If you recently signed up for Tales From The Dork Web you might not know that I write on a fortnightly schedule. This is a link roundup featuring things I’ve found interesting. I’ll publish a long-form issue in a couple of weeks.
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This issue’s art comes from the wonderful world of Studio Ghibli. They recently released pictures for use “within the realm of accepted practice”, which I interpret as fair use. If you’d like to have your own copies this web-based torrent should do. I’ve used some of these as wallpaper on desktops.
This issue’s music comes from Joe Hisaishi. I’ll get into the wistful, ethereal happy-sad feelings this music evokes some other time. For now press play. You won’t regret it.
The Unbearable Beauty Of Studio Ghibli
Founded by Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki and Hayao Miyazaki in 1985, Studio Ghibli's films have captivated audiences for nearly 40 years. The word Ghibli means 'hot wind blowing through the Sahara desert'. It was a term used during the Second World War by Italian pilots to describe their scouting planes. I can’t help but wonder if the choice of company name influenced elements of Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso is the tale of a former flying ace, transformed into a pig-like creature fighting pirates in the Adriatic sea. SteveM’s video essay above takes a deep dive into this film, often unfairly absent from lists of Ghibli’s best.
Ghibli would revisit aviation history in The Wind Rises. This movie is based on the Jiro Korisoki's time designing and building the Mitsubishi A5M Zero World War II long range fighter plane. Ghibli’s shows a different view on the Second World War to what you might see in Western, Chinese or Korean Cinema. There is another war-period movie made by but not published by Studio Ghibli. You’ll rarely see it listed in Mayazaki’s greatest films, but it is worthy of a slot.
Let me start by saying that unlike every other film I’ll write about here, Grave of the Fireflies is not a happy, uplifting film. It will make you cry and it does not have a happy ending. The viewer sees life (and death) in Kobe before, during and the aftermath of the 1945 allied bombings.
It is these horrific bombings that provide the backdrop to Grave of The Fireflies. The story is based on a semi-autobiographical account of the bombings by Akiyuki Nosaka. He wrote it as an apology to his adoptive sister Keiko, who died of malnutrition in the bombings' aftermath.
There's little I can say about the film that others haven't. I'll let Roger Ebert more eloquently talk about the movie than I could. While Grave of the Fireflies is without doubt the most heart-wrenching film produced by Studio Ghibli, it has its own artistic beauty. If you can wipe away the tears there are some incredibly beautiful moments.
These 3 films stand out in the Ghibli repetoire as being set in defined points in time and space. Most of Ghibli’s work exists outside of a clearly defined physical location. Nowhere is this ‘between' or 'two-worlds’ element more beautifully illustrated (at least in my opinion) than in Spirited Away. Ok, maybe Princess Mononoke does this too, but this is my segue into Spirited Away and I’m taking it!
Spirited Away is arguably one of Ghibli’s greatest masterpieces. The film revolves around Chihiro. Chihiro is a young girl who, through her parents greed is dragged from present-day Japan into a magical world centred around a bath-house. Chihiro must work in the bathhouse for the evil owner Yubaba (shown below) to earn her freedom. With the help of a dragon, all kinds of creatures and a river, Chihiro grows into a confident woman and breaks the curse binding her to the bathhouse.
If you only ever see one Studio Ghibli film, make it this. It is, like all Ghibli films a beautiful work of art with a rich storyline and some occasional weirdness. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack is absolutely incredible. It is without a doubt one of the finest and beautiful animated films ever made. But this movie was not made for Western audiences, and we miss so much of its context.
The story relies heavily on Japanese Shinto folklore. The creatures Chihiro encounters in the bathhouse are Kami, spirit-like creatures inhabiting objects from rivers to umbrellas. The taking of Chihiro’s name early on in the film is more than just a label, it’s a part of her identity. If she can’t recover that identity, she can’t leave the bath house. Yubaba’s choice of Chihiro’s new name (Sen) and employment contract is part of a rite of passage to adulthood. The name Sen is written with the Chinese characters for 1000, drawing a parallel with an employee ID number.
Yubaba isn't portrayed as Japanese, but as Western. She is the personification of western consumerism. Another misplaced character is No-Face (above). At first glance, No-face seems an evil character but that’s not really true. No-face was shunned by those at the bath house. He’s drawn to the bath house through Chihiro’s kindness. Whatever No-face absorbs, he inherits their behaviours. He swallows a small frog-spirit and uses its voice to enter. The bath house is filled with gluttony, greed and crude behaviour. As No-face devours the inhabitants, he inherits their vices.
I don’t think I’ve really dropped any spoilers here, but if you haven’t watched Spirited Away it’s well worth making time for. Spirited Away is the most beautiful of Studio Ghibli’s films (at least in my view). Unlike many animated movies, almost every shot is alive with movement. Jana Monji’s analysis includes cues western eyes may miss.
The first Studio Ghibli film I saw was Princess Mononoke. I didn’t know it was a Ghibli movie until after I saw Ponyo. Ponyo is just such an unbelievably happy movie. It’s what jolted me into watching the Ghibli catalogue. Words can’t describe the pure joy in this film. When I grow up, I want to be Ponyo.
Ponyo is the story of the fish-like daughter of a once-human Wizard. She’s caught by a human boy, with whom she falls in love. She decides she wants to become a human girl to be with him. If that seems similar to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, that’s because they share source material.
Despite their origins, the stories are very different. Ghibli tells the story of Ponyo as a coming of age tale for two characters. As well as the titular Ponyo, the young boy Sōsuke who caught her also undergoes his own transformation. I say coming of age, but really these kids are about 5 years old. It’s not a transition into adulthood, but a transition into being ready to take on responsibility for others.
Unlike Spirited Away, this film translates exceptionally well for Western audiences. Maybe that’s the source material, but you can pretty much take everything in this film at face value. You could look at context, themes and imagery but Ponyo is a film made to enjoy. The infectious happiness of Ponyo stays with you long after watching. Even writing this section has me grinning from ear to ear. The emotional impact of these movies staying with the viewer long after first watching them is the true beauty of Studio Ghibli.
Things You May Have Missed
In Internet surveillance capitalism news, Samsung TV owners are complaining about ads in TVs they paid for. Wait till they find out about the tracking and telemetry.
Nicholas Carr asks what it’s like to be a smartphone, and ends with this quote:
Look at your phone. You see a mere tool, there to do your bidding, and perhaps that’s the way your phone sees you, the dutiful but otherwise unremarkable robot that from time to time plugs it into an electrical socket.
All your old Discord messages are still there, but now you can yeet them.
Amazon have introduced an amazing new biometric surveillance innovation! Why use palm prints? If they asked you for fingerprints or used facial recognition you’d want to know why amazon would be building a biometric database. Introducing a non-contact palm-based system lets Amazon frame biometric surveillance as being COVID safe.
That was all a little dark. How about a message from our sponsors. Do you have a Wunder Boner? If you don’t already have one, your very own Wunder Boner is but a toll-free phone call away.
Metamorphosis was a Sony demo video demonstrating their new HD technology as shot in *checks notes* 1989. The video was released in early 1990 to show off Videodisc. For a special treat/nightmare fuel skip to about 3:50 in. This is one of those rare occasions where the YouTube comments actually have some further information on the video from someone that worked at Sony at the time.
I write about the Commodore Amiga quite a lot because I use one most days. In fact, I often write parts of Tales From The Dork Web on an Amiga. If you don’t have one but want to try one out, this fantastic guide is regularly updated. You don’t need to follow the full guide to play Amiga games. If all you want is a quick round of Stunt Car Racer, you can do that in a browser. Watch the track-by-track guide above for better lap times. Don’t forget to turn the sound on and go full screen.
I found this excellent long read on the history of the Microprocessor. Also, Takaya Saeki wrote about his Uni team that built their own CPU architecture, emulator, compiler and ported the Unix-like OS Xv6 to it!
Ch00f’s hitclip reversing piece recently did the rounds on the Internet, so I thought I’d add Techmoan’s video on the HitClip to the mix.
Rob Pike writes a fascinating piece about his moderate deuteranopia.
I recently read 17776, an incredible multimedia sci-fi experience.
Factor Daily suggests we live in a real-world version of John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider. I’d say our world is closer to E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops or at least in some ways Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
I really enjoyed Pomplamoose’s cover of Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, and I hope you will too. I thought I’d end with a quote from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, whose words changed my life:
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue. If you did, please do share the links with others. I’ll return in two weeks with more Tales From The Dork Web. If you’re not already signed up but would like it in your inbox when it’s ready, you can sign up below.