This is going to be a looser post than I usually write on this blog, mostly because I’ve had a hard time concentrating on any one thing so far this year. Call it a combination of seasonal affective disorder and ennui. What I have been doing is watching a lot of animated films and, of course, reading, and I’ve been mixing the subject matter from both in my brain a lot lately.
These thoughts were precipitated by reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber for the first time, a very short collection of stories that since its publication in 1979 has gauged a deep and lasting mark in fantasy, particularly the glut of fairy tale retellings of the 90s that still haven’t quite withered away. Even I’m in an anthology of retellings, but Carter was also playing into a cultural moment that had its earlier rumblings in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy stories” and other authors slowly dredging up folk and fairy tale material out of children’s books to repackage for an adult audience. We can’t pin the fairy tale resurgence in fantasy solely on people imitating Carter, though she certainly had and still has her share of slavish imitators who try to mimic her baroque, layered prose and fall flat on their faces doing it. The stories in The Bloody Chamber range further, giving characters and atmospheres that, despite all these stories taking place in a vague 18th to early 20th century setting, are most commonly found in urban fantasy and paranormal romance. The trappings pass on, the core of why these stories work largely remain untouched.
“Why fairy tales?” is a question that comes up looking over that particular branch of fantasy literature, and I’ve already outlined some of those reasons above. You can also extend that question over to cartoons, the greater purveyor of fairy tale currency. The answer to that question is inevitably “Disney”, discarding international and earlier efforts that also took folktales as a narrative source. You can argue that the first feature-length animated film was Snow White and Seven Dwarves because of the equation of cartoons being for children and fairy tales being for children, that a simple narrative lent itself to such an experience and would have wide appeal, and you’d be right. However, there are other reasons to perform fairy tales in that medium today, much of which has to do with the constructed otherworldliness of seeing hand-drawn images come to life reflecting the otherworldliness of fairy tales themselves. This is a feature largely missing from Disney’s more recent animated features based on fairy tales, Tangled and Frozen, which forsake the human touch of a painted background for computer-generated models that can look lovely but miss the attractiveness of seeing illustrations out a storybook come to life.
Watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya cements that feeling for me, as well as a more cogent argument why animation is particularly suited for visually representing these sorts of stories. I’ve written before about how The Secret of Kells used the visual language of medieval Celtic manuscript art to convey its historical period. Kells is not a fairy tale retelling per se, though it does sometimes carry the atmosphere of one. Representing characters as they would have conceivably represented themselves is an ingenious way of imparting a context to the narrative. It gets the audience in the right frame of mind to understand motivations and actions, since artistic expression in paint or ink is easy for the mind to accept and interpret. Princess Kaguya is based on the 10th-century story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and adopts the artistic style of illustrations in period scrolls. I don’t know enough about that style to write too cogently on the topic, but it’s undeniable that adopting this style grounds the narrative in its source’s era and asks you to accept the premises of the culture that produced that artistic form. You would expect this means of representation in the literary source, and the expression frames how you see and process the story in a fascinating way.
More simply, Princess Kaguya has an emotional maturity that belies a large part of the story involving a child growing up. This is true of most Studio Ghibli films, that in the main have children and adolescents as protagonists yet don’t shy away from having moments of sadness, loss, depression and pain. The animation, often quiet and understated, highlights these moments by subtly reflecting characters’ interior feelings through the world itself. The supposed simplicity of the fairy tale serves as an advantage here, distilling plots and characters down to their emotional impact over all else. Animation, too, can have that kind of force.
It’s not something I see too much in American animation, though. A double billing of Princess Kaguya and When Marnie was There made me realize the extent to which Miyazaki and his partners explore emotional states that are typically ignored in American film making in general. This doesn’t have much to do with the choice of output of writers and artists in Japan: Marnie is based on an English middle grade novel that easily makes the jump across the cultural boundary, as most inward-looking narratives primarily interested in emotion do; witness the popularly of Studio Ghibli film here. It does make me wonder why North American popular fiction (TV, film, books) shies so sharply away from even admitting these states exist, or else simplify characters’ emotions, stripping away any complexity in thought and feeling. The closest attempt to peer into that world in recent memory was Pixar’s Inside Out, but it never quite got there for me—too mired, I think, in Pixar’s mechanistic approach to story development that tries to capture the broadest demographic appeal while at the same time shedding the most universal aspects of narrative.
Not to say that this level of emotional depth is the sole purview of Japanese filmmakers and authors like Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones and, well, Angela Carter. The same Irish filmmakers who brought us The Secret of Kells went on to make Song of the Sea, another folktale-based narrative. The visual style is superficially like Kells but used to a different effect: the strong lines and bold colours of medieval Celtic art are transported to modern-day Ireland, but the references to medieval idiom are otherwise gone. The style instead acts as a bridge between the protagonists’ current state and the older, magical world hidden beneath. While the beginning feels a bit trite compared to Kells, emotionally the latter half is more powerful and comes to a more satisfying conclusion, this time providing an elegantly simple, but not simplistic, commentary on how humans deal with pain. Style and subject matter are eminently suited to each other here.
There is a tendency to overstate the importance to fairy tales by couching the sources as authorless, springing from the collective unconscious. What fairy tales are is a mode, and the chief attraction in using that mode, I think, is in conveying the kind of emotional resonance I felt while watching Song of the Sea, or Princess Kaguya, or while reading certain stories in The Bloody Chamber. At least, it’s the mode that’s most likely to make me tear up without feeling manipulated, and it’s obvious to me, at least, that this is why this style of storytelling has stuck around for so long.