If you were to ask me for, say, a list of my top five favorite movies, I don’t know exactly what the full list would look like, but most of the time both Spirited Away and Pom Poko would be on there. Which, it turns out, I have somewhat mixed feelings about: even admitting that I don’t have a particularly thorough movie background, is a pair of fantasy anime movies that could reasonably also be labeled as children’s movies a place where I (a 46-year-old man) want to put my stake in the ground? Shouldn’t I prefer movies that are more thoroughly grounded in a range of life experiences?

The above, of course, isn’t any sort of case against holding those movies in very high esteem: as phrased there, it’s completely unsupported genre snobbishness. And I wouldn’t put up with that sort of snobbishness in any other art form: I grew up in a context that, say, valued literary fiction over science fiction or romance, that valued classical music over pop music, that valued a whole load of things over video games (to the extent that video games even existed while I was growing up), and I’m pretty confident in saying that those blanket valuations are ridiculous, that literary fiction and classical music are just different genres. I can still see the effects of that context in my psyche, but I can also consciously set it aside. (And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like anybody told me not to read science fiction while I was growing up or to not listen to pop music when I went through that phase in high school. And, also, don’t get me wrong: if I were to make a similar list for music, classical music probably would be extremely well represented.)


Setting both anti- and pro-genre snobbishness aside, though: you can learn from any genre, so I’m sure I’ve got gaps in my taste that arise from my genre choices: I did actually read a fair amount of literary fiction in grad school, and it was productively different from what I’d been in the habit of reading. And there are also stereotypes that I see in some of my habitual genres that I’m actively unimpressed with: e.g. the “anointed savior of the world” trope I see in so many games and also in comics (both American and Japanese, both in print and animated forms).

Worry about that latter stereotype is probably what’s really going on in my psyche here: I do enjoy wish fulfillment, but I think it’s healthier for me personally if I don’t spend too much time diving into it. Instead, I’d prefer to have a healthy balance of art that focuses on the small scale, on the details of what exists, and on actual people.

Having said that, too much of a focus on small scale personal concerns can be associated with its own negative stereotypes that I’m equally dubious of: e.g. literary fiction about middle-aged men unhappy with their marriages and instead finding a match with women in their twenties. I don’t have any more respect for that sort of wish fulfillment than I do for RPG “savior of the world” wish fulfillment; but if we can step away from that to something that feels more like real interactions between real people (and, yes, with real problems), then that’s important.

But at any rate you can of course focus on details and on people in any genre. Returning to science fiction, Trouble on Triton puts you in the head of somebody so you can how he interacts with other people, what he wants from those interactions, the pain that he gets from that, the pain that others get from that, and the self- and outwardly-inflicted nature of the problems surrounding him; and the novel’s nature as science fiction lets it generalize those experiences in a way that clarifies by the distance of the setting.


I said above that I’d prefer to have a healthy balance of art that focuses on the small scale, on details, and on actual people; that’s true, but only half true. My relationships with my wife and daughter are both extremely important to me; and if art can shed light on that, that’s great. And work involves people too, of course; and I do care about my friends.

But, granting all of that: I’m not a people person. Also, a lot of the classic literary themes actually aren’t particularly reflective of my life: happy, stable marriages and careers aren’t in general the subject matter of great novels. (Not that our family doesn’t go through rough patches – this last year in particular has been quite a bit rougher for us than I’d like – but still.)

Instead, a lot of what interests me is trying to figure out systems: figuring out what code and computers are telling me, solving puzzles of one form or another in my spare time. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like small scales and details, because as I get older I find more and more that listening to details is an excellent path into broader concepts. But still: figuring stuff out gets me going, and that’s going to inform my artistic choices. Not necessarily in a direct way, I don’t particularly want to read books featuring programmers, but in a metaphorical way, I want to read books where reading them feels like uncovering and making sense of a conceptual space that’s new to me.


I led off by bringing up Spirited Away and Pom Poko; this focus on systems and details is easier to see in Pom Poko, because it’s a message movie, in multiple ways. It’s about growth and the negative affects growth has on the environment, on animal life in the environment in particular. It’s about the process of change, focusing more on the loss that change entails but still allowing you to see the benefits. So there are conceptual spaces to explore here, and to test your understanding of via exploration of tradeoffs.

And Pom Poko certainly focuses on the details, and on people. (I mean, mostly on tanukis, but still.) How individuals react to change in different ways; how life continues in its pattens despite change. It does this without grandiosity and without catastrophizing at a broad level: ultimately, the tanukis lose their battle, but most of them survive and adapt nonetheless. Though many of them don’t survive: the movie doesn’t catastrophize, but it doesn’t pull its punches.

Spirited Away isn’t the same sort of message movie: it’s about a very capable girl who turns out to be friends with a river god. So, to some extent, it’s a bit by the numbers; but I do appreciate how its plot asks fundamental questions about what the concept of family means. Family as people you’re related to by birth, but also family as people who choose to care about each other.


Looking at the two together, though, clearly movies that draw on Japanese mythology press my buttons, at least if they do so with a focus on sprits and nature. Which I think is another example of what I was talking about above: enjoying the process of exploring a conceptual space that’s relatively new to me, just in a less abstract way than the intellectual themes I talked about earlier.

Of course, movies aren’t just vehicles for plot and themes: they’re something you see and hear. And both of these movies have bits that are visual spectacles: the entire bath house in Spirited Away has, as its job, to put on a show, and the parade in Pom Poko is really something. And, aurally: Joe Hisaishi is one of my favorite film composers, and Itsumo Nando Demo from Spirited Away is one of my favorite pieces of his.


So yeah, they’re good movies. I probably should branch out more (though, don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend anything like a majority of my movie time watching anime), but there’s something there. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying exploring lovingly crafted spaces…

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