters whose mother is ill and whose father is a university professor. There were images of the father grading papers in the quiet of their rural home, and I identified with what I was seeing. That might be the sequence which really got the wheels turning in my mind.

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I have said before that good fantasy can give us a perspective from which to consider reality. The subject of this week’s offering is but one good example of how this has worked for me. Happily, I can say that I am much better acclimated to my surroundings as I write this some years later. Just this last Christmas, we were at Mike and my daughter’s house out in Los Angeles, and the family watched this movie again. In another conversation during that visit, my daughter zeroed in on a statement I made about the influence of expectations on our enjoyment. If we are expecting something else, we are less likely to enjoy what is in front of us, regardless of its quality. If we can expand our thinking, we can enjoy a wider variety of things in this life.

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Additionally, I can say that slowing down and taking more time to enjoy less has the effect of expanding our sense of time. I believe that we live more fully and more deeply when we can achieve this relaxed state of mind. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to turn down the cultural noise, slow down, and get about the business of real living.

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Animated Mythology (Part 7)

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Still shot from Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (2014), directed by Steve Loter.

Okay, so I lied in my last post, or at least I was mistaken. I decided to go one more week on the topic of animated mythology. Those following my blog might be a little surprised by this next and final selection for the series. Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast from DisneyToon Studios is obviously meant for a younger audience, but it contains the necessary elements of a myth. It features fairies, a creature with prescient awareness, and a a legend of prophesied cataclysm, so it should qualify as a suitable example. Some adults will be pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of the story line, and the artistic concept and image composistions are interesting and unique for the Tinker Bell video series. This is especially true for the monster’s transformation sequence, and the role played by this creature is different than one would expect.

Still shot from Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (2014), directed by Steve Loter.
Still shot from Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (2014), directed by Steve Loter.

So the last statement of the previous paragraph requires a full disclosure statement. Michael Greenholt, the Animation Supervisor for this project, is also my son-in-law, and I am obviously proud of his work. I do not think this invalidates my comment, however. A look at the quality of the animation on this video should confirm what I have written. To view some additional examples of Mike’s art, click here. To see a gallery post about Mike from More than Monsters (my other site) click here.

Animated Mythology (Part 6)

From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.
From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.

For my last installment on this topic, I will conclude with the animation which is, for me, perhaps the most compelling. The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore is an interesting mix of history, cultural conflict, and spirituality, and its visual approach alone expresses these themes without words. The plot receives additional dimension by the inclusion of Aisling, the forest sprite. She injects an air of mystery, and her supernatural friendship with the boy, Brendan, is compelling.

From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.
From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.

The artistic style is based on the ornate style of the real Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript that is regarded by some to be the greatest national treasure of Ireland. This marvelous document is on permanent display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin and can be viewed, page by page, in digital form on their website. I myself spent a fair amount of time admiring the workmanship of every page when I visited that site.

From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.
From The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, 2009.

Animated Mythology (Part 5)

From Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014
From Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014

Another animator who has captured my attention is Tomm Moore. His work was recommended to me by my youngest daughter, Heather Irene Jones, who is a professional artist, living in Brooklyn, New York. This week, I will comment on Song of the Sea, his tale of a selkie and her role in restoring her family as well as the spiritual world. The concept behind the animation is advanced: frames drawn by hand with a childlike quality yet superior technique. It is very abstract, and I honestly saw methods of presentation I had never before seen on a screen. Also, the individual characters hover between a two-dimensional and three-dimensional quality while the overall scenes retain a very definite sense of visual depth. Finally, the choice of colors beautifully fits the theme and the plot, turning warmer and brighter during and after what I like to call the restoration sequence.

Still shot from Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014.
Still shot from Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, 2014.

It is this sequence that moved me the most, which I imagine was the director’s intention. Characters that seemed comical and at least a bit hapless became nobler and more dignified while remaining identifiable, and the imagery provided an understated and spiritual abstraction. This scene also makes some endearing allusions to the significance of family and the restoration of character and relationships. Next week: a look at Tomm Moore’s other feature length animation.

Animated Mythology (Part 4)

Still shot from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, 2013.
Still shot from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, 2013.

Another animation from Studio Ghibli that I would like to feature is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya by Isao Takahata. This is a reasonably faithful adaptation a real Japanese folktale titled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The artwork is wonderfully impressionistic and very emotional in tone. Okay, my wife didn’t like it that much because of its bittersweet ending, but there were a number of qualities that impressed me. These included insightful implications about how women are treated, the insincerity of high society, and the happiness and virtue associated with a simpler life spent close to nature and community.

Still shot from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, 2013.
Still shot from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, 2013.

But what particularly grabbed me was the scene with the “moon people” near the end. These eerily beautiful beings represent an inexorable supernatural force which is unaffected by the schemes of the human race. The imagery of this scene was adapted from actual Japanese folk art and was indeed striking, with the effect being magnified by the subtle yet powerful soundtrack music. For those who have been following my blog, it is by now obvious that I have a particular interest in artistic depictions of the spiritual. It is what fills the shells of factual knowledge, giving it warmth and depth. Without this perspective and this sense of life, the universe can feel hollow.

Animated Mythology (Part 3)

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

So I might as well get my confession over with. I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, and he is one of the sources I go to when I need to recharge my creative battery. I could go overboard writing about his body of work. Instead, I will mention one more of his animated features before moving on to the works of two other animators in upcoming posts.

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

I found Princess Mononoke to be an interesting and sometimes visually  disturbing story. Aside from depicted decapitations and dismemberments, this illustrious director once again combined spiritual and ecological themes. In support of this, Miyazaki (as usual) really gets sky, wind, motion, and landscape right, and they seem to become subtle characters in his story. Combined with excellent sound (another consistent trait), these features helped to achieve an atmospheric feel conducive to the aforementioned themes. Throw in some complicated and nuanced characters, and you have some of the essential elements of good storytelling.

Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.
Still shot from Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

What stayed with me most, however, was the great forest spirit (or nightwalker). This was, for me, a truly interesting visual conception, and I liked the redemptive and restorative aspects of this character. It truly elevated the plot. Getting back to the idea of recharging my own creative battery, this is the kind of artistic product I like to view (or read) because it stimulates my imagination for the kinds of stories I myself want to write.

Animated Mythology (Part 2)

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.

Hayao Miyazaki is not only a brilliant animator but also an ingenius creator of new mythologies. Many of his animated features exhibit wonderful imagination and originality in this regard. A common device which he uses very effectively is anachronism, the combining of elements from different periods of history and prehistory.

Take, for example, Ponyo from 2008. It superimposes images of Devonian fishes and invertebrates on those of a more modern Japan. These serve as effective symbols of his ecological theme. Of course there is the mythological element as well. The title character is the daughter of a sea goddess (Granmamere) and a scientist/wizard (Fujimoto), and the ecological and spiritual themes are interwoven.

This story is a wonderful and beautifully drawn reinvention of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It is made more endearing by the truly touching portrayal of friendship between Ponyo and a little boy (Sosuke) to whom she becomes devoted. The supernatural love story aspect of the movie employs an element from many ancient mythologies: relationships between divine and mortal characters.

Next week, I will take a look at one more animated feature from this celebrated director.

Animated Mythology (Part 1)

Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.
Still shot from Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2008.

It is no revelation that we live in an increasingly visual society, so let’s get the obvious negative out of the way first. All too often, people who prefer to watch are also people who prefer not to read, and they miss out on beneficial interaction with the printed page. It is my opinion (along with those of many others) that reading more fully exercises the imagination by requiring the reader to visualize what he or she is reading. I will go one step further by saying that among those who read, some deny themselves the three-dimensional and tactile pleasure of reading actual hard copies of books. Digital devices are fine, but I see them more as a convenient substitute and second choice when carrying one or more books is too cumbersome.

Now for the positives. Good imagery on a screen can also stimulate the imagination and can sometimes capture nuance and impressions as well as words. It can also do so more quickly. A facial expression that lasts less than a second takes considerably more than that to describe, and this affects timing, which is also a major factor in determining the effectiveness of essential events within a story.

Compared to motion pictures with actors and digital special effects, animation has the additional capability of being more impressionistic. It can capture and generate a sometimes wider emotional palate. What I like about this is that it can re-engage the viewer’s imagination and thereby produce a similar effect to that of literature. Images that hint at something require something else of those who watch them. I will aslo mention here that, for the above reasons, I have a preference for animations drawn by hand.

Over the next series of posts, I will mention different examples of animated mythology that have impacted me. My purpose will not be to review these animations but rather to identify certain of their qualities which impressed me. Until next week…