Year End Essay
by Eleanor Arnason
I am still having trouble reading fiction. Mostly I read books I’ve read before by writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both now deceased, alas. They are funny and charming and good stylists. In addition, I read nonfiction, especially about paleontology. The Permian Mass Extinction puts the world’s current problems in perspective.
I spend a lot of time on the Internet, much of it reading political news, and that may explain my liking for light fiction and my reluctance to read more demanding works. Donald Trump can put a person off reality. It might be smart to cut back on the Internet and read more SFF.
What have I liked in the last year? Two movies. The Wind Rises came out in 2014, but I didn’t watch it until this year. It is the final work by the great Japanese anime director Hayeo Miyazaki. Most of his work is suitable for children: funny, charming fantasies, usually with a young girl as the protagonist, though Miyazaki is always concerned with ‘adult’ issues such as technology and the environment, and he always treats working people and old people – especially old women – with respect. Until the 1990s he was a Marxist, and I suspect he is still some kind of socialist. Speaking as an old woman, I appreciate the way he portrays old women a lot.
Wind is different from Miyazaki’s other work. It is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Hirokoshi, the real-life engineer who designed the Zero, Japan’s premier fighter plane in World War Two. Miyazaki has always been in love with flying and planes, and many of his movies are – in part – about war. (For example, Howl’s Moving Castle and Porco Rosso.) His father was director of a company that made rudders for the Zero plane, and Miyazaki has childhood memories of an Allied night raid that firebombed his home town. Planes and war were part of his life from the beginning.
The movie is about a young man who is true to his dream and designs a magnificent flying machine; it’s a love story about two likeable young people that had a sad ending; and it’s a meditation on war and the uses to which planes are put. The Nazis and the Japanese secret police make appearances. The movie ends with Japan in ruins. I wondered if the movie’s title was a reference to kamikaze, the divine wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion and to the kamikaze pilots in World War Two. But it’s a reference to a quote from Paul Valery: “The wind is rising… we must attempt to live.” This is a complex, ambiguous movie, physically beautiful in the tradition of Studio Ghibli anime.
The other movie I liked is the Shaun the Sheep Movie, which is hard to describe. It was produced by my other favorite animation studio (along with Studio Ghibli): Aardman Animations in Great Britain. The character (Shaun) first appeared in one of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit shorts, then starred in a TV series for kids, though these programs also work for a lot of adults, including me. The series is about a flock of sheep on a farm run by a totally clueless farmer with the aid of a less-than-bright farm dog. Basically, it’s slapstick humor for children. There is no spoken dialogue, just animal noises from everyone, including the various humans.
So what is the appeal of the Shaun the Sheep movie? A loopy plot: the farmer is carried away from his farm and into a nearby big city by a runaway caravan. When the caravan finally crashes, he suffers a head injury, which makes him lose his memory. He wanders into a hair salon in a fog and sees a pair of clippers, which he grabs reflexively. (Remember that he is a sheep farmer.) He uses these to shear one of the customers, a celebrity of some kind. The celebrity loves his new haircut, and the farmer becomes a famous stylist: ‘Mr. X,’ since no one knows his name. Meanwhile, back at the farm, the sheep realize that they need the farmer. Who else will run the farm and feed them? Off they go to the city -- Shaun, the farm dog and the flock – to find the farmer and bring him home. The rest of the movie is slapstick humor and a certain anarchistic subversion. The sheep are endlessly inventive, fooling the city’s humans and running circles around the movie’s villain, an animal control officer. In order to pass, they find a used clothing store and dress up as very unconvincing humans, who attract no interest from the city’s residents – though the animal control officer develops an attraction for a very fake-looking woman made of two sheep in a skirt and coat. When they finally escape the city, it’s in a home-made horse costume, which contains a small flock of sheep instead of the usual two men. If this sounds weird, it is. Like the TV series, there are no spoken lines – just grunts, barks, baas and so on.
The closest comparison I can think of is the Marx Brothers, though Shaun does not have the streak of cruelty that the Marx Brothers have. But there is the same combination of zany humor and disrespect of authority. Here, though, there is sweetness as well. Everyone gets safely back to the farm. The animal control officer ends in a pile of manure. The stray dog Shaun has met in the city, who helped the sheep navigate through urban life, finds a lovely lady who adopts him. And the awful pigs, who have been living in the farmer’s house while he was gone, making an awful mess, end back in their pen. Justice and kindness win, and everyone goes off on a picnic.
A very sweet and funny movie, with a lot of diversity, I will add. The movie’s humans come in many colors, and I even saw one hijab. Though the sheep are all white.
What else have I enjoyed during the year? Minnesota Public Radio and the Minnesota Orchestra, especially the work of late romantics: Jean Sibelius, Richard Wagner and Edvard Grieg. I could have sworn that nothing could get me to like a tone poem, but I was wrong. The music director of the Orchestra is a Finn who loves Sibelius; and since the famous union struggle, in which Orchestra administration locked out the orchestra’s musicians, loyalty to the musicians and their union has become combined with loyalty to the music director, Finland and Sibelius. Minnesota Public Radio seems to play Sibelius’s Finlandia once a week. Up the working classes!
Eleanor Arnason has written several novels and many short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People
(2001), won the James Tiptree Jr. award for gender-bending science
fiction and the Mythopoeic Society Award for adult fantasy. Her fifth
novel, Ring of Swords (1995), won a Minnesota Book Award. Aqueduct Press published her collection Big Mama Stories in 2013, her Lydia Duluth adventure, Tomb of the Fathers, in 2010, and her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005. This year Aqueduct released e-book editions of The Sword Smith, To the Resurrection Station, and Daughter of the Clan Bear. Next year, Aqueduct will publish a collection of her Hwarhath stories.