Saturday, 28 May 2016

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Robert Talbot And The Bride Of The Head

Discussing the concept of authorship in relation to mini-mogul Charles Band is more complicated than it might first seem. On the face of it, Band is a latter-day Roger Corman, heading a series of production companies specialising in low-budget cult horror and sci-fi films. As the 'studio head' and initial ideas man for his early companies (Charles Band Productions, Empire Pictures, Full Moon Entertainment), Band could ensure that his personal interests were present in films that he had little actual involvement in. Most prominent of these interests was the fascination with 'small things that kill you', which he himself traces back to his love of the final segment of 1975's Trilogy of Terror. We can see this interest expressed in films such as Parasite, Dolls, Troll, Ghoulies, and most successfully the Puppet Master series. Full Moon Entertainment established another important tendency in Band's output – the franchise. Full Moon produced films for the direct-to-video rental market of the early 1990s and the establishment of connections between the films helped to distinguish a clear brand and encouraged video renters to try all of their related products (adverts for future instalments, or Band himself showing off poster art for films in production were included after the films on the VHS cassettes).

Nowadays, as head of Full Moon Features (the third iteration of Full Moon), Band is more closely involved in production, directing some 20 out of 35 films. Here, Band's authorship is even less in question, as we can trace not only the premise back to him but also the execution of the individual film. Franchises and small killer objects have not lessened, with films like Doll Graveyard, Ooga-Booga, and the Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong series continuing the trends in a cheaper and dafter way. But there is an interesting middle period to Full Moon, when the company was known as Full Moon Pictures, that I think casts Band's authorship in quite a different light. We can almost see in the late 1990s that Band is something of a victim of his own success. He had already made a point of bringing all of Full Moon's successful franchises to a close while the company was still Full Moon Entertainment, but found that he was pressed to make more Puppet Master and Trancers films during the 'Pictures' years. These were uninspired and limp entries, seemingly designed to sabotage their franchises, and unusual in that the Pictures years were otherwise devoid of sequels.

Band instigated several new labels during this time, each aimed at a slightly different target audience. While Full Moon continued to make mainstream horror and sci-fi films, other labels focused on more specific variations. 'PulsePounders' produced kids adventure genre films, 'Filmonsters' likewise aimed at younger audiences but focused on resurrecting the classic monsters (Dracula and Frankenstein and the like), 'Monster Island Entertainment' produced Godzilla-style tokusatsu movies, 'Alchemy Pictures' focused on the highly dubious notion of ‘black’ horror movies made for an African-American audience (by white American filmmakers). Several other labels dealt with other markets. These new labels functioned as the equivalent of franchises, giving audiences 'more of the same', but without direct continuity links between films.

What does this tell us about how Band felt about his company at this point? Well, on one hand, it certainly reveals a level of optimism; he was confident that the company would be capable of producing such a variety of films without having to fall back on sequels and repetition. Yet at the same time it implies a certain degree of disillusionment with the success of some of his ideas. Instead of more specific Puppet Master films, Band wanted to make more general ‘small things that kill you’ films. Ragdoll, Totem, Hideous! and Blood Dolls can be seen as continuing the idea without continuing the series. It seems as if the company-cohesion of the 'Entertainment' years became a straight-jacket for Band, who wanted more variety in his output. This labels-approach would give Band more creative freedom, certainly, but it would also allow for diversification and marketing opportunities (each new film offers up the opportunity for new collectible figures). But what about more personal reasons? Did Band actually have a more – for the lack of a better word – ‘artistic’ agenda with this idea? To answer this question, we have to call upon two fictional characters that Band created during this period: Eugenia Travers and Robert Talbot.

Both of these characters have only ever appeared in a short promotional video for the still-unmade Bride Of The Head Of The Family (a project that I shall return to later). Eugenia is the titular Bride, the fictional star of the story, but Robert Talbot is more complicated – he is the pseudonym employed by Band at certain points during the Pictures years. In the promo video, his face is covered with a black hood and his voice has been digitally altered, establishing him as an intentionally ambiguous figure, just as much a work of fiction as Eugenia. Talbot’s credits include directing Mystery Monsters (for PulsePounders) and The Head Of The Family (for another label, Pulp Fantasy), and as the writer for Blood Dolls (for Full Moon Pictures). It is important to understand that each of these labels did not, at the time, explicitly relate themselves to Full Moon as the parent company. So, although nowadays Head Of The Family is considered a Full Moon film that Band is particularly fond of, at the time of its release, all reference to Full Moon or Band were removed. Why?

Robert Talbot was created as something of a 'get-out' for Band, allowing him to make films that he wanted to make, separate from the pressures of delivering the product that people expected from him and Full Moon. Head Of The Family is an exceptionally quirky film; although revolving around murder and a family of freaks, the film is a far cry from horror and instead opts for a more comical cult film tone. Myron Stackpool is the titular head, literally a gigantic MODOK-like cranium with tiny and ineffectual limbs. He controls his three siblings like puppets with something akin to telepathy. When local diner owner Lance accidentally spies the Stackpools abducting a man for experimentation (Myron wants to transpose his intellect into a more normal body), he threatens them with the police and blackmails them. The plot then thickens with schemes and counter-schemes between Lance and Myron, eventually culminating in a fire and the apparent deaths of most of the cast.

The following year, Talbot/Band made Mystery Monsters (subsequently released under the title Goobers), a strange story ostensibly aimed at children, but with little to appeal to anyone under the age of thirty without an understanding of the cut-throat business of television. Tommy has just landed a role on the top children's TV show 'Captain Mike's Mystery Monsters', starring three highly realistic monster puppets that seem to be alive. Shortly after he arrives, Tommy discovers that in fact the monsters are alive; they are demons from another dimension and their former mistress Queen Mara has travelled to Earth to retrieve them. As kids movies go, it's probably the only one you'll find that makes jokes about child stars needing analysts and comparisons between television and Hell. The same year, Band directed Hideous! for Full Moon under his own name. This film revolves around two rival collectors of medical oddities, Emile Lorca and Napoleon Lazar, who fight over a new specimen – a highly deformed human foetus with four eyes – only to discover that the creature is alive and has brought three other specimens back from the dead. All of the above films star J. W. Perra (a.k.a. Michael Citriniti) as Myron Stackpool, the demon Squidgy, and Emile Lorca, and are also unified by their lack of any traditional 'good guys' or strict villains. Instead, all three films play out more like episodes of Dallas or Dynasty but with freaks; their stories are of groups of amoral characters screwing each other over. The films are all written by Benjamin Carr (who would become the go-to writer for much of the late 90s at Full Moon) and revel in their casts of self-absorbed characters with Machiavellian designs on one another.

The glorious soap opera storytelling would reach its height with Blood Dolls, a Full Moon film directed by Band but 'written by' Talbot. The story is about the power struggle between the enigmatic billionaire Virgil Travers and the manipulative dominatrix-cum-businesswoman Moira Yulin. This film seems designed to be the encapsulation of everything that defined 'Full Moon'; Virgil Travers is a freak, a genius with a head the size of an avocado, and his trusted right-hand man, Mr. Mascaro, wears clown make-up and has his teeth sharpened to points. As figures, they are homages to the Puppet Master character Pinhead and the Demonic Toys character Jack Attack respectively. On top of this, Phil Fondacaro (a long-time Band collaborator appearing in Empire movies such as Ghoulies 2 and Troll and later Full Moon movies like Decadent Evil 1 & 2) appears as an eye-patch wearing butler with an electric cattle-prod, who forces a caged punk girl band to play mood music. And it wouldn't be a Charles Band film without killer dolls; this time they are a team of three racial caricatures that execute Travers' business rivals.

It is as if Band wanted to reclaim the essence of Full Moon for himself, condensing it down into a purely personal project (it is one of the few screenplays that Band wrote himself, albeit as Talbot). Killer dolls, kinky girls, weird machinery, clowns, freaks, Phil Fondacaro and franchising opportunities (the caged girl group were initially planned to tour as a Full Moon-backed musical act) are all contained within the film's eccentric 84 minute runtime. This consciously quintessential Full Moon movie was to then be incorporated into Band's more personal 'meta-franchise' of the Bride of the Head.

Which returns us to Eugenia. Head Of The Family, Hideous!, Mystery Monsters and Blood Dolls are all arguably linked by the unmade film Bride Of The Head Of The Family. This film remains a passion project for Band (17 years after its initial announcement he still hopes to get it made) but it is its very absence that makes it all the more interesting. Although the Talbot/Perra/Carr films described above have little relationship to one another in continuity terms, they are all intertextually unified by Bride Of The Head; the film is, obviously, designed as a direct sequel to Head Of The Family, with Myron meeting and falling for Eugenia, but the basic hair and make-up design for Eugenia is utilised in Mystery Monsters for the demon Esmerelda. The various deformed foetuses from Hideous! are implied to be Eugenia's creations, not least of all because of Virgil Travers' comments in Blood Dolls where he discusses his mother Eugenia's brilliant experiments in genetic engineering and describes himself as “perhaps her most perfect creation... although not, as you can see, altogether perfect”.

The late 90s saw Charles Band attempt to expand his Full Moon company into a media empire whilst at the same time carving out a far more personal and offbeat mythology that tied certain favoured films together. These were linked not through franchising, but through implied references to non-existent films and the use of non-existent cast and crew (Robert Talbot, J. W. Perra and others). Shortly after Blood Dolls Full Moon Pictures fell into hibernation for several years, eventually resurrecting as Full Moon Features. Though Band would helm many of the films from this point on, they would never display quite the same idiosyncratic vision as those that he made between 1996 and 1999.

                                                                                                                                       - P.S.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Lovecraft, Cthulhu, Ambiguity & Simultaneity

Imagine a novel that tells two concurrent subplots. Plot A is about a character called Steven, going about his daily life, while Plot B follows the character Mr. Blande, whose adventures as a bounty hunter lead him to visit many of the same places that Steven frequents, but the two characters never meet. Then, years after the author of the novel has died, an academic puts forward that Steven and Mr. Blande are actually the same character. The author, being dead, can neither confirm nor deny the interpretation, but because the novel is ambiguous – it does not commit to any detailed physical description of the two characters – the interpretation can stand up. As a result, the novel becomes two books simultaneously: one where Steven and Mr. Blande are two separate characters, and another where Steven Blande juggles his mundane day-to-day life with his freelance bounty-hunting. Neither one is the 'correct' interpretation and both are equally 'true'. For those of us who indulge in fiction for the sake of diegetic immersion, of getting lost in the story, this would be a nuisance. Such people would want clarification on either one or the other as being the 'reality' of the story. But for me, it is this very simultaneity that makes the text (an object that exists in our world) far more fascinating than the story (a window into a fictional world).

This post is going to look at the idea of ambiguity and simultaneity in a particular literary phenomenon, namely, the Cthulhu Mythos and the author H. P. Lovecraft. For those who don't know, the Cthulhu Mythos is a vast body of stories and gaming material that takes place in a shared fictional universe where all of reality was once ruled by the malevolent Great Old Ones, a pantheon of near-omnipotent alien beings who exist outside of the traditional three dimensions. Another race of godlike beings eventually appear and lock the Great Old Ones up in different prisons (sealed away in other dimensions, in forced slumber beneath the ocean, and so on). In the present day, humanity is more or less totally ignorant of the horrors that lurk in our ancient past and only a few terrifying tomes, such as the Necronomicon, describe the truth in any detail. The Great Old Ones have various insane cults and non-human minions working tirelessly to try and free them 'when the stars are right' and bring their horrific rule back over the world. The Mythos has a special place in modern culture, it gets ripped off or parodied everywhere, and it owes its origins to horror/sci-fi author H. P. Lovecraft.

Except... not really.

H. P. Lovecraft

Although pop culture still describes Lovecraft's writing and the Cthulhu Mythos as more or less interchangeable terms, the reality is that Lovecraft's rather slim body of work is far more nuanced and nihilistic than the 'good gods vs. bad gods' set-up that the Mythos presents. Lovecraft wrote genre-bending 'weird fiction', essentially sci-fi stories that masqueraded as horror stories, where the clich├ęs of the latter genre – demons, witches, magic, monsters – were explained in scientific, though no less horrific, terms: our human-centric perception of the universe is a complete fallacy, we are not special, we are just one in a continuous parade of life-forms that briefly hold dominion over a fairly unimportant speck in a vast and indifferent emptiness. What we think of as demons and gods are just other beings, perfectly natural in a cosmic scale, that are genuinely beyond our limited comprehension. They are not evil, because evil is a human invention – they just don't care about us any more than you care about a dust mote that floats past your face as you read this.

Not to say that there isn't evil in his stories. There is, but it nearly always has human origins. People can be degenerate and reprehensible in Lovecraft's tales, tainted by the influence of the ancient beings that lurk beneath the surface of reality, but they are not 'following the orders of the gods' in any direct sense. Lovecraft liked to give these entities barely-pronounceable names, (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep) and kept their descriptions ambiguous and uncertain. The first-person narrators that occasionally catch a glimpse of these beings lack the linguistic skills to express what they see – or more accurately, our language itself is unable to express what they see.


So, how did we get from Lovecraft's anti-humanitarian view of an empty and uncaring universe, to a riproaring adventure world where humans fight against evil gods and monsters? And what has this got to do with the opening spiel about ambiguity and simultaneity? The man generally understood to be the real creator of the Cthulhu Mythos is August Derleth, a writer friend of Lovecraft's, one of the many writers for the magazine Weird Tales with whom Lovecraft kept a longstanding correspondence. Derleth never subscribed to Lovecraft's world-view, in fact he didn't really seem to understand it, and he often misinterpreted the more experienced writer's subtleties and intentions. During his lifetime, Lovecraft politely corrected Derleth's misunderstandings, but when he died of cancer at age 46, with no estate to take over his body of work, Derleth stepped in and arranged the stories in such a way that suited his more Christian good-vs.-evil ideas. Vague references became solid links between stories, explanations that were provided by ill-informed support characters became facts, and the degenerate nastiness that Lovecraft occasionally imbued his human characters with was projected out into the gods that they worshipped.

August Derleth

Because Lovecraft kept his references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and friends intentionally vague, this gave Derleth plenty of room to manoeuvre and indulge in some 'wilful misinterpretation'. My favourite example of this is Hastur. In a Lovecraft story, The Whisperer In Darkness, a character reels off a list of the races, places and entities of myth that he has discovered are in fact true. A list of cities bleeds into a list of gods, with Hastur being the last city mentioned. Derleth read this passage and chose to interpret Hastur as first name in the list of gods, essentially creating a whole new entity that he could flesh out and use and – most importantly – always claim that it originated in Lovecraft. Hastur became Cthulhu's half-brother and nemesis, adding a bit of very human soap-opera style dissension to ranks of evil. Although we know that it was not Lovecraft's intention, we can read this passage and see Hastur as a city and a god simultaneously. The individual reader can choose the interpretation that they prefer.

The Cthulhu Mythos has continued to grow in this manner, with authors choosing to follow and accentuate links between stories by 'Lovecraft Circle'/Cthulhu Mythos authors while ignoring other connections. Some Mythos stories feature Hastur prominently, others refuse to acknowledge him it all. Although fans will try to comprehend the Mythos as a hugely complex but nevertheless unified system, for me the Mythos is interesting precisely because it can be a million different bodies of work at the same time. To demonstrate on a smaller scale, I will try a bit of 'wilful misinterpretation' on the Lovecraft story The Thing On The Doorstep.

The Thing On The Doorstep is narrated by Daniel Upton, who has just walked into a sanatorium and killed his friend Edward Pickman Derby, though he maintains that it was not murder. He proceeds to explain how Edward had married an intense young woman from the nearby port-town of Innsmouth by the name of Asenath Waite who soon begins to exert her will on the young man. But this is more than simple hen-pecking; Asenath is literally trying to transfer her mind into Edward's body and leave his in her body. As it turns out, Asenath had a very strong-willed father who died in a mad fit – and now Edward confesses his fears to Daniel that Asenath has in fact possessed the father's mind from the start of their relationship. I won't give away the end, as what is important to our (mis)interpretation here is the background details. The fact that Aesnath and her father hail from Innsmouth is important. As is the fact that Edward catches glimpses of what Asenath gets up to whilst in his body, which includes unholy rites and a pit filled with Shoggoths.

In the Cthulhu Mythos, the people of Innsmouth are worshippers of Cthulhu and many of them are actually interbred with bizarre fishmen known as Deep Ones, while Shoggoths are vast protoplasmic horrors that can warp and consume anything. They are both 'villains' in this context, dedicated to resurrecting Cthulhu and his ilk and opposing the 'Elder Ones' that supposedly imprisoned them. We can read the story as set very clearly within the good vs. evil backdrop of the Mythos; Asenath is an evil wizard who needs a fresh body to continue his/her nefarious ways. But if we focus entirely on Lovecraft's body of work, the references here are to two earlier stories, At The Mountains Of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In these stories we learn that, indeed, the Deep Ones and their human companions do worship Cthulhu and are allied with the Shoggoths. But the reference to the 'Elder Ones' has a very different meaning here. In At The Mountains Of Madness, an expedition to Antarctica makes the horrendous discovery that life on Earth was created by a race of alien beings, referred to as the Old Ones, who created mankind as a side-effect. The Old Ones were also responsible for waging war on Cthulhu when he turned up on Earth a few millennia later, and were the creators of the Shoggoths, which eventually gained sentience and rebelled against their masters. Taken as a cycle on their own, these three stories (and another, The Dreams In The Witch-House) simply tell a rather straightforward science fiction history of the world, involving the power struggles of ancient alien races that still have ramifications for human beings today. The 'Elder Ones' are not gods that banished Cthulhu but simply an alien race that the Deep Ones and Shoggoths have decided to team up against. The personal story of Edward Pickman Derby and his wife is just a drop in the ocean of this bigger story.

A Shoggoth from At The Mountains Of Madness

But let's take this a step further in our 'wilful misinterpretation'. Let's ignore At The Mountains Of Madness and Shadow Over Innsmouth and instead link The Thing On The Doorstep to two or three stories by other 'Lovecraft Circle' writers. In Donald Wandrei's The Tree-Men Of M'Bwa, an evil wizard-dwarf, at the bidding of a vague demonic force, uses black magic to turn men into trees. On the face of it, the link seems rather tenuous. Both stories feature humans using apparent magic and serving unseen non-human entities and that's about all. But the missing link comes with Robert Bloch's Notebook Found In A Deserted House. In this story, a young boy moves in with relatives on the edge of an eerily empty forest. After several strange experiences – hearing odd sounds, people uttering bizarre words, inexplicable slime and markings on the ground – the boy and another man are attacked by a tree-like creature, identified in the story as a Shoggoth (Ramsey Campbell would later expand on this version of a Shoggoth by describing it as a tree spirit covered in hundreds of mouths). Taking this cycle of stories together, we can construct a world where cults of dark magicians dotted throughout the world indulge in wicked rites, including the transformation of human victims into tree-like Shoggoths. Now, the moment where Edward glimpses the Shoggoth pit in The Thing In The Doorstep can be interpreted very differently. When he says that he “saw a Shoggoth – it changed shape!”, instead of the protoplasmic creature from At The Mountains Of Madness, we can now argue that what Edward saw was a human being transformed into a tree-like creature.

A Shoggoth of the Bloch/Campbell variety?

We know that this is not what Lovecraft intended when he wrote this moment, but because of the ambiguity of the writing (he never describes a Shoggoth in this particular story), we can happily read this very different meaning as 'true'. This process can be repeated indefinitely with stories by Lovecraft and others. One can group any random collection of stories together and link them in ways that are unrelated to the authors' intentions, or those of the wider Cthulhu Mythos context. The Cthulhu Mythos, rather than a unified world, can be an infinitely shifting 'super-text' that alters in content and meaning for each reader.

                                                                                                                                  - P.S.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Hayao Miyazaki: Authorship And Aesthetic Influence

Following on from the end of last year's discussion on the complexities of authorship, as well as last month's post on Studio Ghibli, this post will explore how much we can attribute certain aesthetic and stylistic elements to director Hayao Miyazaki. When we think about authorship in relation to either art, illustration or film and animation, we often draw upon a continuity of visual style, recurring images, particular colour palates, specific ways of presenting characters, objects or places. Salvador Dali's paintings do not look like anybody else's, the films of Wes Anderson are unmistakably his own. Miyazaki is no exception; we associate his films with particular stylistic traits that recur across his body of work. A strong environmental message, a fondness for fantastic but almost plausible technologies (most often drawing their look from the earliest days of air travel), the use of thick, oily slime as a means to denote corruption, a rich and densely populated mise-en-scene filled with elaborate architecture and vibrantly coloured characters – these elements can be found in many of Miyazaki's works. What I will be looking at now is an example that complicates the idea that we can describe Miyazaki as the definite origin of these aesthetic tropes.

During the 1980s Miyazaki – as well as other Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata – was involved in the turbulent production of Little Nemo. Although his ultimate contribution to the final product was practically zero, I will talk in detail about it as it bears more than a few passing resemblances to his directorial style. The film is an oddity in animation history, the ball started rolling on production as early as the late 1970s, but the final film wasn't realised until 1989. Based upon Winsor McCay's newspaper strip, the character is significant to animation buffs because McCay himself animated the Nemo cast in what is regarded by some as the first fully animated short in 1911 (there were in fact earlier instances of animation, but they lacked the same level of craftsmanship and 'believability' as McCay's three minute opus). On top of this historical significance, the film also boasts a veritable hoard of animation and fantasy 'superstars'; initially George Lucas and then Chuck Jones (the master of Looney Tunes) were each approached (and declined) to helm the project and the production itself was overseen by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of the legendary Nine Old Men of Disney studios and authors of the definitive book on Disney animation The Illusion Of Life. The songs were provided by the Sherman Brothers (who scored The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, The Many Adventures Of Winnie-The-Pooh, and Bedknobs And Broomsticks among others), and drafts of the story and script were provided by the likes of Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man), John Canemaker (animation scholar and historian as well as accomplished animator himself, such as the Oscar winning short The Moon And The Son), Chris Columbus (screenwriter of Gremlins and director of the first two Harry Potter films) and Jean Giraud (better known as the comic artist Moebius, whom I shall return to later). Some visual development was provided by artist Brian Froud (concept artist on Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) and the studio producing the film, TMS, was simultaneously working on Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. And Brad Bird (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) briefly served as a producer.

With such a pedigree of talent, how could the film possibly fail? Well, it seems that the sheer weight of talent simply crushed the project into a rather dull and lifeless story that lacks much depth in either characterisation or direction, and yet - for those with an interest in the craft of animation itself - the film is actually beautifully designed and animated. The story follows young boy Nemo as he is summoned from his Edwardian New York life by the King of Dreams to become the heir of Slumberland. Unfortunately for all concerned, he gets mixed up with the mischievous Flip and accidentally releases Nightmare into the land of dreams. Nightmare kidnaps the King and Nemo sets off with a group of allies to rescue him from Nightmareland. Several aspects of the film's visual style resemble that of Miyazaki's films.

For instance, Slumberland itself is a highly ornate and elaborate setting, its vast and beautifully decorated palaces calling to mind the interiors of Yubaba's bath house in Spirited Away and even more so the fantasy-land setting of Howl's Moving Castle.

Little Nemo

Howl's Moving Castle
Spirited Away

Nemo also features vast and bustling mise-en-scene, filled with bright figures and strange contraptions. Not only does this evoke the atmosphere of the early peace-time scenes of Howl but also the Ghibli Museum short Imaginary Flying Machines.

Little Nemo

Howl's Moving Castle

Imaginary Flying Machines

A fascination with the early technology of flight is found not only in Nemo and the short, but also in a great many of Miyazaki's films (also worth noting that Bradbury has a similar fascination with the history of flight; one suspects that the flying squirrel Icarus – not found in the original strip – was an addition from Bradbury).

Little Nemo
Howl's Moving Castle

Laputa: Castle In The Sky

The King's playroom, filled with a variety of toys and conjuring up a sense of the 'outside on the inside' can also be related to the far less healthy playroom of the giant Baby from Spirited Away.

Little Nemo

Spirited Away

The presentation of Nightmare also evokes famous antagonists from Miyazaki's most popular works; the demon god from Princess Mononoke's opening, the corpulent No-Face from Spirited Away and the Witch of the Waste's slimy henchmen from Howl all share the viscous, oozing quality of sentient crude oil (or Shoggoths for those Lovecraft fans among us).

Little Nemo

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

Howl's Moving Castle

Nightmare's two emotionless pinpoints of red for eyes also resembles Mononoke's demon god.

Little Nemo
Princess Mononoke

All of these examples might suggest that Miyazaki's aesthetic and thematic concerns are so clear and strong that they shine through in a film that he was only involved in for a few months (and has openly stated was the worst experience of his career). But the eagle-eyed Miyazaki fan will already have picked up on the key detail here: Little Nemo was released in 1989, not only predating the cited films by at least eight years but – much more importantly – predating Miyazaki's adoption of these aesthetic preferences. Put another way, Little Nemo looked like Miyazaki before Miyazaki started to. By 1989, Miyazaki's feature career encompassed Castle Of Cagliostro, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Laputa: Castle In The Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Aside from the fascination with flying machines, none of these other tropes had appeared in Miyazaki's own work.

So, what might be going on here? To answer this question, let us return to two of our famous faces from Nemo's production history – the comic writer and artist Jean Giraud a.k.a. Moebius and the original creator of the strip Winsor McCay. Giraud is perhaps most famous for his work for Metal Hurlant (the original French version of Heavy Metal). Not only is he responsible for both short and longer narrative comics, but he has collaborated with the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky (cult director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain) on the unproduced movie epic of Dune and the comic saga The Incal. He was also the main visual stylist for Rene Laloux's animated sci-fi Les Maitres Du Temps. His style of illustration and art has a clear and identifiable look, and we can reel off several recurring elements: a fascination with vast, alien wildernesses and wastelands, populated by bizarre flora and fauna, exotic architecture that does not always seem to have a functional purpose and implies a long-forgotten history, and sweeping aerial 'shots' as characters (most famously the recurring hero Arzach) fly through the air.

Artwork by Moebius, including images from Les Maitres Du Temps

These elements can also be found in Miyazaki's Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind. Miyazaki has openly stated his love of Moebius' comic work and cites it as a major influence on Nausicaa and so the resemblance is unsurprising – it is a conscious homage.

Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind

Moebius/Giraud was not only responsible for one of the drafts of the screen story for Little Nemo, he also worked on visual development. Looking at the film, one suspects that the greatest influence comes in the second half of the film, once Slumberland has been destroyed and the characters venture into Nightmareland. The strange wastelands of each setting evoke the world of Arzach, albeit in a slightly more conventional vein.

Artwork by Moebius

Little Nemo

It is possible to see a clear resemblance in the purged Nightmareland from the end of Nemo with the purified caverns beneath the wastelands in Nausicaa.

Little Nemo

Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind

Miyazaki's directorial influence on the aesthetic of Nausicaa is undeniable, and we can clearly relate the themes and visuals of the film to other works by the director, but the film still remains tied to the aesthetic of the French comic artist. Let us now turn to Winsor McCay, the original creator of Nemo and his friends.

To say that McCay was a newspaper comic strip artist and earlier animator is a preposterous understatement. To say that McCay pioneered each of these mediums and pushed their artistic possibilities further than any other contemporary is far closer to the mark. Today, we think of early pre-Mickey Mouse animation in terms of the early mass-produced cartoons featuring heroes such as Felix the Cat or Koko the Clown. But McCay, with no prior reference point, animated fully rounded figures that looked consistent from all angles and displayed an array of minute details in their design and movement. Likewise, we might think today of Garfield or even Peanuts when we think of newspaper strip; a brief three or four panel gag. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, McCay was producing huge art-nouveau style images for the daily papers.

What these beautiful images demonstrate is that a) McCay was a bit of a genius, but b) the aesthetic of the 1980s movie draws heavily on the style of the original author/artist. I've argued that Nemo looked like a Miyazaki film almost a decade before Miyazaki made films that even looked like that, but could we say that McCay's own aesthetic and ideas have had an unconscious influence on Miyazaki? Could it be that his brief stint working on the film adaptation of McCay's work led to a belated/delayed influence; maybe the horrible experience of the actual production caused him to suppress any direct acknowledgement of the aesthetic style of the film, and these influences only came out years later, the suppressed finally making a return into Miyazaki's conscious design choices?

It's impossible to say, of course. It is also difficult to really recommend Little Nemo on the basis of its enjoyment-factor, but for those interested in the work of Miyazaki, for those in love with his particular visual style, it might not hurt to give the film a go, just to see a bizarre prophetic vision of the aesthetic that was yet to be born in Miyazaki's own work.

                                                                                                                                - P.S.