In Praise of Polite Heroes & Strange Worlds

So for the last couple of days, Kevin and I have been working our way through Miyazaki films in the evening. Last night was “Spirited Away,” which is my all-time favorite movie, hands down, ever. In the world.

There’s a couple of reasons I like it. Part of it is that the themes of the movie, such as they are,* is that the world is very strange, you should always be polite, and don’t be afraid of hard work.

As these are more or less the themes to Digger, obviously I was pre-disposed to like the movie. (Come to think of it, that was more or less the themes to Jinian Footseer, my favorite comfort book, too. Hmmm.)

I think, as stories go, we have far too few polite heroes. Nobody answers “Conan! What is best in life?” with “Treating people courteously and using a napkin.”

That’s part of why I loved Hannibal Lector. Sure, he might eat you, but he’d use the right fork. It’s certainly why I loved Number Ten Ox from Bridge of Birds. And there’s a really wonderful bit in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards books where, when you meet the Lone Power, you give a very polite little speech, because even if you’re about to fight evil, there’s no sense in being rude about it.

This is particularly uncommon, I have found, in books targeted to teenage boys, where you can more or less count on the hero doing the “I don’t have to listen to you! You’re all just scared and stupid! I’m going to do the thing you told me not to do, despite the fact that I just got here and you probably know more about it!” thing.

And because he’s the hero, he will probably get away with it and come out covered in roses, in which case I will throw your book across the room with great force, because I hate that trope like I hate few other things on earth. (Kevin tells me that this is because I have never been a teenage boy and this is purest of pure wish-fulfillment for much of that demographic. He may be right. I seem to recall thinking it was stupid even when I was a teenage girl, mind you.)

And yet, in fairy tales, which are right down at the bone as story-telling goes,  it’s always the polite ones that win.

Ahem. Getting back to “Spirited Away.”

The other thing I love about it is that it’s as close as any movie has ever come to duplicating the stuff inside my head.

It’s brilliant and baroque and gorgeous and it has lots of bits that I could probably come up with.

Don’t get me wrong—Miyazaki’s twice the genius I’ll ever be. Possibly three times.  I couldn’t animate it, I couldn’t shoot the scenes, I am no cinematographer, that’s a whole nother skill set, and furthermore, the notion of having to paint some of those architectural backgrounds makes my brain bleed. That gorgeous scene where night falls and the lanterns come up and shadows with eyes appear in the buildings and the music is marvelously sinister—that requires a sense of timing and orchestration and is another couple of skills, none of which I possess and which Studio Ghibli has coming out its ears.

But all the critters and the plots? I understand those. I could get there. Maybe not as well, certainly not in the same media, but the stuff inside my head mostly looks like that, albeit more European and with fewer flying machines and more animals. But much more like that than like any other movie I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, there’s a scene in the movie version of “Fellowship of the Ring” where the Ringwraiths are riding out of Minas Morgul, (I think it’s Minas Morgul, and am confident that I will be corrected nigh-instaneously if not.) And the camera swoops crazily around the towers and you see all this insane architecture and the screaming wraiths riding out across the bridge, and if I lived to be a hundred years old, I could never duplicate that.

It’s not a matter of being better or worse, it’s just—there is nothing like that in my head. Whatever I pictured when I read that scene, it was just not even in the same league. The only way I would build Minas Morgul is if I happened to find a Ring of Power in a Cracker Jack box and had a few thousand years as a bored Nazgul to play around with crenelations. (This assumes that being a Nazgul is kind of like eternal torment with Minecraft.)

My brain is stuffed full of weird little creatures, not cathedrals.

There are very few examples where somebody made up a purely brilliant movie out of weird little creatures, and I think all the rest I know are Henson. And as much as I love those, and they have some glorious set pieces, they can’t, for the sheer limitations of plush and puppet wire, go as far as “Spirited Away.”

It’s incredibly cheering to see something that takes stuff that looks an awful lot like the stuff inside your head and makes a movie out of it and holy crap, it’s amazing. Even knowing that you couldn’t do that yourself, unless you decided to make a mid-life career change and work until you were Miyazaki’s age, and that ain’t gonna happen—still, it’s wonderful that someone did.

And of course, the final reason that I love Spirited Away, perhaps more than all the rest:

Radish Nipples.

I would so build a little shrine to Daikon-sama in my vegetable bed, if I had anywhere to put it.



*And it’s dangerous to say what the theme to anyone else’s work is, so take this with a grain of salt.


Wordcount: 6800

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Polite Heroes & Strange Worlds

  1. The Gecko says:

    One has to wonder about radish nipples, though! Radishes aren’t mammals, they don’t lactate! They photosynthesize, right?

    So would radish nipples shoot light out of them or something? Vegetable laser nipples?

    The world is not ready to know.

  2. Godel Fishbreath says:

    On an older topic, Books,
    Ursula, your book loves are so much mine that I think you would enjoy Sorcery & Cecelia. It is a fun read, and the writers had fun writing it.

  3. Owlor says:

    If I had to raise one person to the level of a god, it’d be Miyazaki. The stuff he’s worked on has ranged from “pretty good” to “HOLY SHIT THAT IS AWESOME!” my fav is probably “Princess Mononoke” cus its just a damn good fantasy story.

    Speaking of, “Kikis Delviery Service” has an artist named Ursula in it, doesn’t it? I’ven ever thought about that before. Altough she isn’t wearing nearly enough leather and tattoos to be “the” Ursula. 😉

  4. Don Hilliard says:

    You’re absolutely right in re Hannibal Lecter – but this is also what makes him one of the most horrible characters in fiction. He will kill you for being rude. He will kill you for being mildly whiny and annoying. (At least in Silence of the Lambs, there seems to be an ugly subtext from the author that everybody Lecter killed deserved it for being unpleasant people…which is why I never read or watched any of the sequels.)

  5. Pingback: Characters and Courtesy | Exchange of Realities

  6. larksilver says:

    Thank you for posting this! Rude (particularly rude and whiny) heroes who still end up “winning” in the end are especially vile!

    Also: Number Ten Ox was wonderful, and an example to men (not just heroes!) everywhere.

    Aaand now I have to go find a copy of Spirited Away because I had never heard of it before and it sounds wonderful.

  7. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    And here I always thought that what made Hannibal Lecter so popular was that he was everybody’s nightmare about what your therapist fantasizes while listening to you whine.

    I don’t see why Miyazaki shouldn’t be deified. I gather than Osamu Tezuka made it (one of the advantages of Shinto as a religion seems to be that such folk can become Gods).

    Aside; Osamu Tezuka did a lot of really off the wall stuff. Like BLACK JACK. Or his multi-volume biography of Buddha (which is both very odd and strangely powerful when drawn in the style of ASTRO BOY and KIMBA THE WHITE LION.

  8. Hawk says:

    I loved Spirited Away also. The best part about it to me is that the spirit world is SO vivid, I feel like I can go visit it, whenever. Well, so long as I bring a tip 😛

    I LOVED the guy going “beg for tips!” btw. Made me laugh way more than made sense to my husband.

    However, I felt that Princess Mononoke had more Weird Creatures than Spirited Away. Maybe because by the time I watched Spirited Away, I was familiar enough with various folk-tale spirits to accept them without goggling…but in Mononoke, the Kodama, tree-spirit things, omg those freaked me out.

    Last but not least: Nausicaa. Best movie ever. I watched the “bad” version (from the 80s) about a million times and wore out two VHS tapes of it. The new improved version is SO MUCH BETTER and it’s a good thing DVDs don’t wear out…I have yet to get my hands on the manga, so all I have to go on is the film. But I love it.

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