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Wednesday, 06 October 2010

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Bill Benzon

1.) Let's go back up top to that very first shot. Notice that we don't see Lord Yupa's eyes. Notice also that, because we see only heads and necks, and the heads are masked, that the difference between man and beast is reduced. And that is thematically important in this film.

2.) Literary critics need to learn to analyze literary texts with this kind of care and attention to detail. You might think that that's what old-fashioned 'close reading' is about. But no, not really. Close reading might, in fact, do this sort of thing, but that's more or less the fortuitous result of this or that critic wanting to do so. It's not built-in to the methodology.

3.) Now, think about going through the whole film like this. I've never done it and I'd be surprised if anyone has. The critic who does this, well, will learn something that no one else has learned. What will that be? How could I possibly know that? I've never done it.

Why shouldn't we scrutinize our texts as carefully as biologists scrutinize theirs (e.g. organisms of interest)?

SEK

Let's go back up top to that very first shot. Notice that we don't see Lord Yupa's eyes. Notice also that, because we see only heads and necks, and the heads are masked, that the difference between man and beast is reduced. And that is thematically important in this film.

Absolutely.

Literary critics need to learn to analyze literary texts with this kind of care and attention to detail. You might think that that's what old-fashioned 'close reading' is about. But no, not really. Close reading might, in fact, do this sort of thing, but that's more or less the fortuitous result of this or that critic wanting to do so. It's not built-in to the methodology.

Absolutely. Attention to detail ought to be built-in, but isn't, because BIG IDEAS are rewarded irrespective of whether they're actually operative.

Now, think about going through the whole film like this. I've never done it and I'd be surprised if anyone has. The critic who does this, well, will learn something that no one else has learned. What will that be? How could I possibly know that? I've never done it.

You could take my word for it. I think people catch hints of, but don't truly understand how crippling a disorder true historicism is. I'm being a bit glib here, but not much. I could walk you through all of Christopher Nolan's films, shot-by-shot, providing a plausible running commentary for this, that, and the other. I've done the same with Nausicaä because of run-of-the-mill teaching anxieties, and in the end I'll just say this: close attention to a work that was meticulously constructed becomes a kind of interactive meditation. I'm not going all Grant Morrison here, believe you me, but ... I'm not sure what, as I'm very tired and am likely to be metaphysical. However:

Why shouldn't we scrutinize our texts as carefully as biologists scrutinize theirs (e.g. organisms of interest)?

You can't ken from evolution without an intimate knowledge of morphology, and given the dissertation I wrote ...

Rich Puchalsky

I think that the shot-by-shot thing that both of you like to do has its place, but it often misses the forest for the trees. And looking through every shot to see how it functions can be just as bad as a generalist, overall reading if your predispositions about how to read color every shot in the same way. No amount of studying a work in detail can let you escape from yourself.

Scott does this shot-by-shot study for the educational purpose of teaching students that moods and "effects" in visual media are created through technique, rather than just happening. That's fine, in the same way that students are taught how sentences are made out of words, paragraphs out of sentences, etc. I'm a lot more skeptical about Bill's idea that this is a good way to read a work critically.

For instance. *Why* is Miyazaki wanting to unsettle his audience by using these shots? Well, the whole story is unsettling; it's about humans trying to exist within an ecosystem that's become all huge fungi. mold growing on everything, and giant insects. I don't think that much is added by pointing to each unsettling shot sequence unless you're being didactic about technique.

For instance: is this kind of reading going to tell you why Nausicaa has such an absurdly sexy outfit? Look at the last scene above, for instance, or the "uncanny valley" of the photorealist mold spore background and cute, cartoony Nausicaa in front of it in the second-to-last (strangely enough her mask, unlike Lord Yupa's, shows her eyes). Is this a crutch / weakness in the piece, or an important part of what it's trying to say?

Falconer

I don't read Nausicaa as having "an absurdly sexy outfit[.]"

And the juxtaposition of cartoony foreground and photo-realist background is something one sees in plenty of Western cartoons, and in fact seems to me to be typical of anime. Trying to hand-animate something photo realistic would most likely drive the average animator to madness. I'm not saying Miyazaki can't be harnessing this for artistic purposes, just that it's not so suprising. I don't think it's a crutch or weakness, or particularly being consciously manipulated, except insofar as every cartoon has to deal with the same problem.

And Nausicaa's mask doesn't have goggles because her helmet does, instead. Isn't it a flight helmet? Lord Yupa is wearing a floppy hat, so perhaps he needs a full-face gas mask. Oddly enough, the spores are deadly if inhaled but do not seem to irritate the mucus membranes.

Rich Puchalsky

Sexiness itself is in the eye of the beholder, but outfit design isn't. Her outfit is inexplicable otherwise. Protective outerwear jackets like the one she's supposedly wearing are loose and baggy, not form-fitting. And why the heck would she be wearing what's effectively a miniskirt and white leggings?

Lord Yupa doesn't only look like the animal next to him in the top scene, he also looks like a samurai. He's got a distinctive samurai helmet shape, face mask, and queue. Nausicaa has been prettied up.

And here's where we're getting into aesthetic judgement, which no amount of shot-by-shot scene analysis will really get you to, because that operates on a technical level. Is this a statement or a weakness? I'm inclined to think it's a weakness, because -- as previously discussed here -- anime tends to fall back on this easy stereotype of female, pacifist heroines who bring peace. But since this anime may have done a lot to start what later became a stereotype, what's it saying if it's a statement?

Well, go back to the last scene above. Nausicaa is standing there, body tilted back and jacket doing its form-fitting thing, one hand on a an eerie mold-insect-hive, the other hand ... um. I don't think you need to get to the end of the movie, where Nausicaa basically becomes surrogate mother to a baby giant insect, to understand that there's a sex-and-death thing going on here. She's symbolically open to this frightening death-world, populated by the insects and fungi of the grave, and her acceptance of it is what turns it into bearable life again.

Bill Benzon

I'm a lot more skeptical about Bill's idea that this is a good way to read a work critically.

But then, I'm not all that interested in reading a work, as you say, 'critically.'

Well, go back to the last scene above. Nausicaa is standing there, body tilted back and jacket doing its form-fitting thing, one hand on a an eerie mold-insect-hive, the other hand ... um.

Um, err, you do know, don't you, that this is just a still from a moving picture? Nausicaa's just gone into this cave and spotted the perfect shell of an Ohmu, a giant insect. She's just leaped up the side of the Ohmu shell and, in the frame Scott's selected, is standing on a spine protruding from the shell. Her left hand is touching the shell while the right rests momentarily in front of her. Then she reaches behind her back with the right-hand and grabs her knife (either it's a long knife or a short sword) and unsheaths it. She taps the shell with the blade and listens to the ringing sound. And then she stabs the knife into the shell with all her body, and breaks off the tip of her knife. She's quite pleased at the quality of the Ohmu shell, which her people will use to make tools (and weapons).

On the whole, I'm not inclined to give much weight to the fact that her right hand rested in front of her crotch for a few frames.

As for her skin-tight flesh-colored leggings, yes, we need to think about them. And we need to think about the fact that the first time we see Nausicaa we're above her as she flys right to left across the screen. But she's so small that all we really see are the wings and can't really see her. Then we cut to a closer shot, still above her, and can now see that she's holding onto the flyer. In the next shot, we're behind her and much closer. We're looking at the soles of her feet, along the leggings, to those flesh-colored tights up under the flapping lower portion of her jacket. We do need to think about the fact that, in the first reasonably close shot, we're looking up her legs at her buttocks.

We certainly need to think about her age -- mid-teens? About her relationship to the young boy she rescues and who rescues her. And how they're together in an underground cavern and discover, together, that the air is breathable. And, yes, at the end she rescues a baby Ohmu, dies in the process, is brought back to life by the Ohmu (using slender golden tentacles).

Is this a "sex-and-death thing"? I suppose. But I'm don't see that that explains anything about the film. At least not yet. At best that's the starting point for inquiry, not a conclusion. Why organize a world-spanning ecological fable around a young girl on the threshold of adult sexuality?

NickS

I don't have a real opinion in this debate, but I will quibble with this.

Protective outerwear jackets like the one she's supposedly wearing are loose and baggy, not form-fitting.

Doesn't she wear it while flying the glider? I would assume that a glider outfit would be form fitting for the same reason as cycling gear -- to reduce wind resistance/turbulence.

Rich Puchalsky

NickS, I haven't really known where to go with this thread -- it sounds creepy to be discussing Naausicaa's costume, and I was unable to parse Bill's disagreement-that-agrees-with-me. But yeah, I thought of the glider thing too. At that point you have to say, all right, if her outfit is supposed to be streamlined, why isn't she just wearing a coat ending at the waist and pants? And for it to be as form-fitting as it is, it basically has to be like spandex -- which it doesn't look like, any of the places where it hangs.

Another way to look at this is that Nausicaa looks this way because of genre conventions, the same one that require superheroines in American comics to wear ridiculously impractical outfits. That might be par for the course in a comic that's written to be entertainment for teenage boys and nothing else. But it become problematic when the work is supposed to carry something more serious. Miyazaki struggled with the problem, according to the Nausicaa wiki page (which quotes interviews):

"Miyazaki had intended to make Yala [an early version of Nausicaa] more pulpy than his other female characters, a feature of sketches of her between 1980 and 1982.[15] However, he realised that he could not draw Nausicaä nude without feeling like he should apologise, changing his idea of the story to be more "spiritual".[13] When Miyazaki draws Nausicaä in poses which are a little "sexy", like the cover of Animage in March 1993, where Nausicaä smiles while wearing a torn tank top, he cautions that "Nausicaä never takes such a pose", however this does not prevent him from drawing her like this,[16] saying "Well, if I hadn't drawn her as beautiful, there would have been some problems. I thought that I should settle down and draw her consistently, but every time I drew her, her face changed-even I was overpowered."[13] "

I think that becomes a straightforward problem for the work when the creator has to struggle against the genre conventions.

But readings of works do not necessarily conform to authorial information. Let's say that all this is there by design, or that we're ignoring design. Then the message becomes that the characteristics associated with Nausicaa's role are stereotypically female in their idealization. The healer of the ecosystem must be beautiful, desirable, etc. You don't look to anime for feminism, of course, but it's a particularly annoying form of gender stereotyping because Nausicaa is an active female heroine otherwise.

NickS

NickS, I haven't really known where to go with this thread

Well I'm glad that I inspired you to post that bit from wikipedia which is interesting and which I hadn't looked at.

Also, after I posted my comment I thought about it and decided that I was probably incorrect and that something like motorcycle gear would probably be a better analogy for what you would wear on a powered glider (is there a windscreen? I don't remember).

To go on a tangent, however,

The healer of the ecosystem must be beautiful, desirable, etc. You don't look to anime for feminism, of course, but it's a particularly annoying form of gender stereotyping because Nausicaa is an active female heroine otherwise.

I don't have a strong memory of the movie, but a key element of the emotional drama of the comic is (a) Nausicaa's charisma and the variety of people who are convinced to follow her and (b) her own uncertainty as she goes from only putting herself at risk (and being willing to trust her own life to her judgment) to watching other people suffer and die from following her.

That doesn't require her to be attractive, but it is extremely common in comics and movies that the charismatic good guys are also attractive (or, perhaps more directly on point, conform to easily recognizable gender stereotypes).

(I tend to think of the Nausicaa comic as a better version of Dune which inclines me to think of it as a messiah story.)

Bill Benzon

Rich: I agree with NickS, the wiki stuff about Miyazaki's ambivalence is most interesting. But then, ambivalence and ambiguity seem to be part of his technique. (And just what's wrong with an active female who's also beautiful?)

I've just put up a post at New Savanna the looks at the discrepancy between the prophetic tapestry and what actually happens in the story. Is this a messiah story (NickS), or not? Is Nausicaä fulfilling a prohpesy or not? It's not clear.

NickS

Is this a messiah story (NickS)

I should add, that my comment about a messiah was based on half-remembered anecdote from Frank Herbert about how the idea for Dune came, in part, from thinking about how it is that messiahs come from Desert cultures. Looking now I find this quotatation.

"There was a study in Florence, Oregon on the dunes along the coast and the USDA was finding that by planting grasses on the dunes they could prevent them from moving across the highways. So [Herbert] went there in 1958 to write a magazine article called "They Stopped the Moving Sands." That article was written -- and we intend to publish it some day -- but he quickly realized he had a lot more than a magazine article when he started to think of Messiahs leading desert people and the whole desert culture. He extrapolated, what if earth became a desert?"

I think Nausicaa clearly explores similar territory (and, to my mind, is more interesting than Dune because it isn't as overwhelmingly macho, but I haven't read Dune in a long time, so I don't want to make too much of my reaction to it).

SEK

[Just piping in to say that I'm paying attention to this conversation, I just haven't had a chance to write a proper response to it yet. Most likely, that'll come tomorrow.]

Rich Puchalsky

"And just what's wrong with an active female who's also beautiful?"

Gah. Look, when the creator of the anime is saying things like "Nausicaa never takes such a pose" but feels that he has to draw her as sexy anyways, it isn't a mere add-on, a "what's wrong if she's also beautiful". This is feminism 101 stuff. If every male hero, "spiritual" story or not, mysteriously had to have a close-up shot on a big bulge in his pants, people wouldn't be writing "And what's wrong with an active male with a big bulge in his pants?" Or maybe they would. Anyways, this is why I'm skeptical about the shot-by-shot method of analysis: it will never show you what you don't want to see.

Getting back to NickS. One of the reasons the whole identification of Nausicaa with stereotypically female qualities like empathy, desirability etc is so problematic, even leaving aside feminism, is that it leads to an ecology that's severely flawed -- at least by comparison with Dune. Dune has more or less recognizeable dry-land ecology, without the sandworms anyways. Nausicaa has a strange setup in which a "Toxic Land" ecology has formed whose purpose appears to be more or less to purify the land back to a state in which people can live in it. That just isn't something that ecologies do. Sure, creatures may produce waste products that are harmful to them -- e.g. oxygen in the atmosphere -- but there's no real reason why things would be detoxified back to a previous state that humans like. The reason that this is posited appears, I'd say, because the ecology in Nausicaa is a stand-in for psychological myth rather than really being itself. Nausicaa is getting the sexually/reproductively regenerative baggage that helps to compensate for fear of death. But it's not ecology, really.

NickS

Nausicaa has a strange setup in which a "Toxic Land" ecology has formed whose purpose appears to be more or less to purify the land back to a state in which people can live in it. That just isn't something that ecologies do.

Yes, I agree, that the "toxic land" probably exists in the form that it does as something that metaphorically taks on (eats) the sin of the human race and by doing so purified it.

Within the fiction (the comic at least) I thought it was explained as the product of genetic engineering by the pre-apocalyptic civilization, but I don't think that the comic is overall too concerned with the plausibility of that explanation.

I don't know if I agree with you that this is a serious flaw in the book, but I'll have to think about that.

Bill Benzon

So, Rich, if Nausicaä were plain, flat-chested, and wore baggy clothing then she wouldn't be saddled with "the sexually/reproductively regenerative baggage that helps to compensate for fear of death"? And if the ecology were biologically realistic, then it wouldn't function as "a stand-in for psychological myth?" That only when the ecology is really real, and not a stand-in, that only then is the ecological message, well, the message?

Do you know anything about scaling factors in biomechanical materials? I'm wondering about those insects. There are no flying insects on earth that are even remotely as large as the insects in the Nausicaä world. Is there a physical reason for it? How large can you make an exoskeletal shell before it becomes biomechanically impossible, impossible to provide support for internal organs, impossible to move around? For example, turtles can be rather large, though not remotely as large as those insects, but they've also got internal skeletons and they're limbs are not covered in shell.

What about the technology in the jet-assisted glider? Is that consistent with the other technology on display? And what about the wings on some of those airships? Rather inadequate, I’d say. They shouldn’t be flying.

But what does any of that have to do with the film?

Rich Puchalsky

There's nothing wrong with an SF stpry per se. If Nausicaa has as part of its setting a long-term, strangely successful genetic engineering project, OK. Then we could criticize in SF terms, as Bill does about, if we cared. But then it really has nothing to do with ecology as we know it. It's like saying that Planet of the Apes is about evolution. What Nausicaa is isn't an ecological story in the way that Dune sort of is, it's an environmentalist story.

And that leads back to the whole painful topic of politics in anime. It shouldn't be painful, I guess: the naive politics in anime are a lot better than the studied, supposed lack of politics in American animation. "Instead of shooting the aliens, maybe they'll stop fighting if they hear a song from a cute pop star" is still better than "Those aliens are evil and have to be shot and we're not even going to think about it."

But yeah, this is like a version of eco-feminism without the ordinary feminism. I"ll put it in turns of visual iconography. Take, oh .... an NSFW site that I can't get past Scott's comment filter. Google "F*ck For Forest". It's an eco-sex-activism site, for those who don't want to look at it. If you look around its main pages, though, you'll see that as usual for our culture, sex visually means "a woman having sex". Sex, in media, is something woman-identified, it's something that is focussed on women, they "own" it. That's just a standard, unconsidered element of patriarchy.

In a sort of similar way, making environmentalism naively female means that "environmentalism" is "a woman nurturing the environment". Not only to keep house on a global scale, and to be in touch with nature things (while men get to be in charge of all the mechanical things) , but to defuse male aggression. The above-mentioned site has a really classic illustration of a nude woman wearing a gas mask (as Nausicaaa does) confronting a logger. The woman is nude and her body is completely shown; the logger is simply a pair of hands holding a chain saw, with the rest of the person off-screen. It's a perfect replication of porn visual iconography as environmentalism. This is problematic, to say the least.

Unless someone is ready to see what's wrong with this, no amount of shot-by-shot analysis of Nausicaa will really tell them anything important about it. The overriding point isn't that Nausicaa is bad because of this. You could make an argument that it's good, but your argument has to pass through understanding why it's problematic.

Bill Benzon

. . . Not only to keep house on a global scale, and to be in touch with nature things (while men get to be in charge of all the mechanical things) , but to defuse male aggression.

Well, yes, in this film Nausicaä is in touch with nature. But that's not presented as a matter of mere female empathy. She studies nature, systematically, and she does seem to have some skill with mechanical things -- I'm thinking of the moment where she cut the Ohmu eye-crystal from the rest of the shell. As for male aggression, yep, we've got it here. But arguably the single most violent episode in the film is when, upon seeing that her father's been slain, Nausicaä herself killed two, three, four soldiers with her sword. Beyond that, the leader of the Torumekians, is a woman.

NickS

What Nausicaa is isn't an ecological story in the way that Dune sort of is, it's an environmentalist story.

I'll concede this, and also say that I really don't have a good memory of the (sort of) ecological story in Dune. I would argue, however, that there's nothing wrong with an "environmentalist story." Thinking about it last night I feel like many or most of the stories that have the largest impacts on ecological consciousness are fables of some sort that are abstracted from any actual ecology.

Heck, I feel like there's plenty that we don't understand about actual existing ecologies, it would be asking a lot for an author to create a believable fictional ecology, but that doesn't mean that it's inappropriate for an author to want to discuss environmental themes in a fantasy landscape (and Nausicaa seems closer to fantasy than SF).

Moving on to your comments about Nausicaa as conforming to genre/cultural stereotypes of femininity, I wouldn't argue with most of what you've said, but I think you're overstating the centrality of the issue, so I want to push back a little bit.

One of the reasons the whole identification of Nausicaa with stereotypically female qualities like empathy, desirability etc is so problematic, even leaving aside feminism, is that it leads to an ecology that's severely flawed

But yeah, this is like a version of eco-feminism without the ordinary feminism.

Again, I was thinking about this last night, and trying to think of what traits I think are most central to the character of Nausicaa (again, note I'm thinking of the comic, Bill is talking more about the film).

. . .

I'm actually too busy to write a longer response right now, so I'll come back to this. But, in brief, I would say that as far as the story goes the important traits of Nausicaa are:

1) She is a visionary -- she can see things in the world that other people can't. As a related trait she is both confident in her own perceptions and judgments and stubborn.

2) She is selfless (saintly?)

3) She is active / risk-taking

4) She is charismatic

5) She is extraordinarily competent in a variety of ways

Of those traits I would say that (2) is the only one that is primarily associated with women. I think (1) is debatable -- I don't think that "visionary" is a stereotypically feminine trait, but you could argue that her vision manifests in stereotypically feminine ways.

Bill Benzon

Oh, and there's a point where Nausicaä is helping to repair a windmill. She's doing the dangerous part of the job, climbing around on the blade. Another example of mechanical aptitude.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Rich, but your version of Nausicaä seems to have more to do with the requirements of your political analysis than with Miyazaki's depiction of her. No matter how much you complain about the limitations of shot-by-shot analysis, your own methodology seems rather cavalier about what actually happens in the film.

NickS

Help me out here. I'm trying to remember the term of art used to denote on one hand, the difference between the ostensible story in narrative art and, on the other, the message conveyed by the form in which the story is told.

I can't remember it, and feel like that would be useful vocabulary for this conversation.

[I'm thinking, as a very simple example of the distinction, of Truffaut famous comment that it isn't possible to make an anti-war film. In that case form trumps content, and I'm trying to remember the words for form and content when applied to a narrative like this one.]

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