There’s a jarring, hallucinatory effect to the sudden appearance, midway through Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated fantasy, of vivid images of war. Airborne battlecraft fly low over thickly populated villages, trailing streams of bombs behind them as they move deliberately through the air. Fiery red explosions dot the cityscape below. The imagery is fantastic and chilly, evoking simultaneously the firebombing of European cities during World War II and the surreal television footage of bombs exploding over Baghdad captured during the first Gulf War. But the most obvious referent is the current war in Iraq, where ancient cities have been decimated by heavy explosives and civilian casualties are staggering by nearly any count.
In spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.