What I’ve Been Watching: Studio Ghibli Films

I haven’t been reading anything much lately, except hospital COVID policy documents and a lot of gloomy newspaper articles. My library and local bookshops have been shut for months and Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak has destroyed my ability to concentrate on long, complex books. However, I have subscribed to Netflix and I’ve been watching various TV series and films, which has led me to my best discovery of this year: Studio Ghibli films.

Yes, I know, people around the world have been rhapsodising about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work for decades, but as I had little interest in fantasy or animated movies, I hadn’t paid much attention. Still, several Memoranda commenters had recommended his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, so I decided to give it a go.

'Howl's Moving Castle' film poster

I think I might have liked this film more if I hadn’t read and loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. One critic has accurately described it as ‘fanfiction’ of the novel. Imagine if there was a film called Harry Potter, in which there was no magic and Harry was a coffee shop owner and Draco ran the florist shop next door and Draco’s father was a property developer trying to raze the neighbourhood to build luxury apartments and Harry and Draco fell in love. That’s how much resemblance there is between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle.

I quite liked the film’s version of the castle, a giant mechanical beast roaming about the countryside on chicken feet, and Sophie retained a lot of her characterisation, but oh, I hated their version of Howl! They turned a fascinating, flawed human into a romantic superhero who sacrifices himself to stop the war between two countries. (Mind you, I was so confused by the changes to the plot that I didn’t even realise the soldiers came from two different kingdoms until near the end of the film.) Calcifer is voiced by a wise-cracking Billy Crystal, the Scarecrow is a benevolent Christ-like figure instead of a terrifying enigma, Sophie’s sisters barely feature in the story, there’s no visit to the ‘Land of Wales’… But the worst part is that the ‘war is bad’ theme is hammered into each scene so heavily that there’s no space left for the story. The hand-painted animation is often very pretty, but I can’t say I liked this film very much. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I agree with the judges — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is much better (and a lot funnier).

Netflix then recommended My Neighbour Totoro and I’m so glad I persisted with Studio Ghibli because this film is adorable. Four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their father, to be closer to their mother’s hospital (I assume she has tuberculosis, although that’s never confirmed). The children meet some furry creatures in the forest — a small one, a medium-sized one and a giant Totoro — and have some very gentle adventures. Roger Ebert wrote a lovely review, in which he pointed out that this is:

“A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”

It’s true that My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t involve any thrilling, action-packed scenes or follow a conflict-driven storyline. The closest it comes to tension is when Mei, worried that her mother is dying, runs away from home to take her mother some home-grown vegetables, and Satsuki and all her neighbours try to find her, although I was always aware that everything would turn out just fine. There may be a lack of conventional ‘drama’, but this film is consistently engrossing, warm-hearted, funny and poignant.

'My Neighbour Totoro' film still

My favourite scene is when an awestruck Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time at a bus-stop. Totoro has only a very inadequate leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain, so Satsuki offers him an umbrella, to his delight. He gives her some seeds as thanks, then steps aboard the eight-legged Catbus and disappears. It’s a nearly wordless scene, but the facial expressions and gestures perfectly communicate each character’s feelings. I watched the version dubbed into English and I found the American actors’ voices a bit jarring. I think I might have liked this more if I’d watched the original Japanese version, even if there weren’t any subtitles.

Netflix’s next recommendation was even better. I thought Spirited Away was a masterpiece (and the Academy Awards judges agreed with me, making this “the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film” to win Best Animated Feature Film). Ten-year-old Chihiro is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the country. Driving to their new home, they get lost and her parents decide to explore an apparently deserted theme park. Unfortunately, it’s also a gateway to a terrifying, confusing spirit world, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds herself trapped by a witch, who steals Chihiro’s name and makes her work in a bath-house.

'Spirited Away' film still

I don’t speak Japanese, haven’t visited Japan and know almost nothing about Shinto beliefs, so, much like Chihiro, I only understood about a third of what was going on, but I was still enthralled by every minute of this film. Each scene is beautifully depicted, from the witch’s elaborate, Western-style penthouse furnishings to the mechanics of the Japanese bath-house to the amazing landscapes. Chihiro is a relatable character — initially spoiled and sulky, then terrified by her situation, unable to decide who to trust, then determined and compassionate and courageous. The supernatural characters are fascinating, scary and often hilarious (my favourites were the soot sprites who fake injuries so Chihiro will do their job and then steal her shoes and socks, although I also developed a soft spot for enigmatic No-Face). The plot is inventive and complex and intriguing. The messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction are cleverly woven into the story. I was still thinking about this film for days afterwards. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t usually like fantasy or animated movies. If anyone has recommendations for further Studio Ghibli films, please do let me know.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)