Spring and Chaos

How do you animate somebody's life? Spring and Chaos is a unique attempt to visually portray the eccentric, magical world of Kenji Miyazawa, one of Japan's best-loved poets and author of Night on the Galactic Railroad (which spawned the animated feature of the same name). Just like the poet himself, Spring and Chaos is touching, moving, and not just a little bizarre on occasion. Although the piece worked in Japan, I'm certain, there are certain barriers that will likely make this a difficult film for most Westerners. Nevertheless, it is visually stunning at times and certainly a worthy entry as one of the most unique anime made within the last ten years. Whether it will appeal to the average anime viewer, though, is up for grabs.

Kenji Miyazawa was many things--geologist, teacher, scientist, farmer--but his legacy to the world was within his stories and poetry. Born into a wealthy family, Kenji did not have to work in order to survive, but he felt a great compassion towards the many who suffered in poverty; consequently, he often fought with his father over their prosperity. Kenji's father disapproved of his writing, which was rarely appreciated during his own lifetime, and Kenji entered the teaching profession to show he could do something with his life. What he shared with his students, however, went far beyond regular lessons--he would share with them his fantastical creations and whimsical understanding of nature. Although his students often labeled him an oddball, those same odd quirks endeared Kenji to them. Eventually, Kenji left teaching to become a farmer in an attempt to understand and nurture the earth--an unsurprising step considering his lifelong ambition to comprehend the mysterious universe around him and to make his peace with God or whatever spirit binds humankind together. Due to his nature, Kenji was a man with only a couple of close friends who truly understood him. Sadly, he lived to see both fail him--one out of choice due to a growing cynicism about the world around him, and another involuntarily due to ailing health beyond her control. Though unsuccessful in most of his personal endeavors and destined to live only 37 years, he wrote throughout his short lifetime, and these writings (most released after his death) created a legacy that is still celebrated throughout Japan.

Spring and Chaos attempts to present the world of Kenji Miyazawa in such a way that we have some understanding of how he saw the universe--as interconnected, beautiful yet strange, mysteriously foreign and yet all too familiar. In many ways, it succeeds, but primarily for those who already know something about Kenji Miyazawa. For Western audiences, it is almost imperative to see Night on the Galactic Railroad in order to understand many of the references here. First, all of the characters are portrayed as animals, but mostly as cats. This convention was first seen in the anime version of Railroad, though it didn't exist in Miyazawa's original work, because it helps make the story more accessible in animated form. Second, there are many references throughout Spring and Chaos to the events of Railroad, which is essentially a mystical journey through the heart of the universe that eventually routes through and beyond the afterlife. Without these references, much of the symbolism within Spring and Chaos is lost. Finally, SPRING helps make a bit more sense out of Railroad's confusing nature by explaining a bit more about its author and his own views. If anything, Spring and Chaos is almost the perfect companion piece to the other.

I am afraid to say it, but most western viewers will find themselves bored quickly with Spring and Chaos, namely because it is an art film. There are none of the typical anime conventions whatsoever, and thus the fanboy segment will likely pan this without so much as a backward glance. Add to this that the film caters to a Japanese audience as familiar with Miyazawa as Americans would be to, say, Robert Frost or J.D. Salinger, and you can create some real confusion. However, to the serious film student or artist, to the lit major or budding philosopher, this film has incredible merit.

For one, it is beautifully and brilliantly animated, using everything from computer animation to line drawings and watercolor to create Miyazawa's world. In some ways, I even enjoyed it more than Night on the Galactic Railroad because the production value didn't hamper the enjoyment of the work. Meanwhile, the DVD looks brilliant--at least the replacement disc sent out after problems with the first printing does--and it has plenty of short segments with the film's creator, Shoji Kawamori (a fan favorite who directed, most notably, Macross.) For those who want to know more, there are short commentaries with the director and producer explaining why they made the project and how they tried to bring Miyazawa's spirit to the proceedings.

But what it comes down to is this: does it actually work? Yes. The story itself unfolds in an unusual and unconventional manner, but it befits the work of the poet himself; it's hard to say there is a plot, per se, but does life really have one? It is a bold, challenging work that will take time to fully digest. Is it completely understandable? No, and it's clear from reading more about Miyazawa on the Web that he was a mysterious enigma of a man, which the film clearly depicts. Does this make it less of a film? No, though I doubt it will find a large audience, simply because it is too much of an experience rather than a story with beginning, middle, and end.

Ultimately, it is the reviewer's job to help determine whether or not a viewer will like a film. On this one, it's a toss-up. Personally, I really enjoyed it, and I was intrigued enough to find more about the strange, surreal world of Kenji Miyazawa. However, without being willing to at least become aware of the poet's legacy and place in Japanese culture, it could be an unsatisfying journey. For my part, let me just give you gentle encouragement--this is a film worth seeing. Just don't let the mecha heads know.

Spring and Chaos -- mildly scary bits for children, otherwise nothing objectionable -- A-