Saturday, March 31, 2007


Lovely Ghiblis

Japan often seems to be a very odd place. Stereotypes abound, from the insular feudal society of the Shoguns, the Daimyos and the Samurai that existed until the 1850s, to the fiercely proud and nationalistic land of the Emperor, the fearsome navy and air force, and the kamikazes that eventually superceded it in a push for complete dominion of East Asia. Nowadays, Japanese politics is largely impenetrable, and much Japanese culture is viewed from the West as a combination of Kabuki, manga, anime and videogames. The sheer otherness of this high-techology, rich, but impenetrable society fascinates and intimidates in equal measure, and often what is settled for is the Lost in Translation view of the place: remarkable, but completely bemusing.

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

Not, strictly speaking, a Ghibli, this qualifies by dint of being the first film made by Isao Takahata, one of the two powerhouse directors who formed the core of Ghibli's success. (The other, Hayao Miyazaki, worked on the film as an animator.) The movie, released in 1968, is perhaps most remarkable for showing how far things have come (though at the time it was considered a landmark in the genesis of a distinctly Japanese style of animation). The story concerns a newly-orphaned boy, Hols, who pulls a sword out of the shoulder of a giant rock monster and then sets out to save a village from the attentions of the nefarious wizard Grunwald. Problems arise when he befriends the mysterious Hilda, another orphan whose secret could undo everything.

Visually, the film is disappointing - all washed-out reds and greys, and singularly uninspiring - but fairly solid characterisation which includes the brilliantly riven Hilda adds slight emotional depth. Various highlights stand out - a chaotic fight with a giant pike sticking particularly in my mind - and the manic running around does attempt to give the film a feeling of energy. Ultimately, however, it seems dated: an exuberantly gloomy children's adventure which has lost its spark over the passage of time.

15. Pom Poko

It's the 1960s, and Tokyo is expanding - right into the territory of the tanuki raccoons, who eventually decide to band together to help save what's left by launching a campaign of scurrilous tricks to try to scare the humans off using their magical powers of transformation. Isao Takahata ended his winning streak with this, which came out in 1994. The characters are clearly meant to be lovable - though endowed with great power, the tanuki are far too keen on eating and partying to ever be a serious threat to humans. (Memorably, an attempted coup by a particularly thuggish character and his henchmen falls apart when someone mentions tempura.) But somehow they're nowhere near as adorable as they should be. When in animal form, they're not even cute; their foibles come across as just plain selfish and stupid; their constant use of their pouches (which turn out to be, on closer examination, their scrotums) in their transformation is simply bewildering; and most importantly, the film's attitude towards reproduction and killing - both of raccoons and of the encroaching humans - is far too uneasy to ever allow the film the light-hearted touch that it needs to work. On an even more fundamental level, however, the film is let down by exceptionally poor characterisation - the roster of characters is far too big, and the film doesn't focus on any one of them enough to hold our attention for long. The result is that the number of tanuki is confusingly large, making the film very poorly structured and difficult to follow - or care about.

Despite this, some of the set piece moments are outstanding. The imagination used in showing the transformations is fabulous, and some of the spooky tricks that the raccoons play on the humans are truly wonderful; equally, the sense of tragedy at the end when they inevitably lose their struggle is palpable. There is also a sneaking suspicion throughout that the Western viewer simply doesn't get the movie: the film is steeped in Japanese folklore, and presumably would make much more sense to a Japanese audience. One for the completists.

14. The Castle of Cagliostro

Again, not really a Ghibli, this merits inclusion by virtue of being the first feature film by Hayao Miyazaki, the second great director in the Ghibli stable (and the only one to really achieve breakout success in the West). Based on an anime TV series, the film is essentially a caper movie. A master thief, Lupin, discovers that the money stolen in his latest heist is all counterfeit. The decision to track down the counterfeiter leads him to the fairytale European kingdom of Cagliostro, where a dastardly count has a beautiful woman trapped in his impregnable castle. Lupin has to use his wits and his accomplices to outwit a rival master thief, the evil Count and his henchmen, and an inspector from Interpol determined to arrest him, in order to shut down the counterfeiting operation and save the damsel in distress.

The ensuing madcap madness features perhaps one or two twists too many as it takes Lupin inside, underneath, and above the castle, and while the imagination on show is wonderful and the seventies thriller seamlessly evoked, the age of the animation is starting, ever so slightly, to show. Matters are not necessarily helped by an English dub which casts Lupin as an essentially loveable rogue, in stark contrast to the darker Japanese voice track (provided by the actor usually responsible for dubbing Clint Eastwood). While not rising to the heights of Miyazaki's later efforts, Cagliostro nevertheless provides entertainment, and is well worth a watch.

13. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

This breakout 1984 production, based on a manga by Miyazaki, led to the formation of Studio Ghibli and is certainly a showpiece for the artistic and imaginative talents that have come to characterise the studio's output. Set 1,000 years after a terrible catastrophe befell the Earth, the remnants of humanity are confined to small pockets which are isolated from each other by a terrible toxic jungle, filled with terrifying giant insects, which is constantly encroaching and threatening to overwhelm what's left. Nausicaä is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, an idyllic haven which finds itself caught in the middle when two larger kingdoms begin to battle each other for control of an ancient weapon which they would use to repel the jungle - but which might have fatal unintended consequences.

Like many epic Ghiblis, the plot is slightly too long and has more twists and turns than it can safely handle. Despite that, it is easy to see why the film was such a huge success. The characters are interesting and varied, and all very human - even the villains are misguided rather than evil. The beauty and imagination inherent in the setting are truly remarkable, conjuring up a world of idyllic beauty, toxic nastiness, and soaring futuristic technology. The designs of the airships form a stunning contrast to the organic (and terrifying) insects, and the contrast of both to the apocalyptic horror of the ancient weaponry suitably conveys the unimaginable devastation lying at the root of the entire setting. Most poignant is the environmental theme running prominently throughout: when humans are acting in opposition to nature instead of attempting to understand its harmonies, disaster inevitably will follow. Matters are helped along nicely by an excellent English dub featuring Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman. Although the plot is ultimately the film's biggest weakness, the film is a triumph of the imagination and a ringing call for environmental awareness. Overlong and over-complicated, it is nevertheless wonderful to behold.

12. Princess Mononoke

When Nausicaä was originally released in America, a new cut for the new audience butchered it fairly comprehensively. Fittingly, its spiritual successor Mononoke was the first Ghibli to really arouse widespread interest in the West - and when Harvey Weinstein proposed re-editing it to make it more sellable, Miyazaki sent him an authentic Katana (sword) with a note attached: "No cuts." Mononoke was released in Japan in 1997, and returns to many of the themes which characterised Nausicaä thirteen years earlier: the terrible effects on the environment of human encroachment, and the human ignorance which leads to terrible destruction.

Unfortunately, the film also returns to Nausicaä's plot style, resulting in a film in which too much happens, and which goes on for too long. Brave young warrior Ashitaka is cursed while protecting his village from a crazed beast, and leaves his home to seek out the evil which sent the beast and to attempt to lift the curse. Along the way, he discovers warring factions - made up, essentially, of the politically greedy and the economically greedy - who both want only to exploit nature for what it can provide to them. Fighting back is San, a wild girl of the forest, and the various tribes of animals who decide to resist human encroachment. Ashitaka must try to stop the evil from spreading across the land as the various factions ready for a climactic encounter.

The animation is lush and beautiful, and no expense has been spared for an English language version which features a script by Neil Gaiman and the voices of Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, Jada Pinkett Smith and Billy Bob Thornton. Fittingly, the movie made a splash in America, laying the ground for the future success of Miyazaki's later masterpieces. While still engaging and spectacular, it is hard to enjoy the ponderous plot as it stomps ever further towards its conclusion - the film mostly lacks the light-hearted touch that suffuses the best Ghiblis. As a canonical piece in Ghibli history, it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

11. Kiki's Delivery Service

In light-heated counterpoint to the heavy and serious environmental themes of the Nausicaäs and the Mononokes stand the fun Ghiblis: generally just as fantastic, they usually follow a child of some description through the rigors of growing up, and the biggest villains are usually not the external ones, but the lack of confidence in their own abilities which holds the heroines (for it is, generally, heroines) back. Kiki is one such story - an archetypal one, in point of fact, apart from a disappointing final act. The film (from 1989) sees Kiki, a young witch, turn 13 and set off on her broomstick for pastures new, as is the tradition of the witches. She manages to find herself a pretty town by the sea, but with her magical skills not quite up the task she decides to launch a broomstick delivery service instead of a potion shop. Various adventures ensue, until the loss of her powers looks likely to prevent her from helping her new friends at the time when they need her the most.

Kiki endulges Miyazaki's penchant for feisty teenage girls, random interconnected adventures, airships and cute talking animal sidekicks, and is vastly entertaining for most of its duration, albeit not quite as accomplished as his later efforts were to be on all of those scores. The problem that the film runs into is that it can't quite keep it up: tapering off towards the conclusion, it loses its energy and its zest, and much of the magic (literally) goes out of it. Nevertheless, the film is often very funny, and makes for a wonderful effort. A good English dub includes Kirsten Dunst, Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo.

10. Laputa - Castle in the Sky

For his 1986 follow-up to Nausicaä, Miyazaki retained the epic adventure parts of the story, but ditched the ponderous seriousness in favour of a light-hearted - and much more entertaining - style. Pazu is a young miner's assistant, whose life changes when a beautiful girl, Sheeta, literally falls out of the sky, unconscious, into his arms. Sheeta bears with her a mysterious crystal of great power. Pursued both by comically inept pirates and sinister government agents, Pazu and Sheeta set out to discover the secret of the crystal - and how it is connected to Laputa, a legendary city which floats in the sky.
The story is certainly epic in character, but doesn't really ever slow down and drag, and the beauty and serenity of the flying castle reinforces the familiar Ghibli theme of the importance of the environment. The vitality of the characters adds tremendously to the mix, although it really isn't helped by the dub (James van der Beek is fine as Pazu, but Anna Paquin and Mark Hamill both feature disastrously - definitely one to be watched in the original Japanese). Although slightly dated now, Laputa is nevertheless tremendously entertaining.

9. My Neighbours the Yamadas

A bit of an odd one, Yamadas stands out from the rest of the Ghibli collection by dint of its distinctive animation style: it looks very much like a moving watercolour. Released in 1999, it was also Ghibli's first ever completely digital movie, and remains Isao Takahata's latest film. Eschewing any sort of continuous plot, the film is instead a sequence of brief vignettes, anecdotally recounting moments in the life of a fairly normal Japanese family. Often pitched to perfect comic effect, the series of mini-stories celebrate the ups and downs of family life in an imaginative and often poignant way. The animation is mesmerising, the voices (including David Ogden Stiers, Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon) are perfect, and it features easily the best theme song of any Ghibli. A small, but perfectly formed gem of a movie.

8. Howl's Moving Castle

Based on a novel by the Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl is the latest Ghibli to make it to the west, and probably the one which has made the biggest impression. Outstandingly beautifully animated, the plot concerns the teenage Sophie, living a quiet and timid existence in a hat shop in a charming 19th-century central European city. Everything changes one day when she is rescued from a troubling situation by the wizard Howl, and is subsequently cursed by the Witch of the Waste to live as a wizened old lady. She sets off into the uninhabited countryside outside of the city in search of Howl, in the hope that he can lift the curse; but she soon finds herself tagging along with him as he charts a course between two countries on the verge of war over a mysteriously missing prince.

The setting and the animation are truly stunning, and visually Howl is easily the most tremendous Ghibli achievement yet. Wonderful characters - well voiced by Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall and Billy Crystal, amongst others - add to the mix, and the imaginative plot hurtles forward (for the most part), indulging Miyazaki's usual themes of cute animal sidekicks, airships and self-discovery. The villains are never truly evil, the heroes are never infallible, and everything is fantastic until the plot blacks out into incoherent nonsense towards the end. A disappointing final third cannot obscure how marvellous the film is, however, and the viewer will still emerge dazzled by the experience.

7. The Cat Returns

An alarm clock starts ringing. A groggy hand reaches out to turn it off. A moment later, she realises what time it is, shrieks, and leaps out of bed. She tumbles down the stairs, fumbles with her shoes. Her mother is eating breakfast. "Haru, you should have some!" "No time!" She runs out the door. Her head pokes back around. She hovers. "Mmm, this is delicious!", says the mother. Haru glares at her. "Now that's just mean." Off she scampers.

The delightful introduction shows off the Ghibli character animations: never before have I seen such wonderfully realistic body language and motion in an animated feature. It also shows off sparky voice acting from Anne Hathaway (who is joined by Cary Elwes, Tim Curry and Judy Greer) in this 2002 debut by director Hiroyuki Morita, conceived as a follow-up to show the fantasy elements from the solidly realistic Whisper of the Heart. Later that same day, the accident-prone Haru saves the life of a cat crossing the road with a wrapped present in its mouth; it transpires that he was the Prince of the Cat Kingdom, and soon enough the King of Cats himself shows up to invite her to his kingdom. Warned by a mysterious voice not to go, Haru seeks help from the Baron, a cat who helps others in distress. When she is kidnapped by the cats to come and marry the prince, the Baron and his friends set out to rescue her. It may not be too deep, but this fairy tale is simply delicious, and turns out to be one of Ghibli's most loveable movies.

6. Porco Rosso

The setting sounds dubious. A flying pig? Oh dear. But 1992's Porco Rosso surprises. A World War I flying ace transformed into a humanoid pig by a mysterious curse, Porco Rosso (Michael Keaton) makes a lazy living as a pilot for hire in the Interwar Adriatic, protecting cruise ships from air pirate gangs and visiting the lovely Gina, an old friend, at her island restaurant. Everything changes when a hotshot American called Curtis (Cary Elwes) shows up, looking to achieve glory by shooting down the Crimson Pig. Porco has to make a dangerous run into fascist Italy to improve his plane and recruit a feisty young engineer to help him defeat Curtis before he can woo Gina.

The familiar Ghibli tropes of the comedy villains (the air pirates seem to have come directly from Laputa) and the villains who aren't really villains at all (Curtis is a jerk, not a monster) are present, and many other elements are recognisable from other films, but for all its light-hearted and amusing feel there is a perfectly understated tragedy at the heart of Porco Rosso, as the film delicately refrains from making clear the origins of his curse or what happens between him and Gina. Even the film's definite strain of pacifism is quietly done, although Porco does get to utter the memorable line, on being asked to rejoin the Italian airforce, "I'd rather be a pig than a fascist." The charming setting, memorable characters and exciting aerial dogfights all conspire to make the film brilliant, but it's the quietly stated thematic depth that pushes it into being a classic.

5. Grave of the Fireflies

Isao Takahata's stunning war film from 1988 is, like his later My Neighbours the Yamadas, a departure from Studio Ghibli's usual fare. Watch it with subtitles, to capture the original feel: the city streets, so recognisable from The Cat Returns or Yamadas, are almost immediately obliterated by American firebombs, which slowly parachute their way down, lying on the ground in a moment of surreal calm before the entire combustible neighbourhood goes up in flames. Teenage Seita and his young sister Setsuko survive the attack, but lose their home and - horrifically - their mother. Driven first to live with a distant aunt, and then to try to survive in the countryside, the film hurtles tragically towards the inevitable ending, made clear from the beginning: Seita and Setsuko will not survive the war.
The anime does not shy away from depicting the horrors of wartime. Takahata himself narrowly survived the firebombing as a child. But there is no recrimination toward the victors here. Indeed, the film can be read more as a condemnation of Imperial Japan: Seita is too proud, too arrogant to join in with the community, and through his mistakes the precious innocence in his care is lost. Riven by grief, he cannot go on. With his passing, just as the Americans are about to arrive, passes Japan of the past; the parting shot shows us the ghosts of Japan's lost pride and lost innocence, quietly watching modern Tokyo as the country makes itself anew.

Ghibli films do not usually set out to make you cry, but you'll be hard pressed to help it watching this one. This is one of the most intelligent, and most harrowing, war films I have ever seen.

4. Only Yesterday
Grave of the Fireflies may have been a masterpiece, but it suffered significantly upon release thanks to the catastrophically dim-witted decision to release it in a double-bill with the insanely cheerful My Neighbour Totoro. Fairly predictably, it was the more depressing movie that won over fewer hearts. Mercifully, however, this did not stop Isao Takahata from trying again in 1991, countering Totoro's dewy-eyed vision of childhood with a far more affecting childhood vision of his own. Only Yesterday is the story of Taeko, a twenty-something office worker heading out to the countryside for a holiday harvesting safflower. As the holiday progresses, she finds herself returning to memories of her fifth-grade self, and we slowly discover how her past influences her present as she wonders whether she has been true to her childhood dreams.

You would be hard pressed to say that anything happens in this film: safflowers get picked, understated conversations are had, and memories of family life, boys, and math homework are remembered and picked over. While not as viscerally moving as Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday is the better film. The quiet everyday tragedy of lost childhood innocence is profoundly affecting, and the wonderful character of Taeko - unremarkable, unexciting, but deeply sympathetic nevertheless - make this into a nostalgia piece of universal relevance. The Western release is underwhelming - there is no English voiceover - but it doesn't matter. The beautiful animation and wonderful plot speak for themselves, and this is a truly glorious movie.

3. My Neighbour Totoro

For all of Only Yesterday's glory, though, nothing could possibly be as glorious as My Neighbour Totoro, a film for which the word "glorious" could have been invented to describe. With their mother in the hospital, Satsuki and her little sister Mei move with their father to a house in the countryside which they find is haunted by something magical. When Mei discovers the creature Totoro living in the hill next door, a sequence of joyful adventures ensue. The film is meant to evoke the wonders of nature and childhood, and succeeds spectacularly. The only conflict comes from the silly things that children blow out of proportion, and the humour and imagination of the encounters with Totoro are sparkling. Pure enjoyment. Glorious.

2. Whisper of the Heart

This 1995 film came hot on the heels of Pom Poko, and ironically enough is set in Tama New Town, which the tanuki of that film were fighting to prevent being built. It's lucky that they failed, because this film is far superior to its predecessor. On a tragic note, it's director, Yoshifumi Kondo - who Miyazaki and Takahata had intended to take over as the lead director in Studio Ghibli - died of an aneurysm in 1998, leaving this as his only full movie.
The story concerns Shizuku, a student in junior high, who is bored, bored, bored. Unhappily revising for her high school entrance exams, all she really wants to do is write songs and read books. Her urban life is pretty dull. Things perk up when mysterious events start to happen. She discovers that every book that she checks out from the library has the same name in it, Seiji Amasawa. A mysterious cat riding the metro leads her to an idiosyncratic antique shop. Her life starts to get slightly more interesting.
Although the film ultimately eschews the presence of magic, it achieves something more profound. Shizuku and Seiji, both remarkably realistic, well-rounded characters, develop together and inspire each other, and the outcome - a film of the infinite possibilities of childhood, of the innocent beauty of young love, of the unparalleled joy of creative awakening, and of the magic that can be found in even the most humdrum of everyday lives if you look for it - stands as testament to the achievements of the sadly departed Kondo, and as a legacy to be admired.

1. Spirited Away

Spirited Away was released in 2001, and never looked back, becoming the most successful film ever to be released in Japan and winning a clutch of awards, including the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It's not hard to see why. Few movies have ever demonstrated quite so much imagination - scene after scene displays breathtaking originality - but at root, the film concerns a universally sympathetic character: a child, trapped in a world which she doesn't understand, having to fend for herself.

The story concerns Chihiro, a young girl grumpy at having to move house, whose parents decide to take a shortcut to get to their new home. When a wrong turn leads them to what they assume is an abandoned theme park, her parents are imprisoned by the witch Yubaba, and Chihiro is plunged into the underbelly of a bath house for the spirits. Aided by Haku, a mysterious boy, she must persuade Yubaba to give her a job so that she can stay in the bath house until she is able to rescue her parents. The concept of the bath house for the spirits, is, naturally, the perfect excuse for the Ghibli animators to go wild, and they duly oblige: creatures and characters are stunningly conceived and animated. Familiar Ghibli tropes are wheeled out and delightfully renewed - the pirate matriarch from Laputa becomes the witch Yubaba, the parents are transformed into pigs just like Porco Rosso, the silent majesty of Totoro is transmuted into a Radish Spirit, the cute animal sidekicks reappear, and the ubiquitous environmental themes get a brief run-through too. The spooky and the weird ultimately become nothing more than the different, and as with so many Ghiblis, there are no villains: there is just a weird and wonderful world out there, which we can't possibly really begin to understand, and success for Chihiro ultimately comes when she believes in herself enough to master it. Stunning, glorious, moving, and spectacular, Spirited Away has deservedly entered the pantheon of movies regarded as some of the best ever made.

Well, then: these is no question in my mind that purchasing the entire set of Ghiblis was one of the best investments in movies in my entire life. The key question now is: what is to become of my cinematic life in the post-Ghibli era? Shall I, perhaps branch out and explore the wider world of anime? There is clearly some excellent stuff out there: witness this trailer for Paprika by Satoshi Kon. And then there is the waiting: Goro Miyazaki - son of Hayao - has released his first film through Studio Ghibli in Japan, and Wizard of Earthsea (based on the books by Ursula K. LeGuin) will be arriving in Britain in the summer. Hayao himself has just announced his newest project too, Ponyo On A Cliff, which is apparently about a goldfish.
But mostly, I should imagine I'll just watch this collection of films again and again, and treasure them even more. Now that Gwen has gotten into them too, there will be a Ghibli-thon weekend coming soon here in Archway. Get in touch if you want to join in. I promise you - you won't regret it for one second.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Failure, acknowledged

So, even The Economist has now come out against the war with Iraq.

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

While imaginative preparations are, as ever, afoot for more permanent means of escape, in the meantime I am on Europe's doorstep, and there's an awful lot of it left to explore before moving on. I am, therefore, looking for companions to join me on the following sojourns. Anyone interested in any of the following trips is advised to get in touch!

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

I escaped England this weekend. This isn't, generally speaking, an unusual occurrence - I get itchy feet when I don't travel for a while, whichever country I might be in - but the interesting thing was that I didn't realise that I'd escaped until I got back.

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.

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