Avatar, Anime and Miyazaki Hayao

Last week on KineJapan we had nice discussion of James Cameron's Avatar. The question was posed whether the film exhibits the influence of Japanese anime, particularly Miyazaki Hayao (flying; wondrous forests; big trees with spirits [Totoro?]; respect for nature; etc.) and Oshii Mamoru (metal suits, transferring "ghosts," etc.). Some noted some pieces on the web that explore the same issues.

In the many responses, Kukhee Choo mentioned her article in Post Script about the influence of Battle Angel Alita on Cameron's Dark Angel. And Jasper Sharp used anime to actually criticize Avatar on his blog

Here, in brief, was my response:

When you look at it at first, the similarities with Miyazaki are there: the image of the forest, the non-human world, of flying, etc. Oshii also deals with battle suit issues, and so do many other Japanese anime. But Avatar's ideology is quite different from either of these.

First, Avatar never explores the complex questions of identity and reality that Oshii does: Is the Self the suit or what is "inside" the suit? How can we distinguish a "reality" from our world of computer networks and simulations? The thorough ambiguity that Oshii pursues on these questions puts him in parallel with the other great contemporary director of ambiguity, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Avatar just simplistically celebrates play with the "suit" while still holding out for a real "self" that is transferrable and thus separate from the suit.

I also think Avatar has a very different vision of nature from Miyazaki. Miyazaki's paean to natural forces is not unrelated to his insistence on sticking to some analog animation techniques (though Miyazaki's own use of digital animation is just one example of the contradictions that inhabit his vision of the natural). But Cameron's film is possibly more problematic: it falls into the contradiction that many cinematic celebrations of nature (like Koyaanisqatsi) do: they praise the premodern, pre-technological world using the most advanced technology there is. Avatar, I think, tries to avoid this, but only by radically re-defining nature in a way I doubt Miyazaki would approve. Many can of course see that the narrative situation of Avatar is essentially that of video games, especially online RPG where you, immobile at your station, get to roam the world, kill people, and get the girl via your avatar. Avatar plays off the discontent with contemporary technological reality by offering the fantasy of really escaping, of completely abandoning one's body for a game world that is pre-technological. But the trick here is that the Avatar planet, with its database of souls and memories, of creatures with Firewire plugs, of trees that allow one access to the network, is essentially the Internet rendered into a Gaia-like deity. In other words, I think Avatar tries to have its ideological cake and eat it too by spouting a critique of industrial technological capitalism (mining and machines and battle-suits) and praising a natural, premodern society, while all the while defining that idyllic society/world as precisely the new media technological capitalism that we have today (accessible via avatars, and marketable through massive international conglomerates). There's much more to be said about this, but at least I very much doubt Miyazaki, regardless of all his own ideological contradictions, would buy this.

That was my initial reaction upon seeing the film, but the wonderful irony was that I saw it in 3D at a theater in Japan with a bunch of technological glitches (during the last half, the film stopped a lot). Quite appropriate! Was this the revenge of old technology? Or of nature?

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