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

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.