Nebulous Achievements

It’s sweet of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to award a Best Script Nebula to Howl’s Moving Castle, but hopefully the anime community will take it for what it is – a very belated recognition of a supreme talent. In my opinion, Howl is nowhere near Miyazaki at his best; it often plays like a committee’s attempt to reverse-engineer his greatest achievements. It’s more likely that Howl gets its award for being cosily familiar to the voters – one of those weird Japanese cartoons, but based on a book by an English-speaking author, and directed by that nice old man who made all those great movies in the 1990s that the voters mainly ignored. It is notable that the only anime to previously get a nomination from the SFWA were Princess Mononoke, which had Neil Gaiman credited for the script adaptation, and the subsequent Spirited Away, whose Oscar victory was inescapable. It is also notable that a large number of the SFWA voters are in Japan this month at the Yokohama Worldcon – perhaps they were booking their flights at the same time as they filled their ballots, and figured it couldn’t hurt.

But nor should the award be taken lightly. Forgetting Miyazaki for a moment, it also recognises the achievement of Cindy and Donald Hewitt, who have been responsible for most of the English scripts from Studio Ghibli, except the aforementioned Gaiman award-bait script. Perhaps it’s best compared to the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement – something that’s handed out for stuff that really ought to have been praised when it first appeared.

The Best Script Nebula has been a controversial subject for the last generation – SFWA only started awarding them again in 1999, after a 22-year hiatus. This, at least, gets the SFWA off the hook for the 1990s, whereas the Hugo award voters merrily doled out silver rockets to Star Trek, The Princess Bride and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in years when Akira, My Neighbour Totoro and Ghost in the Shell should have been deemed deserving of at least a nomination.

But most awards are inherently conservative, particularly when they are decided by a popular vote and not a learned committee. They recognise blue-chip quality – they follow in achievement’s wake. A winning ballot requires popular support, and that takes time to build for a foreign film-maker. People had to hear of him first. On those occasions when awards recognise a blazing new talent that has yet to truly prove itself, they have often been forced to eat their words.

Nebulas are awarded for works released in America – anime needed a generation of fandom and translation before it stood a chance. Not just to establish that there was such a thing as Japanese science fiction worth viewing (the 1986 English-language history Trillion Year Spree claimed that there wasn’t!), but because decisions are made by those who show up. Anime and manga fandom now forms a powerful sector within the science fiction community, liable to grow in influence still further in the next couple of years. There will be more anime and manga eligible for nomination in future. But competition also requires competence. The Hugos and the Nebulas are a level playing field. Miyazaki may be world class, but now his fellow Japanese creators will need to match him, or at least aspire to his heights.

(This article originally appeared in Newtype USA, August 2007)

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4 thoughts on “Nebulous Achievements

  1. Miyazaki’s scenario reminds me very much of Scorsese, all those years in the film industry churning out decent movies, always getting overlooked, then he’s awarded the Oscar for The Departed, a remake of Infernal affairs.

    I hope Hayao’s belated recognition paves the way for more widely accepted cinema from the east, from old and new directors alike.

  2. A pessimist might think that the Spirited Away Oscar was just a pacifier for the whining anime fans, like saying “here have an Oscar, now go away and be quiet.” I, of course, know Miyazaki earned every bit of it. Also just for the record, the author of Howl is Welsh, not that the yanks would know the difference, or care.

  3. Is it just me, or was the dub version revised from the initial release? I watched it on TV a little while back and for some reason the thing I complained about when I reviewed it seems to have gone-

    “So, is this the best Ghibli yet? No: It is visually striking, with quality animation throughout and the trademark landscape scenes generated in all their flawless beauty, it just didn’t touch me emotionally as other Ghibli movies have in the past. I think what didn’t ring true was that no character was still a baddie by the end of the anime, and all was forgiven. You can’t explore the horrors of war and then just laugh it off (as Suliman does) at the end….. maybe I’m just too cynical?”.

    The version I saw seem to have lost this flippant ending, which now forces me to re-appraise it. Or maybe I’m just getting old and soft?

    Did the nice Welsh lady like the Ghibli version? I think not.

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