Issue 17

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

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).  

Issue 11

Girlhood in Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday

Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away became the first non-English-language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003. Ghibli has distributed films in North America since 1985 but refrained from making streaming available until 2019. Spring of 2020 saw Ghibli films coming to Netflix, making the works of this Japanese animation film studio available to audiences in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. These films are marked by humanist themes ranging from family to war to environmental destruction to friendship. While numerous Ghibli films are set in fantastical worlds with spirits, wizard princes and witches, the central conflicts in these films are human. They distil the internal realities of the human experience and show the exploration of not only the self but those unlikely companions who aid that process. 

Only Yesterday, directed by Isao Takahata, is one such ghibli film following Taeko, a 27-year-old working in Tokyo who visits the countryside to help with a safflower harvest. The narrative is a simple, non-fantastical one, characteristic of Takahata, and is interspersed with flashbacks to her ten-year-old self. The film revolves around this centre of girlhood and coming to terms with its complex realities in her late twenties. 

Erik Wecks, in his account of the film, names it “A simple exploration of human inner life and emotions. Only Yesterday is a film which seems to have much more in common to a French art-house film.” Fans of the French New Wave classic The 400 Blows or more contemporarily, The End of the F**king World will find this to be a similar exploration of the less romanticized realities of coming of age. 

Freedom and Femininity

The flashbacks to Taeko’s fifth-grade self reveal the embarrassment faced by the girls when they were educated about menstruation. The girls sitting to the side at P.E were met with revulsion from the boys in class because they believed that they could “catch the period” like a disease. Taeko tries very hard to escape being met with social hostility at school. This flashback stands not only to mark the bizarre social restrictions that come with the onset of menstruation in many cultures but the larger question of the freedom, or lack thereof, afforded to young girls. The ever ongoing debates about the sexualisation of minors through nonsensical dress codes are contextualized through this question. Girlhood is often marked by taking up less and less space because normal parts of the body like shoulders or legs are sexualised and policed, starting from classrooms. Only Yesterday brings this discomfort faced by young girls into the light, illustrating how it remains within the psyche years down the line. The film asks a question of the freedom that derives from masculinity and conversely, the manner in which girls are made to shrink themselves starting at a very tender age.

Watershed Moments of Harshness

Taeko’s father is a stern and quiet man whose word is the final decision on matters concerning the family. When Taeko is approached by a high school theatre group to act for them, her father decides against it even though she has a clear talent for it. This ends all of her dreams about stardom and the world of acting. Seventeen years later, she still remembers the first and last play she acted in and how male authority prevented her from fulfilling that dream.

Another flashback shows her leaving the house without her slippers and her father hitting her across the face. It is a memory that carries with her seventeen years later. Her father’s behaviour dictates how Taeko thinks about the institution of the family as an adult. She equates it with a certain unfreedom where she will not be afforded the comfort that her city job does. Takahata ensures that the feelings of Taeko’s ten-year-old self are not discarded but inform her decisions as a twenty-seven-year-old. He does on the screen what Simon Van Booy did with words when he wrote, “Each year is like putting a new coat over all the old ones. Sometimes I reach into the pockets of my childhood and pull things out.”

The Magnitude of Possibility

This theme is common to many coming of age films, a kind of delight in finding yourself in a world where so much is possible. Takahata illustrates this through very simple scenes like Taeko’s family trying pineapple, an exotic fruit, for the first time or a boy in her class indirectly confessing his love to her. However, Takahata doesn’t indulge in the romanticization of such events, something that is a characteristic of American coming of age films. Wecks asks questions of such portrayals aptly, “The processes which begin in fifth grade for many often remain necessarily incomplete (or rather unprocessed) long into adulthood. How can one understand attraction when facing it for the first time? How can one see the influence of family both good and bad until one has lived for many years on one’s own?” There is a realization in Only Yesterday that girlhood is only a sort of introduction to the world of possibility, not the ending. There are no resolved career or love decisions at the end of Taeko’s youth, not even until the tail end of the film, yet the novelty of these new experiences is weaved into the mundane, something that mirrors real life. 

Only Yesterday is an honest account of the many events that make the coming of age of women anywhere in the world. Through watercolour imagery and an absolute abandonment of pretence, the film “is less concerned with presenting a grand thesis about the nature of being human than it is navigating the heartbreaks, triumphs and regrets that make us.” Crafted in a way that makes it impossible not to question the small things that make up your own world, Takahata’s film breaks away from representing girlhood as a highlight reel and showcases the minor events that permeate lifetimes. 

Picture Credits: Slant Magazine

Author’s Bio: Saadia Peerzada is an English and Creative Writing major 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).

Issue 4


Psycho Pass is an Anime show set in a futuristic dystopia, where the omnipresent surveillance “Sybil” system that monitors aptitude, psychic health and latency to commit crimes. Set against this background, a crime unit that investigates into a series of murders that set the stage for one the most compelling and complex Anime series in recent years.

The anime questions the ethics and effectiveness of looking at one through their genetic predispositions and their unconsciousness instead of their self-awareness and free will. Throughout the show we watch Akane, a new member of the police department, grapple with the moral ambiguities that come with such a system, and what cost would we have to pay for our security. With continuous references to literature and socio-political, and moral philosophy effortlessly woven into the plot, what begins as a well-executed alteration of Orwell and Philips  Dick, soon turns out to be a giant clash of philosophies.Though the show does pick up a little slowly, 

The characters are also very carefully constructed, each character almost representing a different political philosophy. What’s more interesting is to watch all of them navigate the situations they’re in but also navigate each other’s beliefs. Other than it’s plot, the show does a very good job with its graphics and its soundtrack, both doing a very good job at supporting the dark themes the show covers. 

Overall, with a thought-provoking narrative, complex characters and beautiful animation, Psycho-Pass is a thrilling anime from start to finish.