Takahata's Objective Style, Part V

I think this installment of the Takahata lecture will be a bit brief. At least, that's what I'm aiming for. I'll need to chop this part up into smaller bits, because I want to go into specific examples without writing a 10,000-word article. Ah, who am I kidding? Let's talk 'bout Hilda.

I want to continue on the idea of objective narration and how you can create better, more complete characters as a result. The one thing that sorely needs improvement in American animation is the depth of the main characters. All too often, the either fit into generic melodramatic stereotypes - the good guy in the white hat, the bad guy in the black hat - or they are little more than ciphers for the audience. Your buddy on the roller coaster ride. And always with the preachy moral lessons. Oy vey! Stop with the preaching, don't hit my knuckles with the ruler, Mother Superior Nice Laaydyyy!!


Takahata's characters are infintely more complex, often carrying a darker side to their personality. I think this is necessary for objective narration, since, remember, we cannot have simple cut-outs but fully realized people. To achieve that, we need to be honest about the darker sides of human nature. We need to face the tears and the sorrow, and sometimes we simply cannot be allowed to relate.

The quintessential Takahata character, in this regard, is the tragic heroine from Horus, Prince of the Sun, Hilda. She's the genesis of it all, the real breakthrough in the filmmaker's new theories of creating characters. Here is a person we can relate to, a person who has qualities we admire and respect. When we meet Hilda, the sad girl sitting alone on a masthead, singing her heartbreaking songs, we accept her and give her our confidence. And when she follows Horus back to the village, everyone grows to like her.

Then Takahata grabs the rug and rips it out from under our feet. He does that a lot in this movie, especially when dealing with those cutsey cartoon characters imposed upon him by the studio. But we're not talking about revenge; Takahata doesn't aim to make Hilda bad to get back at the suits, they way he beats down Coro the bear and Flip the child. This is much more methodical. We're meant to see a character who is figuratively torn in several directions at once.

One of the reasons for making Horus was to tell the political allegory of the times. This movie was meant to be a running commentary on the Vietnam War, the aniwar movement, the global youth movement, and the various civil rights and equal rights struggles around the world. It was also a commentary on the battles between Toei Doga and its labor union, led by such young firebrands like Yasuo Otsuka and Hayao Miyazaki. If The Beatles' animated picture, Yellow Submarine, released the same year as Horus, was meant to capture the peace and love of the late '60s, Takahata aimed to capture its darker side. Yellow Submarine is hippie love and acceptance, the moon landing, All You Need is Love. Horus, Prince of the Sun is the assissination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, war, unrest, Street Fighting Man. Yellow Submarine is Woodstock. Horus is Altamont.

Hilda stands at the center of this hurricane. She's the soul of the movie. Cautious, uncertain, wounded by trauma, and yet fiercely defiant. Tell her to accept the domestic life of a housewife, and she'll likely ransack your village with rats as one enormously emotional fuck-you. And yet, she desperately wants to belong.

One of the great paradoxes about Hilda is her singing. She is at her happiest when she sings, sitting on a tree like Joan Baez with a harp, and this is when the people love her. But have you ever listened to the words? They're terrifying, an endless whirlwind of trauma, sadness, isolation, pain and death.

When you look at the allegorical side of things, Hilda plays the role of the shellshocked refugee whose defining event - the violent destruction of her hometown - completely overwhelms her. It swallows her whole. Consider the dialog from her first scene with Horus as she explains her story. Imagine that the movie's villain, Grunwald, represents the United States (he also represents, among other things, the Toei studio itself, but we'll get to that later), and the iconic nature of the characters takes on a new layer of meaning.

"I live alone. No village will accept me. My home village was destroyed by the Americans. I am the only survivor. The Americans have cursed me; now no one will take me in."

This, again, illustrates the symbolic power of animation; we're working in symbolism. Nothing you see on the screen is real. Everything is an icon, a symbol of something else. You are not a tree. You are not a girl. You are not an owl.

Hilda's greatest tragedy is that she cannot make her peace with her past. She has become convinced - largely because of her unwilling use by Grunwald as an assassin - that she can never embrace life again. Death becomes the thing that defines her. She turns her back on everything that represents humanity, since human beings were responsible for reducing her to this. So she wraps herself in her trauma, convinced that this alone will protect and preserve her.

This is the inner meaning of the medallion that Hilda wears around her neck. Again, this is a symbol, and Westerners reared on literal-minded Disney fairy tales will wind up being confused. They're expecting tales about devils and magic spells and magical trinkets. That's missing the whole point. You need to look beyond the icon to the thing the icon represents. We must, in a sense, dissolve all of our notions and concepts.

Hilda still has her kinder side, and it's left for you to decide whether this is the "true" Hilda or not. Remember, we're not being pushed in any one direction. She does many things that earn our sympathy, her suffering most of all. But she is also violent and murderous, given to anger and vengeance. Horus chooses which Hilda is the "true" one only, really, as a matter of faith. Also, of course, he connects with her lonliness. Doggonit, he really likes the girl. They'd make a nice couple if she'd stop lashing out.

There are many scenes that stand out for me, most of the major Hilda scenes, really. Her swordfight against Horus is especially telling. There's a mixture of emotions across her face, and through her movements, as she fights him one last time. Anger, resentment, helplessness. She feels powerless, despite Horus' pleading to embrace her humanity. All of her movements and body language offer us clues to the battle raging within. She runs circles around poor Annakin Skywalker and his descent into Darth Vader. How is that, I wonder?

There's another haunting scene, a few minutes later in the film, the scene where Hilda finds the frozen Koro and Flip (again, Takahata has lashed out in revenge, just like Hilda), and in a moment of true compassion, finally rejects the pain and darkness within. She sends the pendant away, accepting death in order to embrace life.

This scene is Takahtata's triumph, and even his lieutenents Miyazaki and Otsuka didn't really understand just what was going on at the time. But for them, the scene carried an eerie, haunting power. Now anything was possible, it seemed. You could create any kind of character in animation, tell any sort of story from any perspective. You could create Edith Pfaff stories in animation now, Miyazaki later remarked.

Strangely, she becomes an archetype for Miyazaki himself, as Porco Rosso many years later. I do not want to be human! Another story, another time.


k. said...

Is that the end of Takahata's objective style? (;_;)
More, please!

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