Hayao Miyazaki is a genius. I first came upon his work in 2001 when Spirited Away was released in the U.S. I took my two young children to see it and we all loved it. In fact, when I got a phone call not too long later that my oldest boy had been hurt in an accident and had to get stitches, I stopped on the way to the hospital and picked up a copy of the DVD which had just come out. When I showed it to him in the emergency room, he immediately cheered up at the thought of seeing this great film again.
Spirited Away is comfortably in the tradition of Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz–a young girl is transported to a magical world where she must face a series of challenges on a journey to come back home; along the way, she grows into greater maturity.
But Spirited Away is far less linear than either of those other stories. It meanders in and out of the psyches of its delirious cast of supporting characters with compassionate abandon. As much as our American culture lionizes imagination, it’s refreshing to see a film whose seemingly infinite inventiveness puts anything Hollywood comes up with to shame. Every detail of this animated wonder is rendered with the loving creativity and attention that we expect a Renaissance master to have put into his eternal masterpieces.
This may be your first Miyazaki film, but don’t let it be your last. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a cute, spunky introduction to his body of work for younger viewers, and I recommend Princess Mononoke for older children and adults–there’s some sharp medieval violence in Princess Mononoke, but it may also be the most visually fantastic film I’ve ever seen; the worshipful, Edenic shots of a regenerated forest at the film’s end are the stuff of every artist’s ideal inspiration.
Besides the juggernaut of sinuous imagination in each of these films, that may be the other cardinal virtue of Miyazaki’s work: it works at a level that reaches children and adults. Everybody can love these movies. Hollywood, alas, forgot how to do that years ago.
“What professional men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit.”
—John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at Saint Andrews, 1867
Yes! Education is not for the narrow skill set of jargon relevant to a single career, but for the development of those wider mental faculties which must be brought to bear upon every worthy endeavor, which will be required to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Earlier this week, I watched The Seventh Seal with a World Literature class. (I opined about this great film a few months ago.) Afterwards, to help demonstrate its lasting influence on our culture, I showed this clip from 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, where the elemental motif of playing chess with Death is mocked most playfully:
LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
“…the reading of artistic works–novels, poetry, plays, and reflective prose that has been written with a care for the language. Immersion in this kind of writing fosters, above all else, linguistic awareness and imagination…When I contemplate the substantial decline of literary reading, I can’t help but envision a culture increasingly impoverished in its means of expression, lacking not just the verbal nuances, the appreciation of meanings and shades of meanings, but also the syntactical lexicon, the internalized sense of what structures best serve different needs in conversation as well as in writing….Reading is the seedbed of inwardness, of subjective depth. Reading quickens and enriches this faculty…”
—Sven Birkerts, “The Truth About Reading,” School Library Journal, November 2004
In this entertaining if ultimately flawed essay (Birkerts sets out to answer the question of what we can do about the decline of reading, and concludes by shrugging his shoulders and asserting that we should “trust books”) there are several jewels, and choicest among them is Birkerts’ gloriously precise description of the nature and value of literary reading. I never could have put it better, and I’ve never seen anybody else put it better. I’ve referenced this explanation many times in classes over the last four years, and students always respond with respect, sometimes even with awe. As I’ve said before, eloquence makes for a powerful argument.
Incidentally, I don’t usually read School Library Journal, but the great librarian at the school where I worked at the time mentioned this essay in an email, and I liked it so much that I asked for a copy. She gave me the entire issue.
This stunning picture comes from National Geographic’s Picture of the Day:
Doesn’t everybody love a good picture that reminds you of just how vibrant, vital, and vigorous our beautiful planet is? God bless the good people at National Geographic.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
“That’s the position European governments find themselves in. Their citizens have become hooked on unaffordable levels of social programs which in the end will put those countries out of business….This is the paradox of ‘social democracy.’ When you demand lower taxes and less government, you’re damned by the Left as ‘selfish’….The Left, for its part, offers and appeal to moral virtue: it’s better to pay more in taxes and to share the burdens as a community. It’s kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more equitable. Unfortunately, as recent European election results demonstrate, nothing makes a citizen more selfish than socially equitable communitarianism….’Social democracy’ is, it turns out, explicitly anti-social.”
—Mark Steyn, America Alone
Amen and duh. Along with “stigma,” the word “incentive” seems to have disappeared from our collective lexicon. And our society is all the poorer for it.
1. And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth:
2. And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.
3. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.
….[several other specific blessings are listed]
13. And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou shalt hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them:
—Deuteronomy 28:1-13, King James Bible
Once again, amen…and duh. The terms of God’s covenant with people are simple, clear, and unavoidably trustworthy. Every week I see people and families who, imperfect though we are–often desperately so–are still trying to faithfully improve their lives and serve their brothers and sisters, relying on the strength of God to make some progress and keep smiling. That general outline covers the requirements. And these wonderful people–again, though they suffer many of the same heartaches and setbacks as everybody else–enjoy lives blessed with an obvious sweetness and mercy.
Frankly, it confuses me how anybody can fail to see the massive blessings in the lives of those who dedicate themselves to serving God. Someone who isn’t actively religious once asked me why people in church seemed so much better off than those who weren’t. I explained what I just wrote here, and she glumly nodded. Why glumly? How sad that anybody would recognize God’s hand in life, and still be inclined to stay where they are.
I’m not a big fan of “bumper sticker religion,” but I like the one that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” It’s true. Nobody merits a life filled with the Spirit on their own, but when we live according to the basic dictates of God’s covenant, He fills the void and cleanses us. It’s a miracle, and it’s real. It’s humbling, and it’s beautiful.
Also, Leviticus 26:3-13 contains a very similar, and similarly moving, passage.