Heart of the Nation: celebrating anime and Japan in Washington DC

This was a good weekend in so many ways. The weather was a sizzling preview of high summer in late spring. The company was excellent. The events on offer were too many and wonderful for one person to take in in 48 hours. And the movies I was invited to introduce – ah, the movies were all seen as movies should be: on a big screen in a darkened auditorium, sharing the excitement and emotion with others.

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The AFI Silver Theatre is one of several gorgeous 1930s survivors in Silver Spring. The Art Deco magnificence of the foyer and spacious main auditorium harks back to the days when movies were really something – a treat, a special occasion to be looked forward to and shared. The Ghibli season is packed with wonderful films, and I was asked to introduce two of them. One was my favourite movie of all time, My Neighbour Totoro. The other,  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is, for me, the movie where Miyazaki sets out on his long quest to make the perfect hero.

Nest day, in the Meyer Auditorium of the Smothsonian Institution’s Freer & Sackler Galleries, I introduced the film where that epic journey ends – Princess Mononoke. The event was the 10th annual Anime Marathon, sponsored by Otakorp, Inc., as part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This was a Miyazaki marathon, with four of his films including Ponyo and Porco Rosso. Many of the audience stayed the full distance, ending with the movie that marks a new cycle in Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s work: his American breakthrough movie, Spirited Away.

The Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates 100 years of the friendship between the United States and Japan. This year, the warm wet spring brought the blossom in early, and it peaked a couple of weeks before the Festival opened. But the beauty of cherry trees isn’t tied to abundance or perfection of blossom; they are beautiful in every season, appropriate symbols for a relationship between nations which has had to weather mighty storms and seemingly insoluble conflicts.

In this, the Festival’s 100th anniversary year, the Sakura Matsuri street festival demonstrated how Japan’s popular culture  has colonised America’s youth. Like a genial giant monster eating downtown DC, the festival’s tentacles stretched in every direction. The streets were packed with vendor booths and food stalls, street performers and cosplayers, haikuists and bonsai cultivators, sake connoisseurs and a Shinto shrine, the ninja of Mie and the railway modellers of Washington. Judging from the happy chaos that filled the capital’s sunlit spaces, a good time was had by all.

On the flight back I saw Martin Scorsese’s much-lauded Hugo. Scorsese is one of those directors I’ve always admired and respected, acknowledging his superb technical mastery and his dedication to his craft, without ever warming to his movies. Hugo was different – so much so that a stewardess quietly passed me a handful of paper hankies about halfway through. No spoilers, just in case you haven’t seen it, but in a beautiful scene one of the characters invites a cinema audience to “come and dream with me”.

That’s what we did in Washington this weekend. Under cherry blossoms that were maybe past their peak but never past their best, in streets awash with sunlight and birdsong and the rumble of the crowds, in a beautiful old cinema and a British American museum where ancient gods and monsters stood guard over the flickering ghosts of Asia’s past and its present, we dreamed together. It was a good dream, one that I hope we can share again.

2 thoughts on “Heart of the Nation: celebrating anime and Japan in Washington DC

  1. Pingback: Bonsai Cursus » Blog Archive » Heart of the Nation: celebrating anime and Japan in Washington DC

  2. Thank you so much for delivering your introductions! I saw Totoro and Nausicaa in Silver Spring, then took in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away the next day in DC. I really enjoyed hearing your discussions of Miyazaki’s work and, though I’m familiar with most of them due to being a long-time Ghibli fan, you really drove home some great points. Thanks again, and also for signing my 500 anime you must own book I picked up at the Freer🙂 I was sad that I missed Only Yesterday at AFI this past weekend, as I didn’t know it was going to be shown (and who knows when I’ll get another chance since it hasn’t had an American release), but I was able to catch Arrietty, which I enjoyed even without the typical Miyazaki magic.

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