A couple weekends ago I woke up early to go garage sale-ing. As always on such mornings, I grabbed my bike, donned a cardigan, put my wallet in my bike basket and away I went*.
It was a beautiful sunny morning if a bit chilly. A morning made even better when I found a lovely “vintage” leather briefcase for $2, something I’d wanted for awhile but had not yet found one for the right price**. As I was gliding down a hill, almost home, this song started playing on my iPod.
It just seemed to fit. The weather, the day, my mood, even its name ‘Morning Call’. It felt like I was in a movie, in that scene where the hero/heroine is jauntily strolling down the street to the rhythm of equally upbeat music.
Then my iPod fell out of my pocket and skidded down the road. (My iPod is ok, *phew*. Just a little scratched).
‘Morning Call’ is just one of several Korean indie songs*** that I have recently discovered. My absolute favorite is this one by a band called Standing Egg:
I love how the vocals in these songs are so soft, yet they still somehow manage to be bouncy. I love the use of whistling as an instrument; unconventional instrumentation makes me happy. I’m also a huge fan of the ukulele, which, oddly enough, neither of the above songs make use of. But this number from the main singer of Standing Egg (Solo name: Clover) really lets the ukulele shine:
(Incidentally, I am currently learning to play the ukulele because of how much I like it)
I’m not sure really what else to say. I could tell you how I wasn’t interested in listening to music until I was 16, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I listened to music not suggested to me by my brother. I could also tell you that I’ve never been to a music concert, unless you count coffeehouse-type shindigs. I’m still woefully uninformed when it comes to most popular music, and unpopular music, and pretty much anything else that isn’t on my iPod (a grand total of 411 songs). But I really don’t care. I’m happy with what I have, and occasionally the internet or iTunes introduces me to someone/thing new so I’m always entertained.
*Holy crap. I sound very hipster-y here.
**Somebody save me, I’m morphing into a hipster.
***Not as random an interest as it sounds. Here’s the progression of how I became interested in it:
Read Mangas online, watch anime online —-> read forums, realize that such a thing as ‘dramas’ exist which are (in the case of J-dramas) live-action animes—> watch some J-dramas —> discovery of Korean Dramas —> discovery of blogs about K-dramas —> discovery of K-pop and other Korean musicians
Everyone should see at least one Hayao Miyazaki movie.
If anime’s not really your cup of tea, you’ll still like his movies. Although I suppose its technically anime (provided we are defining anime as an animated feature made in Japan), it bears little resemblance to the stereotypical anime offerings of blue hair, crazy poses, ridiculous situations, weirdly proportioned people etc. Instead they are engrossing movies with realistic characters, great plot, and all around excellent movies. (that is not to say that stereotypical anime can’t be excellent, its just that if you dislike these things in anime, they tend to hamper your ability to enjoy more universally liked things)
Movies would be very strange without music, and in HM movies the soundtracks are particularly excellent. Listen to this piece from Princess Mononoke:
Not only is it beautiful, it’s appropriately creepy as well. The composer, Joe Hisaishi, also makes good use of silences (e.g. fight sequences). I love his use of piano, a somewhat underused instrument in movie soundtracks, I think.
I am always impressed that, when most studios are moving to CGI Hayao Miyazaki still hand draws his films (of course, with a team of animators, but the lack of CGI!). And I must say, although I enjoyed Wall-E, I do miss traditional animation. Animation which, in Miyazaki’s films, are detailed and a pleasure to look at, such as this image from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The portrayal of female characters is no less excellent. Often the hero of the film, they tend to be independent, confident (or become so along the way) young women who, through their own abilities, reach a happy conclusion. Nausicaa (in the picture above) is such a one. Although she does have a love interest, he’s a secondary character who has very little bearing on her ultimate fate.
The female main characters also tend to collect an odd assortment of non-human friends along the way, such as: a giant baby that has since been magicked into a mouse, an animate scarecrow (no talking, but does a lot of hopping) and a monster called No Face.
There are a billion other little quirks which set Mr. Miyazaki’s movies apart. Environmentalist themes for one. From the blatently obvious Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, to the more subtle (i.e., not a central plot point) Spirited Away. Miyazaki has been exploring man’s relationship with nature before it was really a huge world worry.
I have to mention The Cute as well. Mei and the Totoros in My Neighbour Totoro, the soot-balls in Spirited Away, Ponyo’s cry of ‘HAAAAAAM!’ whenever that delicious meat is served, they are all amazingly adorable.
But perhaps, despite all this some might worry that the plots might be a little too weird, that they lack the cultural understanding to really love the movies. I mean just what are Kodamas?
I agree, at first these movies do seem a little odd. I didn’t watch Spirited Away at first because the plot sounded too strange, and I like anime. Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps because the translations make allowances for a Western Audience (side note: the dubs for Miyazaki movies are all excellent. Definitely not your usual tragically-abridged-plus-annoying-voices fare), or perhaps because the core stories tend to be so universal, the lack of cultural understanding doesn’t seem to matter. In fact I like that the environment is so radically different than anything I’m used to. It’s much more interesting
Take Howl’s Moving Castle. As you may know, it was first a book by Diana Wynne Jones (and an excellent one at that). The book and movie differ substantially, and it’s neither suffers for it. I find that, after I read a book so many times, it loses a bit of its charm. I still love it, but I don’t enjoy reading it quite so much as I used to even if it is a favourite. The difference between the two was thus refreshing, as it is probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the same story twice for the first time.
Above all, I love the general feel of these movies. Although there is a good deal of action in most of them, the pacing is fairly slow. Often, there may be a fair bit going on and then you find yourself watching the characters ride a train, looking at the water, and doing nothing really. The whole movie Whisper of the Heart is entirely these sorts of scenes with little action (no surprise, since it is slice of life genre). By movie standards, not much happens. This translates into movies which are just so peaceful. I am often not on the edge of my seat, and it’s rather lovely.
I’ll leave you with a list of his movies (which I’ve seen, which is most of them), sort of in order of preference, but to be honest this list would probably be ordered differently had I made it yesterday, the day before and yet again the month before:
- Princess Mononoke (English script written by Neil Gaiman, so you know it’s good)
- Spirited Away (a bit of a deeper story than it first appears *link*)
- The Cat Returns (Ok, so not actually a Hayao Miyazaki movie, but still Studio Ghibli)
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- My Neighbour Totoro (possibly a deeper story than you may think. Warning: clicking the following link will forever change your view of this movie. It will no longer be simply cute and joyful, but slightly horrifying and disturbing as well *link*)
- Whisper of the Heart
- Porco Rosso
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
I am deliberately not fulfilling the purpose of this essay. If you’ve read my second essay, you’ll know I had a not so positive experience with liking, or rather definitely not liking, certain ‘classics.’ As such I find myself a tad unwilling to suggest that everyone should read a book based on my own, highly subjective, opinion. Luckily, the description of the topic indicates that I can instead write about books I “can’t stop talking about.”
With that in mind I went to my bookshelf and chose some books which I have read and re-read countless times. They aren’t so much deep or sophisticated books so much as books that I devoured the first time, went back to for seconds, then thirds, and casually nibble at when I’m bored.
Quick note: The Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett’s Books all deserve to be here. I excluded these because I figured you’d already know enough about the first two, and I find it very difficult to choose just one of Terry Pratchett’s books.
Reader Beware: [very minor] spoilers ahead. There will be further warnings.
Author: Wendelin Van Draanen
Age I was when I first read it: 13
At first glance, the plot of this book is underwhelming. Bryce and Juli meet at the age of seven when he moves into her neighbourhood. For her, it’s the start of a years-long crush, for him it’s the beginning of “six years of strategic avoidance and social discomfort.”
What I really love about this story is the way it’s told. It’s literally a he said/she said book; events are related first by Bryce and then re-told by Juli. As expected, they often interpret events in completely different ways. What makes this book work so well is Juli and Bryce. They are relatable, sympathetic, and perhaps most importantly, are voiced realistically and distinct from one another. It’s an elegant demonstration of how one can completely misinterpret someone’s actions and character despite ‘knowing’ them. Hence the title of the book: as Bryce begins to realize that Juli might actually be pretty cool, she starts to wonder whether his pretty boy face hides a rotten interior.
To this day, this book has one of my favourite endings ever, both in plot and actual writing. I won’t spoil it though, so go read it if you want to know!
Title: Airborn Trilogy (Airborn, Skybreaker, Starclimber)
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Age I first read it: 14
Pirates! Airships! Romance that Defies Class Distinctions! Need I say more? Ok, I will. Space Travel! Lost Treasure! Being Stranded on an Uninhabited Island!
These books are set in some Victorian-esque period but with differences (hello, steampunk). In this world there exists the mango-scented element Hydrium, which has all the lift of hydrogen and none of the explosiveness. This convenient property allows balloon airships to dominate the skies. The heroine of the books, Kate de Vries, is rich, pretty, intelligent, and extremely stubborn. In short: a believable and likable character. But it’s really the hero and narrator, Matt Cruse, that steals the show. In Airborn, he is the youngest crew member and cabin boy of the airship Aurora. He’s honest, hard-working, quick-thinking and a wee bit prone to jealousy. To be honest I like him so much I kind of wish he were real. So I could date him. Possibly marry him. And maybe even have his babies. That sort of thing. Alas, it is not to be, for he lives in the fictional world and I in this thing called reality. (Jasper Fforde, this is where you come in!)
Action-y books such as these work best when the writing doesn’t get in the way of the action. That is generally the case with Kenneth Oppel, but when you do notice the writing, it’s because it’s really good. Especially the endings. The man knows how to end a book. If his books were a present, and the final words a ribbon, that package would sport a very fine bow, a very fine bow indeed.
Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones (RIP)
Age I first read it: not sure…high school sometime…maybe 15?
This book is the only book I have ever read that I wanted to read all over again immediately after I finished it. But I didn’t. I waited as long as I could so that the book could retain that first-read charm for as long as possible. I lasted a month.
There are two things I love most about DWJ books: the characters and the magic. Magic in her books is not of the Harry Potter wand and spell variety. It’s a little of the symbols and incantations type, but mostly its just unpredictable and a bit incomprehensible. It’s not consistent from person to person or book to book, and she rarely bothers to totally explain it. (In her book Fire and Hemlock I still don’t understand the ending. I’m pretty sure it was a happy ending, but as to how they got there…Interestingly enough, this has no bearing on my enjoyment of the book: it was excellent and I plan to read it again someday). *minor spoiler (the text is white, so highlight if you want to read it)* For instance, Sophie’s magical ability in this book is channeled through verbal encouragement. Only Sophie’s brand of encouragement isn’t gentle, it’s more abrupt and forceful. It’s kind of like good-natured bullying, if that makes any sense. *spoiler over*
Which brings us to Sophie. The story starts rolling when she accidentally offends the Witch of the Waste, who then turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman. As a young woman Sophie is timid and shy. As an old woman she’s cranky, opinionated, stubborn and just generally awesome. A perfect match to Howl, who is irresponsible, lazy, immature and a wuss. Add to that a sarcastic fire demon, parallel worlds, and castle that actually does move, and you’ve got a recipe for a delightful book.
And that’s it. I probably could have written much, much more about each of these books. But I won’t. Read them yourself! Or, you know, don’t. Whatever strikes your fancy, floats your boat etc.
NB: I’ve noticed in the past few months that I rarely use similes or metaphors in my writing. If you feel there is an excess of imagery in this post, it is because I am experimenting with them at the moment.
I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli fan. I especially love the soundtracks of those movies, especially the piano. Apparently they’ve been re-imagined into heavy metal versions.
And here’s one of the songs in its entirety (from Laputa: Castle in the Sky):
I’ve listened to some of the songs and so far actually kind of like them. This is coming from someone who is not, nor has ever, been a fan of heavy metal. Here is a review of the album, which gives a bit more info than I’ve said here.
The real test is whether I still like the album after I’ve listened to it 20+ times.
Also: essay 5 should be up some time this weekend.