Ponyo, And The World Out of Balance

Ponyo, the big-eyed fish princess, daughter of Fujimoto, wants to be a human. The eponymous heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 animé movie does get her wish and she is united with her friend Sösuke at picture’s end.

Miyazaki’s films have always been a mix of imaginative animation fantasy intertwined with a vision of a darker material world: in Ponyo, a world that has spun out of balance because of the disruptive effect of man’s intervention in the natural order. The whale-like tsunami that chases Sösuke and his mom, Lisa, along a perilous coastal highway is not just an arbitrary force of nature but the result of “magic” unleashed, a power that has thrown the world off kilter. Given Miyazaki’s pursuit of a theme of the consequences of nature under duress, it is not a far reach to see a wider metaphor for man’s hubris expressed here in tropes of Japanese animation and manga. Here is the film’s official trailer.

The recent cascade of disasters, natural and man-made, that have descended on Japan seem to strike like a lightning bolt into the darkness of humankind’s per-blind pride—a stark  reminder than man is seen as the acme of creation, the capstone of evolution, only by man himself, and not by Mother Nature. Gaia may be, in fact, indifferent to us. This is a bitter pill to swallow for children of the Renaissance and of the Enlightenment (not to mention for the believers of an immanent godhead that watches over us), but it is one that our ever-expanding vision of the universe compels us to make sense of. The closer the Cern Supercollider brings man to the Big Bang moment, the more wondrous creation itself becomes—as does our own meager role in the cosmic scenario.

Ponyo may be a fable but it is a prescient one. Here, Miyazaki returns to hand-drawn cell animation, with the goal of using human artists rather than the mediation of computer generated imagery. One can’t help but wonder if this great artist senses a compelling urgency for the intervention of the human hand—which is, after all, attached to the human mind replete with all of its unpredictable crannies and contours.

In recent days newscasters have been fond of pointing out that Japan is the one nation in the world that is most technologically prepared for earthquakes and natural events such as tsunamis. The devastation of the city of Kobe more than a decade ago is still vibrantly alive in the Japanese psyche. But  who in Japan could have ever foreseen the apocalyptic troika of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor failure that would befall this great culture? If you had pitched this as a “concept” to a Hollywood studio executive—you’d have been dismissed with a tersely condescending grunt and shown out the door.  But this unlikely scenario has happened—and it has shaken us all, all over the planet. We are hour by hour witness to ever more incredible events. Our capacity for compassion and empathy opens wider daily to our fellow humans as we watch them caught in a web of ongoing cataclysm shown in  constant worldwide news coverage. We are awakened to our own vulnerability—“there but for the grace…”

My friend, the photographer Raymond Cauchetier, sent me an email last week assuring me that his wife’s family in Japan is safe. Karou was not able immediately to reach her sisters by phone but she did get through and now is able to talk to them daily. I remember the anxiety I had in reaching my wife Carol who was walking to her cutting room in midtown Manhattan when American Airlines Flight 11 was piloted into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. When the north tower came down, I was looking at the Book of Kells in Dublin’s University Library. A disheartening irony.

The devastation caused by horrendous natural forces may be painful for us to contemplate, but unless you are a religious determinist, you may accept that these events are in the natural order of a cosmos indifferent to man’s puny works. Natural catastrophe is one thing, but what do reasonable people believe about the arrogance of mankind that causes us to construct instruments which can destroy our own species? From a simple, single shot handgun, to the Armageddon of a complex, burning nuclear reactor, we are the creators of devices that kill us. From the mass slaughter at Verdun in WWI and  of the Holocaust, to the unintended consequences of a Chernobyl—it is we who are responsible for large-scale deaths, in ways that were simply inconceivable to millennia of our predecessors.

What vision of man should we embrace when we can access videos on the one hand that show selfless rescue efforts in the face of natural disasters such as Haiti or Sendai or the sacrificial struggles of workers at the Fukushima power plant—and, on the other hand, raw video footage of brutal militiaman shooting an unarmed man in the face at point blank range in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout?

This Mideast violence had a personal resonance for me when I was in NYC a few weeks ago. For those of you who read these pieces regularly, you know that I have near reverence for the men and women of photojournalism that travel the world to bear witness for us. I have tried to define this in several recent essays that I have done about Jehad Nga, a friend and photojournalist who works often for the NY Times. I had not heard from Jehad in some weeks; I was worried for him, knowing he was likely to be somewhere in the unfolding chaos of North Africa.

He was. He was in an interrogation center in Tripoli. He had been arrested by Khaddafi military and was being accused of being a CIA plant. Though born in Kansas, Jehad also carries a Libyan passport. He spent his early childhood in Libya before being educated in London. He does not speak Arabic. His interrogators could not believe this; it, oddly, placed him in even greater danger as they were convinced he was lying. Jehad was eventually released through the intervention (believe it or not) of one of Khaddafi’s sons, Saif, who recognized that he was who he claimed to be.

I had coffee with Jehad and his film producer brother, Jawal, in Soho; we discussed the death of an Al-Jazeera news cameraman who recently had been killed in Libya. It could just as easily have been Jehad. For six tense days, four NY Times journalists were missing in Libya, two of them the photojournalists Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addorio. They were finally released on March 21, but with the ongoing air strikes against Libyan forces, there is reason to be concerned for all journalists still there.

The day before I met with Jehad and Jawal, as I was exiting the subway at Times Square, I heard chanting from across the street. It was a small but vocal demonstration for Libyan independence.

On the corner opposite stood a quiet man with a signboard, not hawking the latest Broadway musical but announcing an ominous jeremiad. Or maybe it was just an ad for a new ABC TV series.

"The End of Days," Times Square, March 12, 2010 photo by blog author.

I have been hearing from friends who tell me they are having difficulty sleeping these nights. The world seems to be spinning out of control: the disasters in Japan and the political upheaval throughout the Arab world increasing like a nuclear chain reaction. But this is no guarantee of real freedom for people anywhere in the region; in fact, there are ominous signs of new oppression, with reasonable people divided as to what action to take. Even the most compassionate seem stalled. One thinks of the opening stanza of the great W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

There seems to be so little any one of us can do, whether it is for natural disaster relief or for victims of political oppression;  we question whether our efforts will be truly helpful or merely a feel-good palliative to our conscience.

The news reports and the photographs coming from Japan have shown a people not succumbing to panic, a people that exhibit a much revered sense of community and dignity. Here is a link to 51 photos from the Boston Globe.

Boston.com— Big Picture: Japan–Vast Devastation link

A friend sent me a link to a YouTube video created by a mother and her three sons who were born in Japan and raised in America. Family connections run deep into the Japanese soul. The video alternates photos with translated Twitter messages.

Seeing daily news reports that reflect the cultural and social consensus so embedded in the Japanese character, causes me to recall an anecdote from when I was filming the Paul Schrader film Mishima in Tokyo during the winter and spring of 1984. Our crew was preparing for a night exterior shoot on a residential street. As Paul and I were discussing the first setup, the lighting generator van drove past us to park out of sight around the corner. A minute later we heard a cry go up; we ran toward the van. Backing up, a rear wheel had slid into a drainage ditch and the van was listing. We Americans huddled in a discussion about whether or not to break for an early dinner and call for a tow truck. Meanwhile, the Japanese crew had congregated around the van. Assistant directors Koichi Nakajima and Hisashi Toma were in animated discussion with gaffer Kazuo Shimomora. Quickly, the whole Japanese crew ringed the van—about thirty of them, including the women of the makeup and hair departments. On a cadence—they lifted up the van and set it back onto the street, then simply headed back to their respective departments.

That night I learned a lesson. It was a lesson about what community means to the Japanese, about how different it is from the often ego driven competition of the film world I know in Hollywood. It is a lesson that stays with me still, a lesson that gives me just a tiny window into the spirit of a people who are now being sorely tested, as they have not been since emerging from the rubble of  the last world war.

Rescue Workers in Rikuzentakata, photo by James Nachtwey for TIME.

Meanwhile, halfway around the globe, the machines of war scream out their litany of death.

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