Saturday, March 31, 2007
Anyone who digs deeper, of course, will find much more. Japanese videogames and cartoons find worldwide success, and for good reason: at the end of the day, people are still people. Nothing makes this point clearer than the collection of animated movies by Studio Ghibli, Japan's foremost animation studio. (Be warned: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!) To call it the Japanese Disney would be to do it a disservice: the depth of its films, the sheer breadth of its creative achievement, and the seriousness of the themes they tackle far transcends any Western animation studio. Nevertheless, its works are often perceived as being aimed at children. Such attitudes, amongst others, showcase the cultural chasm that the films have to traverse in order to be understood and enjoyed in the West. Not only are the films more serious than expected (they are not, by and large, aimed at children), but the visual style is arrestingly different, the characters less clear cut, and the storylines less straightforward. We are used to super-smooth computer animation these days; Japanese animation uses fewer frames per second, but somehow achieves remarkably superior results, with much more lifelike character animation (most notably in movement and expression), and settings which seem to far exceed the imagination of Western animation houses. Humanity's treatment of the environment is a recurring theme (in epics like Nausicaä, Laputa and Princess Mononoke, for example), as is the sweet innocence of childhood that is inevitably lost with time (in Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart). These are not, generally, themes which are necessarily either prominent or successful in the West. (Think Ferngully, and cry.) Often the story will go off in a completely unexpected direction (the discovery of the real bad guys in Nausicaä, Chihiro's seeming abandonment of her parents as she gets distracted by other things in Spirited Away), or there just won't seem to be a climax. Very often, characters will wax and wane in importance, with the bad guys turning out to not be so bad after all - just misguided, or in need of love (as with the Witch of the Waste in Howl's Moving Castle, or Yubaba in Spirited Away). Most often, the only real antagonist to the hero or heroine is self-doubt, and the struggle within yourself is ultimately the overriding theme (as in Howl, Kiki's Delivery Service, and The Cat Returns). All in all, it's very strange to anyone used to Western ideas of character and story.
In the end, though, the films all succeed because of what unites the storytelling traditions of East and West: the common humanity of the characters. Apply a decent dub, and Japanese characters instantly become recognisable as people who could live just down the street. The everyday hopes and fears, loves and rivalries of the characters transcend any gap between cultures and the films emerge as beautifully told fairy tales or epics, comedies or adventures that can be appreciated by anybody.
I first came across the Ghibli films back at university when I first saw a trailer for Howl's Moving Castle, the latest Ghibli to be widely released in Western cinemas. Captivated by everything I saw of it, I went with Sara - always a reliable companion for anything unusual and interesting - to see it at the Phoenix Picture House, and was sufficiently taken with it to purchase Spirited Away on DVD at Borders. After watching that, I was hooked - captivated enough to watch it about three times in the space of just a couple of weeks, which is an extremely rare occurrence for me. The discovery that Optimum had released the entire collection of Ghibli movies on DVD simply led to a determination to purchase all of them, a feat which I completed earlier this year; last week, with Grave of the Fireflies, I finally completed the joyous task of watching all of them.
For a set of films which has given me so much pleasure, there's nothing for it - I simply have to list them all, in order of preference. Very rarely, if ever, has such a shot in the dark as the acquisition of so many of these films given me quite so much pleasure. Without further ado, my list of favourite Ghiblis (from least favourite to most favourite) follows.
16. The Little Norse Prince
15. Pom Poko
14. The Castle of Cagliostro
11. Kiki's Delivery Service
10. Laputa - Castle in the Sky
9. My Neighbours the Yamadas
8. Howl's Moving Castle
7. The Cat Returns
6. Porco Rosso
5. Grave of the Fireflies
4. Only Yesterday
3. My Neighbour Totoro
2. Whisper of the Heart
Sunday, March 25, 2007
This week, they published a three-page article describing "how it all went wrong in Iraq", reviewing how the now-familiar litany of honest mistakes, profound incompetence, and sheer sectarian enmity has led to the present intractable mess. The story is familiar, but what is curious is that there does not appear to be any particular reason for the publication of the piece, apart from one big one that is doubtless of large concern to the editorial team: The Economist supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and ever since has been assuaged by criticism alleging that the decision to do so was one of the gravest errors that its editors had ever made. As things in the country go from bad to worse, the pressure for a mea culpa has presumably been building. Now, it has finally arrived.
Critics of the magazine's (sorry - newspaper's) decision will presumably be delighted. As with its position on global warming, it seems, the paper has finally been "mugged by reality" itself and forced to acknowledge its error. It will, presumably, be taken a lot more seriously by adherents to the vast consensus that the war was an error now that it has held its hat in its hands and admitted its mistake. After all, it cannot have been easy for the world's foremost liberal (in the classical sense) magazine to be totally isolated from near-unanimous liberal opinion, left sitting in the corner with only Christopher Hitchens for company.
But the about face is still a shame, because it undervalues the honesty and integrity which The Economist showed both in 2003 and during the subsequent deterioration. The paper may have inveighed that the war was right, but it has never approached events in Iraq through an overly optimistic perspective: it has dutifully (and gloomily) reported the litany of failures, accepting as readily as everyone else the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and reporting clearly and responsibly on the failings of the Coalition Provisional Administration and the Iraqi governments that followed, on the difficulties encountered by American troops and on the inexorable rise of sectarian hatred. It was one of the first voices to call for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation after the scandal of Abu Ghraib (on its cover, no less), and in 2004 it endorsed John Kerry for the presidency in large part because of what it already termed Bush Administration "incompetence". Indeed, The Economist has displayed its trademark neutrality and pragmatism in its reporting of the war far better than many of its more overtly anti-war competitors. Unlike other papers, it has represented the ongoing tragedy of Iraq as just that: a tragedy, and not a cause for glee as one thing after another has gone wrong for the reviled George W. Bush.
The Economist's decision to support the war was made with equal integrity. Perhaps, as this week's article claims, the main reason for its decision to do so was indeed because of Iraq's possession of WMDs. Was the intelligence wrong? Yes. Could The Economist have known that? No. Was the decision that it made at the time incorrect as a result of that? No, it wasn't. The very phrase "WMD" has become such a byword for incompetence and deceit that it is difficult now to recall that four years ago the consensus on Iraq's possession of them was very different. No-one in the intelligence business seriously doubted that Saddam Hussein did have biological and chemical weapons in direct contravention of twelve years of UN Security Council resolutions. As ridiculed as the British "45-minute" claim and the uranium from Niger stories have become, they were clearly examples of a widely-accepted case being overstated, rather than outrageous lies with no wider basis. French, German and Russian intelligence were all in agreement with the assessment that Iraq had WMD capabilities. United Nations inspectors, frustrated after years of obstruction, were not prepared to accept Iraqi assurances that they had destroyed all of their stockpiles. And indeed, Saddam encouraged the myth that he did possess them, even amongst people who really should have known the truth: some of his own generals only discovered that Iraq was without WMDs when, with the Americans approaching Baghdad, they begged Saddam to use them. Subsequent investigations by both American and United Nations experts have made clear that Saddam's primary use for such weapons was against regional rivals, not against the superpower, and that stockpiles deteriorated at such a rapid rate as to quickly make them useless: the fact that he had indeed destroyed worthless stockpiles did not mean that the capacity to rapidly reinstate production of such weapons had been abandoned. It was only the sanctions regime and the intrusive inspections - the one falling apart by 2003, the other long at a dead end and only proceeding again because of the American military build-up nearby - which kept Saddam prone, and neither could continue indefinitely. But such reasonable analysis was widely obscured by the hysterical blather about whether politicians had "lied" or not. The Economist is always at its best when cutting through the thickets of hysteria to the facts of the matter. On WMDs, its analysis was still closer to the truth than it is now willing to acknowledge.
The other reasons for the failure of the war are also overstated now, with the benefit of hindsight. The grand neoconservative plan to democratise the Middle East may now seem like pie in the sky, but the vision of a region that is peaceful and free was a very beguiling one which optimists cannot be faulted for hoping for. Donald Rumsfeld's strategy may have only used half the number of troops that were really needed, but at the time, fresh from the stunning victory in Afghanistan using a very similar strategy, the approach wasn't quite so unreasonable as we now suggest. Other decisions made by the Americans - the lack of coordination between the State Department and the Pentagon, the lack of a plan for the occupation - are less forgiveable. But statements such as "It is hard to imagine any post-war dispensation that could leave Iraqis less free or more miserable than they were under Mr Hussein" or "Iraq is not Vietnam" were not so obviously incorrect in 2003 as they appear now. The current situation in Iraq was not widely predicted.
None of this obscures the fact that everything has gone wrong. It is important to face up to the mistakes that were made, the incompetence that characterised much of the Administration's performance, and the terrible decisions that must now be made to try to minimise the damage and avert all-out sectarian war. The Economist has done a fine job of facing up to these, and has reported on them with honesty and integrity. But it does itself a disservice to imply that its original backing for the war showed any less honesty or integrity. Things were not the way that they seemed, and events did not turn out the way that it was hoped that they would. But the original decisions faced by both policymakers and newspaper editors had to be made on the basis of what was known at the time, and when applying the lessons of hindsight we must take care not to impugn the quality of our decision-making through reference to things we could never have known. If The Economist had known what would happen over the following four years, perhaps it would not have backed the invasion. But it did not know, and it could not have known, and on the basis of the information available it made a valid, brave and honourable decision. That same decision on the part of the policymakers may now be acknowledged to have led to disaster. But that does not mean that it was made unwisely, or that it is deserving of repudiation. To suggest otherwise is to do one of the finest news magazines in the world a grave disservice.
UPDATE: Whatever the merits of the original decision, the scale of this tragedy of choice can hardly be comprehended. One of the most moving pieces of journalism that I have read in a very long time is George Packer's essay in last week's New Yorker on how this supposed war of principle has betrayed some of those who believed in those principles most courageously, and highlights the tragedy in all of its awfulness. Read it.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
The Travel Agenda
- Scandinavia (1 week) - Oslo-Stockholm-Uppsala-Copenhagen.
- The Baltics (1 week) - Helsinki-Talinn-Riga-Vilnius.
- Poland (4-5 days) - Warsaw-Krakow.
- Germany (long weekend) - Hamburg-Bremen.
- Germany (1 week) - Cologne-Frankfurt-Bonn.
- Germany (1 week) - Hannover-Leipzig-Dresden.
- Low Countries (1 week) - Amsterdam-Brussels-Bruges-Luxembourg.
- France (long weekend) - Paris.
- France (long weekend) - Marseille.
- Iberia (1 week) - Barcelona-Granada-Seville-Lisbon.
- Italy (1 week) - Turin-Milan-Rome-Naples.
- Switzerland (1 week) - Zurich-Bern-Geneva-Locarno.
- The Una Road Trip (1 week, and Una gets first dibs) - Munich-Salzburg-Vienna-Bratislava.
- North-West Balkans (4-5 days) - Ljubljana-Zagreb.
- Iceland (long weekend) - Reykjavik.
- South-East Balkans (1 week) - Sofia-Bucharest-Transylvania.
- Cyprus (long weekend) - Nicosia.
- Malta (long weekend) - Valetta.
- Ireland (long weekend) - Dublin.
Naturally, I should be delighted to take on board suggestions for anywhere that's good to visit in Europe that I haven't been to yet. I shall very much enjoy seeing how much of this I can get through while I'm still in Europe. The next window is opening in late May/early June - any readers interested in any of the above trips are well advised to get in touch!
Returning from Escape
The escape this time was a weekend getaway to Prague, a trip that had been tortuously planned and that I was perhaps too exhausted to really be able to enjoy to its fullest. Nevertheless, the feeling of leaving work behind and jetting off to the Continent was a remarkably soaring one. The city was beautiful, the food and drink delicious, and the company of my housemates was, as always, wonderful. In many ways, it was far too good - I found myself becoming somewhat melancholy at the thought that cities like Prague exist, and yet I find myself living in London. This was only heightened when I got back to England. Navigating Victoria station on a Saturday night, I was taken aback all over again at the ineradicable dirt casing everything, the buildings and streets built in such a way as to look dilapidated and grimy even if scrubbed, the plethora of beer cans and burger boxes that had to be navigated on the tube, and the sheer number of obnoxious young people wandering around in tracksuits carrying alcoholic drinks swearing loudly to each other in accents that wouldn't know a diversified vocabulary if it slapped them in the face and told them to stop being so unutterably hideous. While I am fully cognizant of how silly it is to focus on the ills of one's own country while only noticing the strengths of other nations, I quite frankly see no reason to stay put in a place that I dislike when there are plenty of other places that I really like quite a lot. It is not even the case, as Kat put it on the train, that I hate England: I don't hate England when I consider it in its full glory, when I dream of the idealised vision of how England should be. How could one hate the idea of England, as it still exists in some pleasant parts of the land, in literature, in myth, and in the minds of a surprisingly large number of people around the country? I do, however, hate the various noxious characteristics of England which surround me daily, and as a result a large number of serious escape plans are being carefully formulated.
Those are all for the future, however. Although I do find it nice to daydream of buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco or Tokyo and never looking back, the reality is that I am bound to London for a good couple of years yet. And so I find myself bogged down by the inevitable minor claustrophobias of everyday life that purpose and location, both lacking, really ought to enable me to transcend. With one housemate away and the other two hosting their other halfs, it seems slightly lonely, but I simply can't be bothered on this tired day to arrange theatre, cinema, or coffee with my various other London friends. A vague inclination to settle down with a movie is foiled by one lovestruck pair's (entirely legitimate) occupation of the living room, and my work laptop's steam-powered DVD drive simply can't cope with the demands of actually playing a DVD. (Somewhat predictably, there's not much of a business case for getting this fixed, so it may remain that way for quite a while.) I vaguely ponder escaping the house for a walk, but it's raining- and, more pertinently, there is absolutely nowhere that I want to go. Instead, I listlessly settle down with National Geographic to read about elephants, disney land and super novas - contenting myself that this vicarious escape is less of a flight of the imagination and more of a prelude to the reality that is soon to come.