Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.
I bring you two films that are opposite ends of the spectrum. All they have in common is that they are both animated and neither features Japanese children fighting demons. Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a 2013 French rock opera (or perhaps I should say a techno-pop opera) being closely based on the album by the French rock band Dionysos, and its accompanying graphic novel Jack et la Mécanique du Cœur (Jack and the Mechanics of the Heart). The book was also written by the band’s lead singer Mathias Malzieu. The music of the film was entirely composed by Dionysos, who also worked closely with the production crew. Although they are French, they often write and perform in English, so we can be confident that the music is faithful to the original concept.
The original graphic novel consciously emulated Tim Burton’s work, particularly The Corpse Bride. The film is brighter, but the influence remains, capturing a sort of fantastical steampunk, simultaneously goofy and charming.
The blend of music and imagery grabs the viewer within the first few frames. We open with a winter scene (Edinburgh, 1874) as the camera scans an urban landscape, rendered pastoral by the weight of snow. All is white, dim, gray. And then, a cardinal sweeps across the screen. The image ought to be familiar. We’ve all seen snowscapes, even snowscapes with cardinals. But no. That cardinal flying across the scene is as heart-stopping as Darth Vader’s warship pursuing Princess Leia’s little shuttle. And while we are still reeling from the shock, the first music track starts, singing, “I was born on the coldest ever day.”
Jack was not just born on that coldest ever day. He died that day, too. His infant heart could not withstand the cold. But the midwife (and his foster mother) would not let him go. She dragged him back into the world of the living, by installing a cuckoo clock where his heart used to be. Then, having brought him back to life, she forbade him to live. There were rules for survival with a clockwork heart, most importantly: never lose your temper and never fall in love. Of course, Jack could not abide by those rules. He fell in love—and nearly died—the first time he left the house, and immediately afterwards was challenged by a sadistic rival. Soon he is off on a series of bizarre adventures, fleeing danger (nobody told him he couldn’t be afraid!) and crossing continents, in pursuit of true love.
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is not a perfect movie. The heroine is such an unreliable air-head that even her adoring Jack tends to describe her in terms of how cute her shoes are. Certain important plot points are rushed over, making the story a little hard to follow, and the ending slides gently off the rails. But these are not such fatal flaws that you won’t enjoy the movie. On the contrary, the accordion train would be, in and of itself, worth the price of admission. Only you don’t have to pay admission. It’s at Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart may not a perfect movie, but The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is. I should probably try to phrase that more impartially, but “my heart bids me speak.” In defense of my position, allow me to point out that, not only did it receive more awards than I can list here, it was rated an unprecedented 100% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It is also an Oscar nominee.
Princess Kaguya is Japanese, but it does NOT look like your traditional anime series. In fact, it does not even look like a traditional Studio Ghibli film, although it is. (2013) Studio Ghibli is (justly) famous for Hiyao Miyazaki’s charming and beautifully drawn children’s movies. Princess Kaguya was directed and co-written by Miyazaki’s lesser known partner, Isao Takahata. (Lesser known, perhaps, but not lesser! He simply creates more adult films, such as the heartbreaking Graveyard of the Fireflies.) In fact, Princess Kaguya does not look like an anime at all. It looks like Japanese watercolors brought mysteriously to life. I’ve seen lesser works in museums.
The story is based on an old fairy-tale. Like so many fairy tales all over the world, it tells of a poor childless couple who find a beautiful, magical infant. Like Tom Thumb, Thumbelina or Peach Boy Momotare, the infant Kaguya was only a few inches long when she turned up, growing inside a bamboo shoot, although she grew rapidly to normal size and astonishing beauty. From her first day among human kind, she had a supernatural affinity for all living things, and desired nothing more than to spend her days exploring the bamboo forest and caring for her dear foster parents.
But whatever powers sent the mysterious child sent also the means to provide for her. Gold and silk literally spill out of the trees. The old couple develop a taste for wealth and busy themselves setting up a rich household in town, where they can provide their ‘Princess’ with the all the luxury and status she deserves, including a strict governess.
Kaguya hates it. She wants to go back to the mountain, and play with bugs and raccoon dogs and run barefoot with her childhood playmates. She dreams of fleeing to her childhood home, but there is no place left to go. Her human friends are all gone. She grows even more unhappy when word of her beauty leaks out, and rich young man from the capital start hanging around in the street, trying to get a peek at her. She refuses to see any of them, or even to set foot in the yard where they might glimpse her, but the crowd only grows thicker, and the suitors wealthier. Soon five of the most important men in the country—princes and Councilors of the Imperial Court—are lined up asking her father for her hand.
Her father is not going to force a child sent by heaven. But he doesn’t understand. He wants her to marry, like a normal girl, and to marry well, since she can. So she sends her suitors out on quests, to prove their love. As in every fairy tale, the quests are patently impossible.
I will not tell you anymore. I’ve probably ventured too close to spoiler territory as it is. Suffice it to say, the ending is very Buddhist. Perhaps that is why this movie did so poorly in American theaters. But trust me. It is a masterpiece