I don’t like heights. Airplanes make me queasy. So do skyscrapers, and the way they sway back and forth. I’m not sure I’d ever get in a helicopter. Or, god forbid, skydive.
But flying scenes are still my favorite moments in fiction.
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Filmmaker and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata died last week. He was 82. His best-known movie is Grave of the Fireflies, about two siblings struggling to survive at the end of World War II. I watched it with my family when I was thirteen, was not emotionally prepared for it, and as a result spent my teenage years drifting toward the less harrowing side of Ghibli in Hayao Miyazaki.
So I’m not as familiar with Takahata’s work as I could be. But his final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, features one of my all time favorite scenes.
In it, Princess Kaguya, after spending years in the city living under the weight of the rules and expectations nobility has placed on her, returns to her childhood home in the bamboo forest and encounters an old friend, Sutemaru. They wistfully admit that they would have been happiest in life if they could have been together, and soon afterward—apropos of nothing—take to the skies, swooping over fields, rivers, and trees as they shed their worldly restraints and revel in the erasure of the wrong turns their lives took and the fantasy of a peaceful life.
The sequence is beautiful, a dreamlike moment that ends as quickly as it begins. Kaguya and Sutemaru part ways and never see each other again.
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A well-done flying scene always hits me hard. Especially when it breaks the rules that governed the story so far, presenting flight as exactly what it is: a shedding of physical law, of the form and structure that are necessary to keep things grounded, but okay to dispense with for a moment of freedom. A moment, and no longer, when we’re allowed to revel in the dream of a different sort of world.
It is everything that fantasy does best: take a character’s inner life and represent it externally. Flight as freedom in Kaguya. Flight as love in La La Land. Flight as healing in Gravity. Flying scenes are a tool put to use for the same reason as music: because talking is not enough. The emotion overwhelms, and the characters transcend their narrative structure.
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There’s a point in the Princess Kaguya scene when Kaguya and Sutemaru begin to fall. The music pauses as they plummet, seemingly unconscious, holding onto each other. Inches before hitting the ground, the pair reorient themselves and shoot off over the grass. It’s a startling moment that seems to suggest there is safety in falling, especially if you have someone to hang onto.
My dread of heights stems more from a sense of claustrophobia than verticality. If I fall, there’s no way out. I’m going to hit the ground. Dreams of flying, though, override the fear of falling. They allow space to imagine that the ground isn’t as frightening as it looks. That there are people hanging onto you.
That the view, in fact, is quite lovely from up here.
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Okay! Some recommendations:
- First, of course, I recommend watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya. If you just want to see the flying scene, though, this is the best version of it I was able to find online, though it’s in Japanese with Spanish subtitles. It starts at about the four-minute mark.
- Also, read All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. It’s a novella about an endearing, introverted security android whose job is to protect humans but really just hates being around them. It is not a comedy by any stretch, but there’s a line early on that is so wonderful I literally fell out of my chair laughing and rolled around on the ground for three solid minutes. Which I don’t think has ever happened before.
- Finally, I recommend always checking that the doorknob is not locked before leaving the house. You might remember that last week I got locked out and wrote The Quiet Post sitting inside a rental car. Two days later, on Wednesday, I accidentally locked myself out again, for three hours. With no shoes, no coat, and no phone. And it had snowed six inches the night before. This turns out to be an excellent way to meet your neighbors.
Have a good week.