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 15

Cameras for community conservation? Rita Banerji on Green Hub

A unique fellowship programme where rural youth from eight Indian states of the Northeast have been training in conservation and the visual medium since 2015, comes to Madhya Pradesh’s capital city Bhopal in 2021. Devanshi Daga finds out from award winning wildlife filmmaker and Founder Green Hub, Rita Banerji, how this can kickstart a dialogue in the village communities, the Green Hub fellows and alumni come from.

Part of Issue 15 of Open Axis, which focuses on interviews with path breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

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 9

Under the Precipice Rolls the Sea

A writer tries to write. The wind rages and waves ring out. ‘Under the Precipice Rolls the Sea’ is my first foray into filmmaking, and it was a long winding path that brought me here.

This short was my film school, made with the help of the internet, and a lot of helpful people on the internet— all of whom are really a saving grace when shooting as a two person crew! I had pretty much never touched a camera before, and ended up working with a lot of makeshift equipment I put together at home. Shuttling between work and endless articles, swallowing some Chaucer and Putnam and squeezing in the twentieth video on exposure and lighting: it’s a project during which I’ve learnt a lot about what I can do, and what I can’t (and when it’s okay to ask for help).

At times it can get daunting, especially when you’re walking the tightrope with one too many hats on and everything around seems ready to crumble at the slightest threat of a wind. ‘Under the Precipice’ came about as a project I started fleshing out for an anthology called “Refractions”. It was put together by a couple of us who met on online film communities and decided to create something in the midst of the pandemic when everything was a stagnating mess. In part, a commitment to this was what kept me going through all the little and big problems, not least of which were sudden re-impositions of the lockdown in my city and covid scares which brought production to a halt more times than my sanity could handle.

When you’re working with a zero budget project, you have to rely on a lot of things outside of your control to capture a frame that tells the story you want it to tell, how you want it to. It’s certainly challenging, but rather than being constraints, they draw the line for what options you have at your disposal and narrow down the things you have to focus on. Having a simple plot without dialogue or a moving camera was logistically helpful but it also enabled me to come up with something that was minimal but made narrative sense. The silences and still frames became a means to organically channel the feeling of isolation. It’s a style of working that has suited me well as I’m trying to chart out my future projects taking one strand of a narrative and tracing its meandering ways to weave together something of my own.  

It’s funny because film was, you could say, the last medium of art I got acquainted with. Of course, I grew up watching all the Khans and Kapoors and the 2010 Christopher Nolan film Inception— but I engaged with whatever I consumed merely as a manner of routine, like dropping by the grocery store on the weekend to buy a packet of soup. Going to the theatre mostly meant getting to eat the very best cheap cheese popcorn (in the days when there was no INOX, that is), or celebrating the end of a round of exams. These multitudes of odysseys and dramas were all just there, something dispensable and detachable. The world of films was distant, populated with stars whose names I never could remember, woods with roots reaching out to our towns, shooting up like hot springs in sparse screens. I didn’t feel any significant connection to anything I watched—until my high school years where I encountered new kinds of films which opened up a way of experience I hadn’t quite known before. Thinking through them, talking about them, I have been centered and sent whirling in a hundred different directions, till my head spins with the sights I’ve seen and I regurgitate a ten thousand frames to catch the light.

I have always liked working with my hands, but growing up came at the cost of time and there’s  less space for picking something up and making it your own. The dancing, the singing, the painting, it all stops as math and science tutoring stand sentinel upon the hours of day…and suddenly you’re too old to pick it up again. But I read by night, gorging upon every word till I could wield their power enough to write. And it was writing that ultimately brought me closer to film, bringing it down to the earth so I could move about in these worlds and theorize existence through them, warming up to newer, more expansive forms. As an impressionable teenager, after I watched my first Bergman, I didn’t know how to breathe, wobbly-legged thoughts swum around and collapsed in my head— I now have three pieces on that film.

A still from the film

It was a step closer but there’s more to go. Beyond the glitter of Bollywood and the sterility of Hollywood, the likes of Chantal Akerman and Cecilia Condit opened up for me what a woman could do with a camera, how static frames could twist one’s heart and digital media could morph into something beautiful, something horrifying and something palpable. They grounded filmmaking for me. For the longest time I’d thought that filmmakers could only be those who grow up with a camera, as I did with books, or those who could spare a small fortune to go to film school. The experimental, the avant garde, whatever you call it, laid out a path from fathoming to creating, finding the ability to show another what I see.

The world of big budget productions is alienating, one of constant power tussles and clashing egos. The kindness of others (most of them strangers) helped realize my vision, not the vain chasing down of copyright licenses from companies for whom we fall through the cracks down the bylanes of institutional apathy. In the meantime, while everyone’s busy arguing over whether Marvel is “cinema” and coming up with new ways of gatekeeping accessibility to art, I hope independent creators can find a place to thrive and create expansively.  

When they are not busy crocheting to radio broadcasts from the quaint little town of Night Vale, Tanisha A writes about films and playing the local recluse.

Picture Credits: Poster of the film designed by artist Ameya Menon

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).