Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli

There is a part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, a fascinating piece of meat shoved immediately above our eyes, the best seat in the house. Its most predominant function is decisions-making, and as a result, has been credited as the catalyst for obsessive-compulsive disorder. I broke mine when I was about seventeen years old. I turned on my television and found myself surrounded by otherworldly creatures who crawled into my frontal lobe and made themselves at home. Spirited Away was its name, and even though the doctors assured me it was the ants I’d been snorting which had damaged my cortex, I am still convinced that this film is solely to blame for the mess I have become.

Ghibli grew into an obsession, and I felt compelled to watch every single one of the studio’s offerings, often forgetting to eat and sleep in the process. But I persevered despite family interventions, and am proud to announce that I did eventually see them all, and here we are. However, it only seemed appropriate to write this article now, especially due to the recent English release of The Wind Rises coupled with the announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. While there is more than one talent behind the company, Miyazaki is unanimously agreed upon as the master of everything, and so it is only fitting that this piece lands at this very moment, mourning his abandonment and honouring the disfigurement he brought onto my mind. Furthermore, The Wind Rises marks the 20th of the Ghibli films (including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Ocean Waves, excluding The Tale of Princess Kaguya as the English dub is yet to bless our eyeballs), which is such a lovely round number, I’m sure you agree.

However, before I begin my shamelessly over-gushing adoration for the so-called 'Walt Disney of Japan', please note the following:

THIS IS A WARNING: I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers at all costs, and I think you’ll be ok. I’d never give away the endings, and any specific details are kept vague enough as to only make sense once you view the relevant films. That said, there is always a small chance one or two minor details may slip through the reeds, softening some intended surprises or introducing characters you would have rather met yourself. And so if you are tempted to attempt the same mission I did, perhaps tiptoe through these pages a little more cautiously than usual.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 20. Whisper of the Heart

20. Whisper Of The Heart (1995)

Directed by Yoshifumi Kondō
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

When examining how everyone in the whole world adores this sentimental piece surrounding a 14 year old bookworm struggling to balance her writing passion with maintaining her grades (whilst reluctantly falling in love at the same time), it’s difficult to defend this definitive “worst” position. For despite reports that this realistic portrayal of young bittersweet romance was exclusively aimed at a female audience, Whisper of the Heart went on to effortlessly seduce all genders regardless of intent, an impressive feat for the first Ghibli to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata (note: this was also Kondō’s only Ghibli, as he died of an aneurysm shortly afterwards). But personally ... it underwhelmed me. The plot never seemed to go anywhere, I felt no incentive to invest in the characters (except, of course, for the Baron, but that’s a different story...), and it lacked the fantasy elements which I have come to depend on the studio for (which should become even more evident as we go on). That said, perhaps its cute storytelling and safe execution will be your taste exactly (many claim this film as their favourite) but unfortunately it left me with nothing but boredom, resulting in my least favourite Ghibli ever. Sorry.

Key Scene: The fantasy sequence where Shizuku flies through floating land with the Baron is a lot of fun.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 19. My Neighbors the Yamadas

19. My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Now this is a weird one. For starters, it was Ghibli’s first 100% digitally animated film, yet was rendered to look more hand drawn than anything else in the studio’s catalogue, the purpose to mimic the style of Hisaichi Ishii’s newspaper comic strip (on which it was based). Furthermore, there isn’t really much of a plot here per se, rather a collection of humorous sketches revolving around everyday family situations and domestic affairs, such as losing a child in the department store or wrestling for the remote. In that regard, it is relatable as well as memorable in its differences, Takahata deserving much respect for risking the envelope’s expectations in the way he did so on this film (and others). But in the end, it is so far removed from the usual Ghibli magic that it hardly feels like a Ghibli whatsoever, even the best moments producing nothing more than a chuckle, and the characters (while quirky) falling as two-dimensional as the presentation itself. So my advice is to expect very little and then perhaps you will be entertained enough, but for the most part, it’s for completists only.

Key Scene: The sudden style change when Takashi confronts a motorbike gang is worth the watch alone.
Trademarks: The only Ghibli without any.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 18. Only Yesterday

18. Only Yesterday (1991)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Primarily written for adult female audiences, Only Yesterday was a surprise box office success, attracting an even amount of attention from both sexes, and it’s easy to see why. The nostalgic flashbacks detailing the pains of growing up; the melancholy which comes with self realisation; and the desire to escape city life, were enough to warm hearts no matter which part of your age or gender related to these common emotions. It was about the simplicity yet significance of past memories, while discovering the depths of oneself which can only come to blossom within the soil of maturity, all realistically animated into magic without being magical, a technique only Ghibli has perfected so well. But even when taking this admiration on board (as well as appreciating that Disney refused to dub the film due to some menstruation dialogue), I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was nothing more than your typical Ghibli offering. It’s the blueprint of the studio’s coming of age love stories at its bare minimum and most transparent, and even though I genuinely enjoyed it, it refused to stick in my memory, and in that regard, fell far shorter than what I’ve come to expect from the team.

Key Scene: That pineapple bit is a defining moment of Ghibli’s subtle genius.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 17. Pom Poko

17. Pom Poko (1994)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

On paper, this is everything I love about Ghibli. Based on East Asian folklore, Pom Poko tells the whimsical tale of shapeshifting racoons, who utilise their powers for reasons of mischief whilst stomaching as much food as possible, satisfied to just laze around and have fun. That is, of course, until us humans threaten their land, and they are forced to use their special abilities to fight back. As predicted, it’s a humorous ride with a deep message, tripping you out whilst never settling on an animation style, ultimately resulting in a bizarre yet serious journey with an even more serious conclusion. It’s a traditional Japanese offering, a fairy tale-esque story, and did I mention it has BALLS? Like, seriously. Testicles everywhere, it’s weird. But even these testicles could not save Pom Poko’s dark preachiness from falling somewhat unfocused, as there are far too many characters to develop properly, and the whole thing feels a touch too slow. Of course, we must once again commend Takahata’s fearless attempts at doing something different, completely against Ghibli reputation (much more than Miyazaki would dare, anyway) but without some previous knowledge on the mythology, it’s a jumbled mess made up from eye candy and stretchy genitalia.

Key Scene: The mindblowing ghost parade is an achievement of modern animation.
Trademarks: Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 16. The Wind Rises

16. The Wind Rises (2013)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Telling the fictionalised biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, this bittersweet tale of triumph and loss echoed the end of Miyazaki himself, as this offering came with the announcement as his directorial finale. And, don’t get me wrong, as such a typical Hayao creation, it concluded his career poetically, presenting detailed imagery in his trademark dreamlike style, keeping the explosions gentle and the surreal humour accessible, all the while conveying the message of chasing one's dreams and keeping faith in love despite the odds. But even if everyone appreciated the sober and historical tragedy for what it was (winning many awards and much acclaim as it did so), I couldn’t escape the dark cloud of Miyazaki’s retirement overshadowing the film, leaving the disappointment of “is that it?” when the credits rolled. The characters are annoyingly thin (Jiro hardly exists), and all the overhyping neglected to mention the slow pace, challenging length, and perhaps the one film where Miyazaki’s aviation obsession went too far. The simpler style may have brought joy and the underlying darkness may have intrigued, but for his final say, I really wish the legendary director had said a little more.

Key Scene: The earthquake caused me much panic.
Trademarks: Aviation. Young love. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 15. From Up On Poppy Hill

15. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)

Directed by Gorō Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Standing as the first (and potentially only) true father and son Miyazaki collaboration, this simple yet heartfelt offering is all too often overlooked. But why? Let’s speculate. Perhaps it’s because Poppy Hill isn’t as fancy and mysterious as many of Ghibli’s superior works, maintaining a relaxed pace whilst masking the magic within regular emotions. Or perhaps it’s because it lacks any real conflict, as every (often bland) character is essentially a good person and there is no legitimate enemy for the audience to conspire against. Or perhaps, it’s because the entire storyline is based around incest. That’s right. Incest. And yet somehow, this incest seems okay. It doesn’t ruin the vibe and you find yourself almost rooting for it, which brings up far too many personal questions and once again proves the mastery of this studio’s ability to control you. Yet even when considering said incest; the ability to recognise wonders in mundanity (the whole film is about repairing a clubhouse); the clean atmospheric animation; the sadness; goals; hopes; and dreams ... it is perhaps a little too slow and empty as whole, and probably best enjoyed by true Ghiblis only.

Key Scene: When Umi first enters the haphazard eccentric clubhouse.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 14. Kiki's Delivery Service

14. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

I am a little hesitant to admit that, on many levels, I consider Kiki’s to be the centerpoint of the Ghibli Universe. As a unique premise about a 13 year old witch who uses her skills to deliver baked goods, it ticks every box, from the fantasy elements to the coming of age lessons and all the warm young love squashed between. And despite being intended for a more child orientated audience, it still has enough adult appeal lightly sprinkled over the top to amuse all of us, analysing the hardships of adolescence without shying from the imagination only a fiction world could grant, and (perhaps the most impressive aspect) not relying on Kiki’s powers to mystify or carry the tale alone. But even if the characters are charming, the storyline is cute, and the conservative Christian group boycotted its screening based on witchcraft themes, it fell perhaps a touch too far over the kiddie line for me. The plot felt a bit harmless and safe to be completely memorable in my leaky mind, and as a result, the rare 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes serves only to overrate the thing a little higher than Kiki can carry it. But watch it anyway.

Key Scene: The heroic blimp save.
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 13. Porco Rosso

13. Porco Rosso (1992)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

All things considered, Porco Rosso is fairly cheesy. Its lesson-less execution relies heavily on energetic action-packed sequences and in that regard, is impossible to work out just who the target audience is supposed to be. But even when considering these flaws, the thrill is carried by the main character alone, Porco himself. Once an Italian World War fighter ace, now a freelance bounty hunter, Porco lives on a desert island awaiting contract jobs to chase air pirates, all the while having to deal with a pesky curse which has transformed him into an anthropomorphic pig. Surreal enough for you? But even if this spell is never explained, Porco is hardly ashamed of his disfigurement—on the contrary, he works with it, maintaining just enough charisma and smugness to keep the ladies falling head over heels for him, and his reputation badass. It may be an exercise in indulging Miyazaki's obsessions (feminist ideals, anti-fascist undertones, aviation overload) but nothing detracts from the overall sense of humour which rides high right until the very end where questions are left unanswered and talks of a sequel have run wild ever since. When pigs fly though, am I right, guys?

Key Scene: The final duel is fantastic.
Trademarks: Aviation. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 12. Ocean Waves

12. Ocean Waves (1993)

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki
Written by Saeko Himuro

What’s most interesting about this realistic classroom drama is how hardly anyone even knows it exists, Ghibli fanatics included. However, if you are one of the guilty parties, don’t feel too bad, as it was never a large cinema production, but rather a straight to television film created by the studio’s younger staff members, armed solely with the instruction to make something “quickly, cheaply, and with quality”. The fact that it ran well over budget and schedule probably didn’t please the masters, but what I will commend the students on above all else is this: they managed to depict one of the most memorable female leads in a company famous for their female leads. Telling the flashback tale of a love triangle between two buddies and a self entitled young lady named Rikako, it is this girl alone who steals the show, with her arrogant spontaneity and disregard to destroying the boys’ friendship, somehow as likeable as she is unlikeable. Just focus on the complex high school politics she drags behind her, ignore critics who call it ‘aimless’, and then perhaps you’ll understand why this is my favourite coming of age Ghibli above them all.

Key Scene: The spoilt brat manner in which Rikako treats Taku after he slept in the bath all night.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 11. Arrietty

11. Arrietty (2010)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Ghibli discussions about adapting Mary Norton’s The Borrowers had reportedly existed for around 40 years, so it’s nice that when it finally blessed our screens, it received a standing ovation from critics and fans around the globe, going on to break the all-time Japanese record for theater attendance (7.5 million) for a first time director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. And even if the classic 'tiny people secretly living under your floorboards and within your walls stealing your food' plot was slightly too childish for my decrepit bones, I still have to appreciate how such an adorable and friendly premise would crawl into a kid’s imagination and show them their own world from this new, sweeter perspective. It flows naturally, it interacts intimately, it shines brightly (arguably the best coloured Ghibli in their catalogue), and it teaches us the importance of loving all creatures, great and small. Like the Borrowers themselves, this film proves you don’t need to be loud to captivate a heart.

Key Scene: When the very memorable (and ugly) house maid Haru captures her first Borrower.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 10. Ponyo

10. Ponyo (2008)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

As some weird take on The Little Mermaid, this breathtaking Miyazaki is not without its problems. The focus on eye candy (the film consisting of 170,000 separate drawings, reportedly a Ghibli record) took priority over the plot, and as a result, Ponyo looks much better than it’s paced, leaving the story somewhat vague, blinded by its own spotlight visuals. But, damn, it does look good. The carefree plot is shined until it dazzles, naturally centered around a magical goldfish and her desire to be human, presented in such a precious manner that your inner child will dominate, excited for no real reason and delighted by this glowing tale of friendship against all odds. Not to mention, the characters are superb: the mother is likeable and authentic; Ponyo (whose name is an onomatopoeia for what "squishy softness" sounds like according to Miyazaki, uhm) is borderline creepy with her contorting face and unhealthy love of ham; and the magnificent ocean comes across like a character all by itself. Fill in any gaps with the warmth of love, and here is yet another unreal peculiar Ghibli for you to drown yourself in. And besides, how often do you hear a boy/fish love story anyway?

Key Scene: Driving against the waves with Ponyo running beside the car? Epic.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 09. The Cat Returns

09. The Cat Returns (2002)

Directed by Hiroyuki Morita
Written by Reiko Yoshida

Originally conceived as a theme park installment, this underrated film is a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, and (as a fan of Ghibli’s more delusional personality) is far superior in my opinion. Featuring the ever popular Baron character (as well as the fat Muta cat) from the aforementioned coming of age bore, here we have a vastly different whimsical tale surrounding the loveable Haru and her ability to talk to felines; her adventures into the secret cat kingdom; and her struggle against arranged interspecies marriages. If that loony premise wasn’t already as tempting as catnip, let the action packed execution do the rest, as you ride this vibrant journey through surreal worlds at such a frantic pace that you’ll reach the end in no time, short of breath and ready to go again. Sure, others fairly dismiss The Cat Returns as lacking depth, but that was never the point. And sure, it feels a tad throwaway, but even this is refreshing, as it is an effortless watch, opting to use humour rather than relying on some deep moral message to win your vote. Take Spirited Away, feed it a Ritalin/Prozac cocktail, and here is the result.

Key Scene: Hundreds of cats flocking to Haru’s house.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 08. Tales from Earthsea

08. Tales From Earthsea (2006)

Directed by Gorō Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki (concept)

Maybe the vicious critical backlash drastically lowered my expectations, but I genuinely loved Tales from Earthsea, and am here to vigorously defend the 'worst Ghibli ever'. It's important to note this as Hayao Miyazaki’s son’s debut, and following in such legendary footsteps is obviously impossible—these expectations were unfair. You try adapt four books into one solid storyline with that pressure hanging over your pencil. The unanimous resistance which followed was unwarranted (original author Le Guin publicly expressing her disappointment, and father Miyazaki refusing to speak to his son during its production) even when considering the odd execution and loose ends. Perhaps the plot isn’t very clear, but it’s a concentrated Tolkien-esque fantasy, far too violent for your typical Ghibli audience, yet animated as fantastic as any other. Perhaps it’s a bit messy and confusing, an overly ambitious attempt at imitating his father's style, but it’s still very competent even in comparisons. Personally, I see something deeper here, and I wish Gorō would continue to develop this style until it became his own, but imagining how such a negative reaction probably wrecked his confidence, I doubt he will. Just please remember: we rely on this guy to keep the legacy going, so give him some space.

Key Scene: Cob’s insanity deteriorating his face was well scary.
Trademarks: Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 07. Howl's Moving Castle

07. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

Despite excelling as one of the studio’s most well-known animations (and for good reason), Howl’s Moving Castle has not altogether escaped some rejection. It has been called 'overrated', 'lengthy', and 'incomplete', none of which I disagree with. However, what these critics have failed to worship, is some of the most imaginative Ghibli characters ever created, not to mention the sheer volume of them. Remember: the helpful Turnip Head; Heen the asthmatic dog; the revolting Witch of the Waste; Calcifer the comedic fire; the dynamic steampunk castle itself; and, of course, Howl with his charming flamboyance and eccentric insecurities. Even the 18 year old Sophie is a complicated and memorable addition, changing ages as she confidently leads the delightful adventure, empowering young female viewers in her stride (an obvious intention by her very design). So, naturally, it should come as no surprise that with such a daunting cast, there wasn’t all that much time to develop each character properly, but while the heartfelt journey may be muddled, it’s never boring, and is yet just another perfect movie for kids and adults alike. Watch this one twice.

Key Scene: A tough one (the end destruction is a pinnacle of modern animation, in my opinion), but the struggle up the staircase is the kind of scene only Miyazaki could pull off without being dull; the archetypal Ghibli magic which turns the ordinary to extraordinary.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 06. My Neighbor Totoro

06. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

For many people, ‘Ghibli’ means ‘Totoro’, as this was not only the film which jump started Miyazaki’s career, but was also a key influence in spreading Japanese animation around the world. And while the gentle pace didn't initially fair very well, it eventually exploded thanks to the release of cuddly Totoro dolls, one of the company’s greatest character achievements (yet still second to Catbus), continuing to stand as Ghibli’s mascot to this very day. But it’s not all about the peaceful, mystical forest animals, but rather the two girls’ curiosity as they are forced to come to terms with the realities of life when their mother falls seriously ill in the hospital and their upbeat dad is left to raise them by himself. And yet even while this aura of death follows the plot around, it also exposes the wonders and warmth of our earthly experiences, revealing mystery and fantasy without conflict or suspense, a different formula-less approach in comparison to some of the studio’s similar projects. As almost any critic with a heart will agree, this is essential viewing whether you know Ghibli or not, encouraging the growth of children vicariously through the hope of these characters, which is pretty profound for something so simple.

Key Scene: The bus stop spectacle is the epitome of trademark Ghibli subtleties, an almost everyday occurrence with nothing significantly spectacular about it, yet somehow delivered with a hyperactivity of magic beneath.
Trademarks: Strong female lead(s). Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 05. Grave of the Fireflies

05. Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata

Released at the same time as Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies was the less successful of the two, but ultimately the more intense and memorable, even if the contrast leaves them utterly incomparable. In a sentence: this is the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. It tells the heartbreaking tale of two siblings’ desperate struggle to survive after World War 2, shattering audiences by building family bonds in the face of grim devastation, all very timeless and unpleasant and ughhh. Even the colouring gives us the sense of poverty and starvation, Takahata opting to use brown outlines rather than the customary black (the first of any anime to do so) which accentuated the misery to the point of making me want to vomit. I mean, it was never supposed to be easy to watch the suffering of little children, and as a result, is not made for children whatsoever unless you want them to cry until their eyes dissolve within the tears. Which is why this is probably the most unusual and distinctive of all the Ghiblis, disregarding the company’s trademarks, shunning all magic and losing all hope, whilst smearing a dark stain on your innocence.

Key Scene: Too many, but when Seita pours water in Setsuko’s fruit drops tin? That stood out as one beautiful and painful moment to me.
Trademarks: Coming of age. War.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 04. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

04. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

According to some, this entry shouldn’t even qualify. Its release predates the studio’s conception, so what does it matter if it’s frequently praised as a benchmark in the development of anime? Who cares if its primitive yet futuristic departure from traditional storytelling preaches to us the moral of living in harmony with nature, even if that nature is writhing with aggressive insects the size of houses? What is the point of illustrating the message of how fear breeding violence may mean the ultimate destruction of man, but we can still use pacifism as a weapon to balance spiritual harmony without giving up on hope during the struggle of war? How is it relevant that I consider this to be the teenage version of Princess Mononoke, perhaps less colourful, but just as as perfect? None of this appreciation counts! Because it’s unofficial! It’s not a true Ghibli! How dare I add it in here! But then you learn that the studio doesn’t ignore it either, proudly including the film in their own box sets, this very act making it official, as not only their very first feature, but as one of their bests. Its success also lead to the foundation of Studio Ghibli itself, so show some respect.

Key Scene: Nausicaä’s taming of the mutant insect from the plane wreckage kind of sums the whole film up.
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 03. Laputa: Castle In The Sky

03. Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

As the first official release from the company, this Gulliver's Travels inspired masterpiece completes every trademark criteria on Ghibli’s report card. Telling the coming of age story about a young boy and girl who are racing against pirates to locate a legendary floating castle, it’s overflowing with action packed sequences and magical crystals without shying away from their signature sense of humour or their classic moral lessons, teaching against greed and power and war and other such bad things that bad people do. Not to mention the steampunk design is probably the most impressively executed from the studio to this very date, the Laputan robots alone standing as one of the greatest character designs in the Ghibli arsenal, easily. It’s no wonder, then, that in an 80,000 strong audience poll, Castle in the Sky was the second highest-ranked animated film ever, and currently holds a 94% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Key Scene: I know it’s a weird choice, but when all the pirates fall over themselves to help Sheeta clean the kitchen always tickles me (although the destruction of the fortress is probably a more reasonable inclusion).
Trademarks: Aviation. Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 02. Princess Mononoke

02. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

I consider this to be the film Miyazaki always intended to make, yet the only time he managed to nail it so perfectly. It’s the pinnacle of the man vs. nature fantasy theme which runs rampant throughout his works, yet his other attempts are not nearly as potent, before or since. For while, say, Totoro or Nausicaä or Arrietty told similar stories about humans coexisting with our ecosystem (all featuring mythical creatures running around for good measure, of course), they still never achieved it quite so ... massively. The complexities of each Mononoke character blurs the line between good and evil; the forest animals are far more earth-based than most other Ghiblis, which gives them an even larger godlike presence (for they are, in fact, gods); the attention to dramatic visuals are as heavy as they are breathtaking (Miyazaki personally oversaw each of the film’s 144,000 cells, redrawing parts of 80,000 of them); and its ambitious length is intimidating, yet sustainable thanks to the inventive violence, action packed pacing, and adult themes of sexuality and disability—all with a heartfelt filling of moral integrity, just in case you were in need of some education. It took a few watches, but eventually, Mononoke became my favourite Ghibli of all time. Well, almost...

Key Scene: The epic Forest Spirit looking for its head.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Ecological/Man vs. Nature.

Worst To Best: Studio Ghibli: 01. Spirited Away

01. Spirited Away (2001)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki

And this is it: not only the best Ghibli ever, but the best movie ever. Intended for a 10 year old female audience, this proved to be the ideal target market for Miyazaki to play with, because while it remains ‘safe for children’, it does not shy away from the darkness, as our loveable Chihiro races through the strange (often terrifying) bathhouse of spirits, trying to break the pig curse placed on her parents and find her way back home. And don’t forget the characters! A giant baby! Bouncing heads! Paper men armies! Adorable dust bunnies! Witches with faces the size of your body! That thing in the elevator! And literally hundreds more! But nothing can beat the disturbing No-Face, a complex lonely spirit who adapts the personalities of whoever he consumes, arguably the greatest character invention of all time. Which is why Spirited Away will always be remembered as Ghibli’s most defining, essential piece, and not only because it’s the most successful film in Japanese history or the studio’s first Oscar winner, but because it’s a modern day classic comparable to Alice in Wonderland, allowing the viewer to go as deep as they want to regardless of age. And that’s simply perfect.

Key Scene: That No-Face chase is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
Trademarks: Strong female lead. Young love. Coming of age.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Clean Birth

by Jared Woods

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - I guess the first thing I noticed was the ground beneath my bare feet.
I guess the first thing I noticed was the ground beneath my bare feet. It was about two meters wide and covered in a light mossy substance, yet still cold and hard, as bald patches betrayed a metal surface thinly disguised underneath. Even more curiously, this floor was moving forward slowly, casually propelling me towards an unknown destination, and this unnerved me. The words 'conveyor belt' flashed in my mind and I recognised the state of my own nudity, even if this had absolutely no definition for me.

I looked up and I was alone. A barely audible whirling noise vibrated beneath my ears and the word 'machinery' seemed appropriate. On either side of me there was nothing but endless white space, this platform suspended in an infinite emptiness, yet when I reached out towards it, my fingers hit what appeared to be a thick wall of transparent ... plastic? Glass? I could never know. It looked nice enough, and yet ... fake, in a way? Something didn’t seem right about it, as if it was an illusion, intended to look pleasant, but ultimately a cover up for a much more clinical reality. I pressed my nose against the surface and smelt gas until my eyes hurt. Despite the clean whiteness which appeared to extend forever, from this close up position I could distinctly detect greens and reds and blues which darted around my vision, and I quickly pulled back before I vomited.

As if some 'utensil' had been shoved into the part of my body I associated with my 'gut', all these weird uncertain emotions swirled within my core. Terms like 'fear' and 'panic' presented themselves to my mind, which brought nothing but further unknowns. I looked upwards for answers and noticed small panels about the size of my head fixed to the transparent walls a few feet above me, giving the deceptive impression that they were floating mid-air as they gradually passed me by, each set some distance apart whilst flickering images of what I understood to be 'flowers' and 'water' and other such pretty visuals. The inner cogs of my mind worked as if they knew there was something I was supposed to know, but there was nothing inside of me. Thoughts were things which I had quickly become acquainted with, but they could not tell me anything except for single words, like an empty dictionary void of explanations. But even that simile which my own mind had put forward in a show-off type manner, meant nothing. None of this meant anything.

My so-called head began to vibrate from an external source, and I associated this with a 'sound'; a 'noise'. And this was when things got even worse. Originally there had been this friendly vague concept of 'peace' which was now disrupted by this said 'noise', and I loathed these new ideas, as they coincided with the realisation that I was no longer alone.

Far from it, in fact. In this moment, I looked around, and concluded I was short in stature; a disadvantage in comparison to those who had suddenly appeared before me. This applied in particular to what could only be defined as a grotesque, oversized, elderly female seal creature immediately in front of me, her height towering many feet above mine. She was so large that the wet whiskers which drooped from her cheeks nearly dangled in line with my forehead, her head so hefty that it was wider than my entire body, and her eyes so spacious and high above me that she didn’t even notice I was there.

She slapped her fins into the moss, giddy with excitement, water dripping down her chin and coating a white pearl necklace in slime. She rolled on her stomach, side to side, as if she was on fire, sparkling earrings seemingly pierced into the side of her head dancing with her movements, a shining mess of excessive jewellery and horrifically wrinkled flaps of fat and skin. And each time she rocked from one side to the other (performing an atrocious bark while she did so, I may add), a salty stench of sewage wafted into my gag reflexes at which my eyes watered furiously, only just able to make out an endless set of assorted legs and tails and feet extending for miles behind her. There were a lot of bodies here, all behaving in the exact same animated style, dancing around naked, unabashedly delirious and enthusiastic. It was an upsetting sight, but nothing upset me more than the fact that I could not register exactly what these things were; the hyperactivity of noise and electrified atmosphere meant nothing to me. I had no ability to fathom what was happening or how I even knew the words for these things, as if my mind was begging for answers and yet my brain teased it, providing no response to its requests.

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - This went in particular for what could only be defined as a grotesque, oversized, elderly female seal creature who was immediately in front of me.
“Oh my Lawdie Lawdie, oh my Gawd, oh my Gaaaawd!” this elderly seal before me was articulating, and I looked closer to examine her weathered leather-like face bursting with brown glee as she frantically searched for someone to notice her without noticing me.

“Yes, it’s quite something, isn’t it?” a croaky voice over-pronounced from behind me, and I cautiously turned my head to notice a male human figure had been at my back this whole time. He, too, was of an older appearance, but seemed much healthier in a way; tufts of messy hair exposing his baldness, smooth skin, and a tall demeanour (yet still significantly shorter than the seal), all of which I enjoyed and associated with 'handsome'. Square cheeks were outlined by dimples and age crevices, eyes withered with fatigue but exploded with wisdom, and not to mention the almost comically sized grey moustache he sported, punctuating the center, so bushy and predominant that it hid his mouth and chin whilst its two end tails stretched beyond the level of his naval. But, my word, how did I know these things? Dimples? Moustache? Naval? What was this place? What was I?!

Regardless, the male’s composure was engrossing. His excitement was far less apparent than that of the seal’s, but the rise in his cheeks indicated a giant grin, flaunting his equal approval of this party. His body may have been worn by the years, but even with these physical casualties of age (complete with a slight protruding belly and small liver spots dotting his chest), his nudity revealed strong arms and a wide torso, standing in perfect posture, proud of its shape. I glanced through his hairy legs to note that, much like behind the giant seal, countless other body parts danced for miles beyond him, a single file queue on this noisy floating conveyor belt, suggesting I had been standing in my position for a very long time, perhaps even years.

“So, please do tell, madam,” he continued his posh conversation with the seal as if long lost friends, still oblivious to my presence. “What is the last thing you can recall?”
“Awh, awh!” the old seal barked to his attention, still acting out her hysterical belly dance as if she was half her age. “Well, let m’see here. I think mus’ ‘av gone on m’way ta bed on m’old rock a mile out o’ Practice Beach, y’know the one? I mus’ve been 85 years ol' if a day, m’thinks, a complete natural death, y’mus’ understand, no foul play or nuttin’, but ... awh! I’s very lonely, I’ll admit. I mean, I had m’grandchildren but they were always the busy type, very important creatures they were, but I forgot about ... about this! Oh Lawdie, how’d I always forget about this place here, every time I be forgettin’, but I knew it all along, didn’t I? Such a obvious thing, isn’t it? So great, so ... oh my Gawdddd!

She kept jabbering on, using words I understood without fully knowing how, with the exception of the word 'death'. Its very sound produced a hollow confusion in my abdomen, and I felt my curiosity once again override itself with 'fear'. This was not a nice feeling. A plastic wall to my right spluttered for a split second, and through the disruption I noted a glimpse of mechanical workings surrounding me before they were once again replaced by the serene image of endless whiteness. Above, the small panels now displayed videos of wide toothy smiles and terms like 'happiness' and 'calm', but I could not escape the devastating perception that none of these details applied to me. I didn’t belong here. Who were these people? Who was I? Why did I have such a definite grasp on all of these things without a single point of reference within my internal dialogue? And I guess you can only talk to yourself for so long before the frustration takes control, because without my consent, a small female voice bubbled up my throat and dove out for answers.

“Excuse me,” I scared myself. “Can someone please tell me just what is going on here?!”
The cheekbones of the man lowered as his gaze fell upon me. The excited movement of the seal lady hesitated as her expression focused on my presence. And there we stood for an uncomfortable amount of time, as if I’d just sworn against their God (whatever the hell that meant), exhausting me with more embarrassment and frustration.

The seal was the first to respond. She leant forward on her veiny flippers which seemed a little less veiny than before, and placed her chin to the ground, almost managing to align her enormous black eyes with mine as I turned to face her. “Hey there, li’l gal,” she addressed me, as her salty breath blew over me like a corpse wind. “And how’s it that you died?”

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - She leant forward on her veiny flippers which seemed a little less veiny than before, and placed her chin to the ground, almost managing to align her enormous black eyes with mine.
The word 'died' once again had no meaning, but the aura that resonated around it could have only been of the 'death' variation. She stared lovingly into my eyes, waiting for an answer, and I felt nauseous, now wishing I’d never opened my mouth. Something inwards felt foolish, all too aware that I was supposed to know the answer to her question, and yet nothing was inside of me. I mouthed a few silent vowels in an attempt to get anything out—anything at all—but I could not.

“C’mon, sweetie. We’re all here together now, don’t be shy, y’hear?” she pried. “What’s the last thing you can remember, child?” Her cracked facial expression lead by her grey whiskers and huge snout stared down at me with a hint of apprehension, and she looked a little bit younger now, somehow. And there I stood, gulping at the air like a fish, but what did I have to say? And what was a fish?

My useless attempt at vocalising my thoughts was interrupted when two large hands fell on my shoulders and gently massaged me. I looked upwards to see the face of the elderly man at my back, and while his smile had only recently warmed my observations, his touch now made me feel rigid and uncomfortable. When he spoke, his breath brushed the base of my neck and I suddenly hated him. “Speak, little girl. Pray do tell, how was it that you have come to die?”

“I don’t know what that means!” I shouted as I squirmed out of his grip. “I don’t know what any of this means! Who are you people?! Where am I?!

My scream echoed, rippling out into eternal space, and I could see many figures in the distance cease their celebration to take note of my outburst. Great, more attention, which only got much worse after the stupid elderly seal gasped with the following cry:

“Oh my Gawd, could it be? Could this here gal be ... a Clean Birth? Well, I ain’t never seen a Clean Birth before! Guess she’ll be about the right size, if I ‘ad a think about it...”
With those words, a whole audience clamoured towards and practically closed in on me, a hundred depths of eyes examining me like a team of surgeons. The excited voices rose like before, but now as delirious murmurs, inaudible phrases smothering me, with only the frequent mutter of “Clean Birth, Clean Birth” detectable.

“Stand back! Stand back, I say! You’re scaring her, for Pete’s sake!” the man behind me demanded authority, and his strict voice appeared to make an impact. Many observers obeyed by turning their sides to us, pretending to converse with one another whilst still maintaining a keen corner of an eye upon me. It was annoying and awkward, yet still an improvement. With that, the elderly man gently turned me around to face him, placing his hands on my shoulders again, his left thumb resting on my breast which I somehow knew wasn’t right. He crouched to my level, his face close to mine, and while his dimples were still apparent and the ends of his feathery moustache touched the floor, the lines on his face looked shallower than they had been only moments ago. I felt the urge to spit into his eyes but he halted my thought process by addressing me in a quieter manner, speaking much more sense in the midst of the chaos.

“Please do talk with me, little one. Before this place you see here, do have any memories? Is this platform where you stand now, the only place you can ever recall standing? Do you have a name? Do you even know what this means?”

“No!” I cried from clenched teeth. “I know what nothing means! I remember nothing! I was just here all of a sudden and I have absolutely no idea why! What is happening? Who are you people?!”

“This one’s a Clean Birth here, alright!” the seal lady announced, and the surrounding crowd in the audible distance nearly responded with a cheer, until the man shot a dirty look upwards to silence them. This gave me a chance to shift my position, his thumb no longer on my chest which I recognised as an undeveloped area due to my 'age', and also wondered why it bothered me so? It was whatever his intentions were, I decided, and vaguely became aware that I didn't like this man, yet there was no point in turning away. He was more than likely the only one who could help me grasp this mess, I was certain of it.

“Darling little girl,” he began my education. “Where you are now, is an extraordinary place indeed. For this is a place between places—the bridge, if you will—which connects the end with the beginning. For you see, it is here where we—you, me, her, and everyone around you—have our energy reorganised and washed clean, our defining characteristics and experiences labeled and neatly packaged within us, assigning qualities and worth to our Source before we are ready to be once more released back onto our planet.”

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - With that, the elderly man gently turned me around to face him, placing his hands on my shoulders again, his left thumb resting on my breast which I somehow knew wasn’t right.
“It is a fascinating procedure, sweetheart, and in order to comprehend its complexities, you must recognise the two aspects of which make up all of life: Birth and Death. Me, myself, for example, have died and been reborn no less than 137 times.”

“137 times!” the elderly seal interrupted. “This here be only m’29th time, it is! Firstly, I can recall I was a pottery makin’ bacteria livin’ in a poverty stricken river, fairly dull life if y'ask me, m’death that of a working accident, silly fool I was, then after that I believe I was a wife of a Sky Prince, oooh, we were so important him and me were, royalty and all that, such a time, the best life yet, I think, and after that I...”

“Silence, please, madam,” the man raised his hand. “We are in the presence of a Clean Birth, have some courtesy.” The old seal quickly held her gigantic tongue, and the man took back my attention by looking into my face once more, his moustache measurably smaller than it was before, the ends now far from tickling the moss.

“You notice this moving ground beneath us?” he continued. “Where this is headed, is a spectacular plain we like to call ‘Earth’. This ‘Earth’ is an incredible location, one which breathes more births and deaths above any other place we are aware of. These two factors are certainties in all individuals who enter the world, and in conjunction with the countless experiences which come between them, is what we define as 'Life'. It is everything; sometimes beautiful and happy, other times rather difficult and scary, but always bursting with opportunities. Different lands to explore, people to love, thoughts to think and develop—but all of which is waiting for us at the end of this here moving platform.”

By the time his talk had trailed off at the last word, he sighed and his eyes dropped towards the floor. It was here now I realised my face was tense, scrunched into a contorted mess to echo my confusion. All of this was too much, I could hardly get my head around what this had to do with me and my being here, and I guess this showed more than I’d intended it to, my suspicions confirmed when the seal piped up her opinion with “I ain’t sure there’s no easy way to explain this to nobody, not a Clean Birth, fo’sure”. The man raised his hand without raising his eyes, and tried again.

“Let me put this another way for you, child. In a rather short time, the pure energy which you are made up of right now alongside with all the other energies you see around you here—like this lady or me—will be summoned by Life, which is ushered in by the simple act of a male’s seed and a female’s counterpart egg, connecting as one. When this happens, we will leave these grounds to be grown inside of what is called 'a womb'; like a home which develops a physical shell around the very energy you feel now. Once this shell has sufficiently trapped the data which you carry with you, in conjunction with some brand new genetical data based on those who had unintentionally called upon you, then and only then will your new Life be ready for release into the world—this place called ‘Earth’. Once free from the womb, you will find yourself open and willing to capture as much knowledge as you can, not for yourself, mind you, but as a researcher for the Universal Consciousness, a bank of knowledge which is used to connect and develop all things that exist and continue to exist in every possible realm. This shall continue until you have reached your full potential, and once at that point, you will ultimately be destroyed on a physical level, ready to be recycled once more, placed back on this platform for the preparation of yet another Life. Do you understand me so far?”

I thought I did, sort of, but the idea scared me. I had no concept of this Earth place, or what my mission would entail, and I told the man so. “It hardly seems fair,” I challenged. “I will surely be at a disadvantage if what you say is true. You remember 137 deaths? And yet I cannot recall a single one! How will I know where to begin? What kind of a mission will this be if I have no idea how to achieve it? Oh, please, help me, Mr Man! What am I supposed to do?”

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - To this the everyone laughed, including those bystanders who were pretending not to listen, which gave me a fright and I hated it.
To this the everyone laughed, including those bystanders who were pretending not to listen, which gave me a fright and I hated it. The surrounding screens too popped with inanimate photos of laughing children and fireworks (perhaps an annoying show just for me?) and even the old man chuckled in my face. That is, except he didn’t look that old anymore. Rather, he appeared to be very different than when we first met, which I found comforting in a peculiar way. His moustache was now a messy fistful of hair barely overflowing his chin and the former cracks to the side of his eyes were just surface lines, scarcely noticeable.

“Do not fear yourself with such things, little one, as I will explain. For rest assured, once your energy has been called upon and you are placed within the womb I spoke of, you will find yourself inside of a being you will come to understand as your mother, inside of her stomach, right here,” he paused to tap a finger on my belly, as if I didn’t already have a definition for that word. “As I told you, it is there where your new physical form shall develop until you are ripe enough to escape, and when this time comes, you, like all of us, will be consuming Earth for the very first time from those particular set of physical eyes. The experience may be traumatic, but soon you will learn to adore your new surroundings and adapt to the strange new feelings. You will find your mind bombarded with smells and emotions, all of which will confuse and overwhelm you, but even more so, will fascinate and invigorate you, as you start to grasp the physics of the unfamiliar world. And it is during this time that the memory of this place you stand now will begin to fade and ultimately disappear. The moss you stand on, the hum you hear, the conversation we are having, and the memories of any past lives shall be pushed deep inside of your energy data, quick to clear room for the new Earthly environment, ensuring you can make sense of it without obstacles.”

“So you see, whilst past lives may develop characteristics within your Source which may dictate aspects of your lives to follow, it does not matter whether you’ve died a million times or if you are a Clean Birth, such as yourself. Essentially, we all enter each new life free from the past and at the exact same vantage point, no matter how unfair it may initially appear.”

During this speech, I began to take in-depth note of the man’s face. His moustache was all but gone except for a few tiny bristles, and while hints of his previous features were still apparent, he was a much plainer version of his former self. The pupils of his eyes had been lost in new black craters which filled the majority of his head, while his recently exposed smile had shrunk into an almost lipless straight line, curled upwards into his grey skin to still indicate happiness. Even more peculiar was that of his stature, which had shrunk significantly, now almost at the same height as mine. I glanced backwards quickly at the elderly seal lady for affirmation, but she too had changed at a very similar rate, her body a weird disproportionate shape as if stuck somewhere between that of a seal and a human, her age indeterminate, her skin now much lighter in colour and smoother in texture. She smiled, and her mouth was no longer an abysmal pit towering above me, but rather a warped crack almost in line with my eyebrows. Her decreased size meant my view was much less obstructed, and I could clearly see behind her where stood rows and rows of almost the exact same creature; once an assorted mix of varied looking animals, now developing and settling into a much more default and uniform state. Yet they seemed not to notice, as they continued to bounce from foot to foot, no longer concerned with the fascination they once held for me, jittery in conversation, reaching higher pitches of fever.

Logically, one would assume such a sight would scare me, but curiously the contrary was true. My stomach churned with enthusiastic anticipation and I felt static flutter outward from my core right down into my fingertips, like I was covered in a blanket made from spider webs and pins, and for a change I felt euphoric without even knowing what that was. My breaths pulled in deep and with each one I sank further into love with the uncertainty. I began to giggle and, almost as if on cue, laughter erupted from these grey beings all around me, in unison.

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - I could see clearly behind her where stood rows and rows of almost the exact same creature; once an assorted mix of varied looking animals, now developing and settling into a much more default and uniform state.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” asked the once elderly man as he continued to smile. “It won’t be long now.” To this I laughed even louder, astounded that a few mere moments before I had found this man’s demeanour intimidating and even sexual, but now he pulsed with love and I reciprocated by beaming my smile towards him. What was I thinking? Nothing could threaten me. Nothing could disconcert me. And yet, even in these moments of bliss and acceptance, I still wanted more answers.

“But wait, mister,” I addressed him though my giddiness. “What exactly is a Clean Birth? What makes me one? Is it because I have no memories?”

The man stood upright and was only a few inches taller than me, as he placed his long grey fingers on his protruding belly and gave off a high pitched shriek of glee. “Oh, because you are very special, little friend!” he exclaimed. “It’s a simple program, really. For once a life has reached its natural conclusion on Earth and passed out of that realm, most end back in this place we stand right now. This wonderful place! But not all of them. Some energies have lived such fantastic lives that they are sent to areas much more advanced than this one, where their Source will be used for a greater purpose, you understand? Conversely, there are those who have built up so much nastiness in their lifetimes that their soul will forever remain imprinted by evil, and are no longer fit to be granted access to this place ever again, damned to an eternity where their soul shall be quarantined in much darker regions. Can you imagine? Never coming here again? Oh!”

At some point during this explanation I had glanced down to notice my own body had too turned to a light shade of grey. My fingers were much longer and bonier than before, and my stomach had bloated. In front of me, the man no longer looked anything like his former self, nor could I recall what he’d looked like before. Rather, what stood in front of me was the same height as myself; completely bald, two huge black holes for eyes, filled with love, and two pin-pricked nostrils underlined by a thin, barely moveable mouth. His head was almost the size of his torso, which was decorated with bulging ribs and a large belly. What’s more, behind him stood an endless row of creatures identical to him in every minute detail. It was here, I concluded, I myself must look exactly like these people too (special, my ass!), and this made me laugh even louder, which the formerly old man took as a response to his story, which he eagerly resumed.

“But you! You Clean Birth! You are brand spanking new! You are untouched! For you see, every time a soul is deemed unfit for this reproduction—whether for reasons of greater purpose or damnation—the system must be regulated. There must always be a specific amount of energy limited to Earth and it must always remain the same. And that’s where you come in, young one. A pristine soul, free of past experiences and memories, ripe for your very first leap into physical manifestation, fresh energy to fill the gap left behind by a Source which no longer qualifies for reincarnation. Isn’t that exciting? The very energy you feel and the very energy you are, is only now beginning its journey of eternal and infinite realms of rebirths and deaths! I recall my first round fondly, and, oh, am I so jealous! I do wish terribly I could be here for your first passing and glorious moment of remembrance which awaits you here, but alas, the logistics of our souls ever meeting or recognising each other again are next to...”

He continued to ramble but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, as if his voice had been drowned by fur until it had turned white and dissolved, and then there was nothing. No hum of machinery, no group hysterics, no sound at all. Instead, I felt my breathing leap up into my throat while my lungs closed inside of me. Dizziness overflowed in my gut but it did not detract from the overwhelming buzz of happiness which lifted my toes from the conveyor belt. It’s difficult to explain, but the last thing I recall is looking down at my long grey fingers as they pixelated into tiny squares and began to come apart, losing shape. I was falling to pieces! My atoms were no longer sticking together, drifting aside like bits of rice in water. A few moments later, I felt my core shoot downwards into a concentrated point like I had been turned into liquid and forced out of a syringe, all of which I would understand eventually.

The Goat's Nest Short Stories Presents: Clean Birth - I felt my core shoot downwards into a concentrated point like I had been turned into liquid and forced out of a syringe.
That was me leaving the in between realm as my designated father's sperm connected with my designated mommy’s egg and demanded my spirit as the electricity to spark the physical growth of their child; me, their daughter. And thanks to that elderly man, I knew what was going on. I thought about him all the time whilst I was in the womb as my face formed features and my fingernails grew. Who was he before? Who was he going to be now? He was a bit weird, but was he essentially a good man? It felt like an eternity of contemplation where I realised that being a Clean Birth came with the curse of having no memories to dwell upon and to distract oneself with during this lengthy period of waiting. And then one day, my little water cage erupted around me and I was born into the world, ironically anything but a clean birth, covered in uterus wax and nearly choking to death by my own umbilical cord. I admit, I cried. They had to place me in an incubator to keep an eye on me for a week or two, but I wasn’t bothered. I was here! I had arrived! I had been born! Sights and smells and noises flooded my mind, and it was hilarious. I got better soon enough too, and my mother took me home.

It’s funny what people don’t know. When you are living inside of your mother’s tummy, you are, in fact, at your most knowledgable. You remember past lives and so many secrets of the world, life and death. All newborns are holy people for, in general, they have just come from a crowded place of blissful souls and epiphanies. But as their developing brains digest their new surroundings, they are quick to forget about these places, this memory lapse designed as a defence mechanism, the mind now much more concerned with this new life’s challenges, experiences and interactions. It’s silly when you know this, but it’s also imperative in the evaluation of the quality of one’s soul, giving the freedom of ignorance and the illusion that this is the One Life. It was how the gods judged you and appraised your role in the greater battles of everything. And I get that.

As I grew and recognised the role of my mother and learned to speak, the memory of the elderly man was lost, forced into that compartment of my soul which would only be liberated after life. And when it did, I appreciated the man, as he spent his 137th death not in the bliss of remembrance as it was intended, but rather explaining the finer details of the cycle to me. And everything he said was almost completely accurate, apart from one detail: I would never end back upon that conveyor belt. For I was, indeed, special after all.

They gave me the name Macy Dull. This is the beginning of my story.