What I Read May 2019

Again, only two books in May, though one of them was a two volume manga collection that took some time to read. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to the pace I expect of myself. Usually when I get bogged down like this I find some short pulps to kick my finished book rate up a couple of notches. Instead of doing that, I am currently bogged down in several longer tomes.

The Clocks

Agatha Christie

This is ostensibly another entry in Christie’s Poirot series, but it reads more like one of her generally lackluster spy novels rather than her excellent mysteries. It is a mystery, but the spy stuff creeps in by the end and that doesn’t work at all.

The mystery is that an unidentified man turns up dead in the home of a blind woman, along with a dozen clocks. This was discovered by a typist who was hired to do work for the blind woman, except that the blind woman had not hired her. The police, and a bystander who happened to get involved, are stumped. One of them has the bright idea to go to an old detective friend of his, who it turns out is Poirot. Poirot is determined to solve the case without leaving his home, so he suggests some inquiries that should be made by the investigators.

Those inquiries involve the temp agency the typist came from and all the neighbors who live around the blind woman. In the usual mystery fashion, an array of lies and unknown connections are discovered, before Poirot is able to deduce who is responsible for the killing, or by that point killings, and why. There is another mystery to be solved as well, as a lot of the apparent red herrings point to a communist connection, that the bystander, who is also a spy, eventually works out. The mystery of the clocks is pretty enjoyable, the spy stuff is underbaked and kind of pointless.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Hayao Miyazaki

Thanks to a recent episode of Retronauts, I decided to treat myself to the manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know the movie version well and knew there was a manga, but I never really touched it. Though I did own the first volume, which I picked up at a used book store for a couple of bucks and then just left sitting on the shelf for a decade. While I initially looked into completing the set from the volume I already had, it turned out to be cheaper to get the collector’s edition from Viz Media.

The two versions of the story share a lot of similarities, they also end up being quite different. And the manga version is a much darker, more pessimistic story than the already somewhat somber movie. Nausicaa takes place in a world that has already been destroyed in an even referred to as the “Seven Days of Fire,” which appears to be a sort of nuclear holocaust. What has sprung up in the aftermath is a toxic jungle of fungi and giant insects that, as is revealed early on, is purifying out the toxins from the earth.

That is pretty much where the movie ends. Young Nausicaa learns the secret of the jungle and averts a war between two larger countries in her tiny country. During the conflict, one of the deadly living weapons is brought back to life, and Nausicaa only barely manages to stop the giant pill bug looking Ohmu from killing everybody. That particular conflict doesn’t happen in the manga, but the general outline of events does.

This is where the manga’s bone deep pessimism creeps in. Nausicaa is drawn from her home to fight a war, and has to witness as cycles of violence repeat themselves. The jungle may be trying to heal the world, but humanity is not done killing it yet. She consistently wins the admiration and respect of the people she meets, but it is never enough to avert more killing. This builds until the end of the manga, when Nausicaa finds the secret behind the world. She learns that the jungle is a man-made creation and that once it runs its course humanity will be reborn. Except doing so will kill whatever humanity is still alive at that point. This entity responsible for overseeing this plan has consistently pushed for the escalation of wars, to push the spread of the jungle at the rate it desires. The manga leaves off on a somewhat positive note that is undercut by the unlikeliness of that positivity holding. I think it is worth noting that the movie happened while the manga was still in its early volumes, with years between the first and last in the manga. It appears that whatever hope Miyazaki had when he started the project and made the movie had evaporated by the time he finished. I can’t say this change was unjustified.

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The Wind Rises

windrisesIn many ways, The Wind Rises is unlike any other of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.  It looks the same.  The characters are easily identified as his work and as always it is sumptuously animated. The subject is what is different.   It is neither an adventure movie nor a children’s movie, two categories in which nearly all of his previous films fit.  In many ways it is similar to Porco Rosso, another film that doesn’t fit comfortably in either genre.  However, The Wind Rises is also about a real person.  As highly fictionalizes it might be (and I really don’t know how much that is, as I am not familiar with more than most basic of facts here), Jori Horikoshi was a real person.  The fact that it is based in truth makes it significantly different.

The Wind Rises mostly covers Jori’s work on the Zero fighter just before WWII.  He struggles with designing the aircraft, having to overcome the superiority of foreign aeronautical technology.  He also must weigh his desire to create beautiful art with the knowledge that that art will almost certainly be used for terrible things.  While working on the fighter, he falls in love with Naoko, a beautiful young woman with tuberculosis.  Even Jiro’s dreams, which play a large part in the film, reflect his conflicted nature.  Some are sweet fantasies of meeting up with his hero, Italian airplane designer Caproni, others are nightmares of death from above.  Jiro’s romance with Nahoko is truly touching.  She knows just how limited her time will be and is determined to be with Jiro anyway.  They want to make the most of the short time they have together.

Wind is central to this film.  All through the film wind is blowing, whether it blows Jiro’s hat from his head, leading to his first meeting with Nahoko or blowing embers on to books rescued after an earthquake or the winds of change blowing through Japan and the rest of the world.  Wind plays a role in nearly every development in this film.

While there are weighty matters are being contemplated, to film is very relaxed and low-key.  It meanders from section to section, giving viewers small glimpse that eventually congeal into a cohesive whole.  It is at turns joyous and wistful and sad, but always moving. This is aided by just how good looking the animation is, particularly the dream scenes.  While the rest of the film is mostly restrained, the dreams allow Miyazaki to use a little more of his familiar flying scenes.  Like many of his films, especially Porco Rosso, there is a kind of awe of airplanes and flying machines on display.  It is infectious and wondrous.

One can’t help but see a little of Miyazaki himself in Jiro, especially at the end, when he and his hero look back on his dreams with some pride and some sorrow. It is an artist never quite satisfied with his work, but nonetheless proud of his accomplishments.  Miyazaki claims to be retired after this film, a claim he has made before, and if so, this is a fine way to end a career.    The Wind Rises may not be his best work, but it is a masterpiece anyway.

The Secret World of Arrietty Review

Anytime a new Studio Ghibli film comes out is time for celebration. Especially when Hayao Miyazaki is at the helm. Even his lesser works, like the recent Ponyo, are still better than nearly any other animated films released in any given year. Miyazaki did not helm The Secret World of Arrietty, but he did write the screenplay and oversaw the production. First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked as an animator on several previous Ghibli films, proves his worth here. Arrietty is a wonderful film.

The Secret World of Arrietty is the story about the relationship between Arrietty, a tiny Borrower, and Shawn, the sick young boy who moves into the house where Arietty and her parent live. She and her parents are Borrowers, people about six inches tall that live under the floorboards. They sneak around at night to borrower everything they need to live, like sugar cubes and the occasional tissue. They are careful to not let any of the big people to see them, lest their curiosity accidentally, or intentionally, doom the tiny folks. Despite this, Arrietty and Shawn form a friendship that simultaneously proves that interaction with people need not necessarily doom the Borrowers and that avoiding them is absolutely for the best. As a side note, Spiller, a wildman borrower who helps out Pod, steals both scenes he is in.

As always from Ghibli, Arrietty looks amazing. The animation quality is top notch, and the settings and backgrounds are absolutely beautiful. There is always some piece of beauty on the screen to take in. The film’s greatest triumph is the sense of scale. Nearly everything in the world of regular people, called Beans by the Borrowers, are a danger to them or has an alternate use. Nails not set flush are used as precarious steps, a pin becomes a makeshift sword and fishhooks with some line are used are repelling equipment. The interaction between the big people and the Borrowers are believable in a way that they could never be in live action. The film is worth seeing for the scale alone.

The sound is also mostly good. Wil Arnet as Pod does a bit of a Christian Bale Batman impression, but he is perfectly calm and unruffled at all times. Amy Poehler’s Homily is his opposite, always excited and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The other voices are mostly very good, if only because they don’t draw attention to themselves. Except for David Henrie as the sickly Shawn, who sounds completely lifeless. The music is mostly excellent as well. With the exception of the awful ending credits song.

The middle part of the film is almost painfully slow at times. Arrietty tries to blend the adventure of many of Miyazaki’s movies, like Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky, with the more slice of life styled film’s like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, but in the end doesn’t really satisfy as either one of them. There is not action for an adventure movie, nor enough reflection for magical drama. But what is there is eminently entertaining. From a narrative standpoint, The Secret World of Arrietty is somewhat empty, but it has heart and beauty and that makes up for a lot.