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Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Tisha Srivastav

Open Axis takes a historical stroll uniting nature and film.

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

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