This is the third animated project I've encountered that treats the work of poet and polymath Kenji Miyazawa. The first two, both directed by Gisaburo Sugii, adapted Night On The Galactic Railroad and The Life of Budori Gusuko, works of quasi-fantasy that have the same flavor and universal appeal as, say, The Little Prince. Spring And Chaos, directed by Shoji Kawamori (of Macross and Escaflowne), adapts not a work of Miyazawa's per se, but rather Miyazawa's own story — a fantasia about the too-short existence of a Walt Whitman / Henry Thoreau-esque figure. It is only minimally interested in the absolute facts of Miyazawa's life; for that, we have any amount of biography in English or Japanese. Rather, it's more interested in the flavor of his life, the way his spiritual aspirations and eye for beauty were caged in by his failing health and the circumstances of his moment in time. And it's been staged with visuals that are as dazzling and inventive as any ever rendered.
Miyazawa, the dreamer
When Sugii adapted Railroad in 1985, he chose to render the characters as anthropomorphized cats — a way to make the story all the friendlier to young audiences, and to render it all the more timeless and universal. Kawamori chose to do the same thing with Spring And Chaos, created a decade later to commemorate the centennial of Miyazawa's birth. Even though the story told in Chaos is mainly about Miyazawa's realities rather than a staging of his fantasies, the design choice has the same effect. At first it's cutesy, but over time it accrues an unexpected power. We're invited to engage with the story by way of our imaginations and not just our intellect, to accept it with more than a flat documentary reading of the material would provide.
Chaos opens with Miyazawa as a young adult, teaching classes in agricultural science at a high school in his hometown of Hanamaki, at the northern end of Japan's main isle. A day in class with him is often likely to consist of following him out to the riverbanks to examine the different rocks there (Miyazawa's professional expertise was in geology), or to be invited to close their eyes and imagine the incomprehensible scale of the atoms that make up everything, living and otherwise. He's dreamy and eccentric, but also compassionate, and it rubs off. The students may complain about what a weirdo he is, but they clamber out of the windows to keep him from leaving when he considers another job.
Few other people take his side. His sickly sister Toshi is one of the only other people he can share his cosmic-eye worldview with, and it's plain she doesn't have long to live. His father, a pawnbroker, sees Miyazawa as hopeless case, too sentimental for his own good. His close friend from childhood, Hosaka, has entered the army; he can no longer share Miyazawa's idealism for a better world — although it's left open to interpretation if that's just because continuing to be close to Miyazawa would just remind Hosaka of all the good things he left behind.
To stay strong in the rain
We see, in fits and starts, how Miyazawa's idealism buts up against reality. He leaves Hanamaki for Tokyo, where he ekes out a living working for a tiny publishing company. He writes voluminously, but is not read, not even by his own students. Works published with his own money gather dust in the warehouse. He returns home to find his sister near death, and while he can do nothing for her illness, his imagination and adoration of the natural world fills her last days.
It's not enough for Miyazawa, though, to just write poetry. On returning to his hometown, he sees the farmers struggling to squeeze their subsistence from the soil, and devotes himself to making their lives better: offering free seminars on soil maintenance and fertilizer, offering lectures on Western art and music, even preaching the Nichiren strain of Buddhism he had converted to as a boy.
And again, Miyazawa's idealism is ground between the rocks of reality. When the crops fail, the farmers sneer at the "son of the rich boy" who thought he could help them. This isn't lost on Miyazawa; at bottom he doubts himself and his ability to bring positive changes into the world. His own health weakens, and the final stretch of the film is a hallucinatory plunge into the underworld of his regrets and fears. But he emerges from it to continue as long as he is able to, despite whatever comes his way — "strong in the rain," as one of Miyazawa's own poems put it.
I think the first key to the movie's success is that it does not ask us to pity Miyazawa. Rather, it wants us to celebrate what he celebrated, to not let the fact that his ambitions were constrained or cut short make them any less moving and stirring. As marginal as his life was, he saw it through the widest possible eyes, and we are invited to see as he saw, both now and always.
Out of print, but not out of mind
The other reason the movie works is because of the imagery itself. Miyazawa's works are loaded with the kind of visions that cried out to be illustrated at the very least. Spring And Chaos begins with its visualization of his life more or less where Sugii left off in Railroad — the anthropomorphized characters, for instance. But it leaps into new territory, too. Despite Chaos running only fifty minutes, it features many sequences of striking visual invention and animation artistry. The best of these is a segment in the middle of the film where the joy Miyazawa experiences creating his works is brought to life by way of a whole flood of different animation styles, each one dedicated to a different story of his.
I wanted to illustrate this part of the film here, but I found screenshots cannot do it justice. It's all in the motion and the juxtaposition of elements, as when a record of the classical music Miyazawa loved (by way of, e.g., a stylized microscopic close-up of the needle vibrating in its groove) is intercut with Osamu Dezaki-like pencil-drawn imagery and surreal computer-generated vistas. And then there are the simple moments of great tenderness and joy also brought to life, as when Miyazawa kneels next to his sister and reads to her, or when he leads his students to a tree and is inspired to write poetry based on the visions that flood into him from it.
Kawamori is best known for his design work on various mecha-themed anime franchises, but has also been responsible for the conceptual work on a number of shows with both big hardware and spiritual overtones: the Macross universe, Escaflowne, Arjuna, Aquarion, and so on. In that light it's a little easier to see how his work on Spring & Chaos connects back to the rest of his career — it's not just a case of someone with a good eye for the spectacular, but someone who had a degree of empathy for the material, and who made the dazzle in the finished product a reflection of that. (I also noticed that the actor voicing Miyazawa is none other than veteran Japanese actor Shiro Sano; readers here might remember him as the long-suffering supervisor of Takeshi Kitano's titular character in Violent Cop.)
The only legitimate way English-speaking audiences can see Spring And Chaos is by way of the now out-of-print DVD edition produced for it in 2001 or so by Tokyopop. That now-infamous publisher had a short-lived foray into video distribution as well, and in fact managed to land a few genuinely good titles as part of the catalog. (One other, which I enjoyed a great deal at the time, was the TV series adaptation of Vampire Princess Miyu.) Their edition of Spring & Chaos is watchable, but only just: it was sourced from an interlaced telecine master that at times looks like a VHS copy. It is also saddled with an appalling English dub; fortunately, Japanese audio and English subtitles are also included. It's a strong candidate for the kinds of rescue reissues that Discotek Media or AnimEigo have made their forte. If Railroad deserved to be restored to a new audience, so does this.