Moon child: Li’l Bamboo in Takahata’s folk tale.
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Small wonders: the simple pleasures of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Japanese animation ­company Studio Ghibli favours contemplation over manufactured climaxes, and this film is no different.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (U)
dir: Isao Takahata

In the rush to praise one of the two directors at the heart of the Japanese animation ­company Studio Ghibli, it is usually the case that the other gets overlooked. Hayao Miyazaki was responsible for the studio’s international breakthrough in 2001 with Spirited Away, a fantasy so indelibly cuckoo that it makes Alice in Wonderland look like Cathy Come Home.

His fellow Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata is every bit as talented and considerably more eclectic. His masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), is an account, all the more harrowing for being so plainly told, of two young children struggling to survive in Japan at the end of the Second World War. Another of his triumphs is Pom Poko (1994), an ecological fable in which raccoons try to halt the destruction of the countryside. Though steeped in the concern for nature that is prevalent in much of Studio Ghibli’s output, this is no place for tree-huggers: the raccoons resort in their campaign to shape-shifting, terrorism and the inflation of their scrotums to parachute size.

Miyazaki, who is 74, has announced his retirement but Takahata is still going strong at 79 – or rather, strong-ish. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins with a bamboo cutter discovering inside a new shoot a baby small enough to nestle in his palm. He takes her home, where she grows to the size of a six-month-old infant before his eyes. His wife, finding that she can lactate unexpectedly, plops out a breast. But where has the girl come from? And how do you shop for a kid who can jump several dress sizes between breakfast and bedtime?

That last problem is taken care of when the bamboo plant coughs up a stream of multicoloured silks, like handkerchiefs plucked from a magician’s sleeve. It is typical of Studio Ghibli, with its emphasis on simple pleasures, that one of the most rapturous scenes should involve the girl, nicknamed Li’l Bamboo, rolling around in these ethereal fabrics. It is no surprise, either, that Takahata is most at ease focusing on her rural upbringing, even if the ambient noises are at odds with the static painted landscapes in which leaves never tremble in the breeze and clouds hang still in the sky.

The faint watercolour style of Takahata’s 1999 comedy My Neighbours the Yamadas is reprised here. Jades, beiges and ­powder blues convene over an eggshell wash. The effect is one of soothing vagueness disrupted only slightly when the girl is moved to the city, where scarlet kimonos are glimpsed, for etiquette classes under the fearsome Lady Sagami with her stricken kabuki face. This aesthetic change coincides with a maturing in Li’l Bamboo, now named Kaguya and inundated with marriage proposals. She responds by requesting from her suitors implausible treasures. All well and good, until these determined young men start producing them.

No one goes to Studio Ghibli for incident. This is a film-making model that favours contemplation over manufactured climaxes. (Right in the middle of the 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example, the title character, a teenage witch, takes a woodland sabbatical while she waits for her mojo to return.) Kaguya grows weary of the city and of the conformity expected of a woman and returns to the countryside. But all she does is sit staring at the moon. That is where she came from. The day is fast approaching when she will have to return.

It would be misleading to claim that there is an exploration of the tensions between civilisation and nature or the corporeal and the celestial. Even over a running time in excess of two hours, these matters are no more than hinted at. Small wonder if the viewer clings to the one or two outright kinetic sequences here. Kaguya’s fantasy, in which she imagines bursting through the walls at her coming-of-age ceremony, is especially thrilling, with the drawing style disintegrating into granular charcoal lines. It is also debatable how radical a departure from the mainstream the picture is. “The waterwheels go round,” runs one of its songs. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Despite the benefit of it not being sung by Elton John, it is easy for us to feel we’re back with The Lion King and its circle of life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.