Jonah looms large

Jonah Lomu Global Sports Forum Barcelona

Jonah Lomu at the Global Sports Forum in Barcelona, 2011. Photo by Global Sports Forum (Flickr)

I don’t much care for TV news now. But when I was a kid, I would be in front of the TV every night at 6:40pm without fail. That was when the sports news was read by Clint Brown, or Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, or Peter Williams, or whoever was in the chair that day.

Sometime in 1993, at the back end of the sports bulletin, there was a brief item about a loose forward from Wesley College named Jonah Lomu. Low-angle footage showed him rampaging to the try line from about half way, first bulldozing his opponents out of his path, then skinning them with speed incongruous with the number 8 on his back. I was eight years old and thought to myself, “Bloody hell.”

A couple of months later, again at the end of the sports news, he appeared once more. “Jonah Lomu from Wesley College continues to make waves in the Auckland first XV competition.” Or something like that. It was like an action replay of the earlier item: Lomu gets the ball around half way, Lomu charges through his hapless markers, Lomu sidesteps the fullback, Lomu outruns the covering defenders. Lomu scores.

A year or so later, after a barnstorming performance at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994, Jonah Lomu was in the All Blacks. A year after that, following his famed exploits at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he was the biggest star in the history of rugby union. Of course I watched all that in rapture, even if that 1995 final didn’t work out the way I (or Lomu) would have hoped.

The next time I really paid close attention to Jonah Lomu was during the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens tournament. This was long before the days of managed workloads and sabbaticals for All Blacks, even for critical first-team players like Lomu. He showed up for the tournament with his normally sleek black hair dyed brown and braided (at least, that’s what my memory of the live telecasts tells me). The new hairstyle made him look older and rougher, more a tank than the speeding bullet of old.

Lomu’s role in the team was no longer that of ‘superstar’. The NZ sevens hero of ’96 — the guy I would run outside to imitate in the back yard — was 20-year-old Christian Cullen, and Lomu worked more to set up tries for his younger teammate than to score them himself. In one match, against an opposition so helpless they might as well not have turned up, Lomu threw an American football-style pass from the left touchline to the right-hand side of the field, where Cullen cantered in for another five points. I sat there, mouth agape, as replays confirmed Lomu’s feat. How could he do that in a rugby match? Surely there’s some sort of law against it?

Before the tightly contested final against Fiji, the broadcasters showed a package of Lomu sevens highlights from the previous year, when he had that familiar jet black crop of hair. They then cut to Lomu live, braids returned to that classic Lomu hairstyle, playfully sidestepping a Hong Kong Sevens mascot with a huge smile on his face. With his hair so short and his grin so wide, he looked like a schoolboy. New Zealand won the match and the tournament, almost single-handedly because of Cullen, but Lomu lingered in my mind: the cool guy who would chuck the rugby ball from one side of the field to the other, and who would muck around with the mascot before a huge final. Everything in his stride. (You can see snippets of the American football-style pass and the pre-final cavorting in this highlights package.)

One more memory. In 1997, my mother, who was almost entirely indifferent to rugby, somehow secured us tickets to a highly anticipated Blues vs Hurricanes Super 12 match at Eden Park. These were the days of the great Blues: Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Olo Brown, Robin Brooke, Carlos Spencer, Joeli Vidiri, Lee Stensness, Brian Lima, Adrian Cashmore, and Jonah Lomu. But the Hurricanes had Christian Cullen and a talented young winger named Tana Umaga. The match was one of the great Super Rugby games, ending 45-42 to the Blues. I think even my mother got a bit caught up in the spectacle.

That — 1997 — was the year after Lomu was diagnosed with the kidney disorder that would dictate much of the rest of his life. He spent most of the Super 12 season off the field, and he failed to score a single try. But he was in the team for that Hurricanes match. The media was full of doubts over whether he would ever be the same Lomu again, both speeding bullet and tank. There was plenty of speculation among the public, too, about whether we’d seen the best of this great All Black. So whenever he received the ball, there was a hush of attention around the stadium. But he didn’t do a lot with it. Normally, he’d just take the tackle and secure the ball for the next phase, rather than trying anything Lomu-esque.

Then, at one point in the second half, the ball was thrown wide to him, deep in the Blues’ territory. With a slim chance to beat his marker — Umaga — on the outside, he suddenly blew past him and sprinted forty metres upfield. It seemed to happen in an instant: one moment he was sizing up his marker, the next he was being tackled in the opposition half. What had we been thinking? Of course he still had it. He might not be quite so damaging any more, but he was still Jonah Lomu.


We all knew he didn’t have long. But dead at 40? So soon after yet another busy slate of promotional work at the 2015 Rugby World Cup? I guess he wasn’t the type to give much warning.

The truth is that Jonah Lomu has only intermittently been a part of our lives for over a decade now. His status as rugby-s first global superstar ensured media and promotional work around World Cup time, but for every four years in-between, there might only be the occasional news item about his private life or his treatment; the kind of news item that appears well before 6:40pm in the nightly bulletin. Now that he’s gone, he will be the first item, and the second, and the third.

Almost every New Zealander knows one Jonah Lomu moment, which involves Mike Catt. Others, especially those of us in our early-to-mid thirties, might remember quite a lot more. Lomu was our hero, in the sense that Achilles was the hero of Greece: he did things that none of us would ever be able to. I find it hard to believe that someone who loomed so large during my childhood is dead. Bloody hell. At least we have our memories, and we’re charging through them now, crashing into them, sidestepping them, sprinting past them, as we try to keep the legend alive.

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Selling the Infinite

CONTACT (1997)
directed by Robert Zemeckis

directed by Christopher Nolan

I have some admiration for films that push beyond the limits of human inquiry and try to depict what we cannot possibly know. The obvious yardstick is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its JUPITER AND BEYOND THE INFINITE sequence, which demonstrates that in the hands of a skilled auteur, the foundations of science can be used as a jumping-off point for a totally captivating flight of imagination.

Interstellar movie singularity black hole event horizon

Interstellar is the latest big-budget film to step outside the scientific canvas and into the realms of theory. The much-maligned ‘book thing in space’, as one friend called it, may be overly emotionally wrought but it is impressive for its commitment to its central ideas:

  1. The event horizon of a singularity may conceal a five-dimensional tesseract in which the usual laws of the universe (as we understand them) do not apply.
  2. Gravity can be harnessed as an instantaneous fifth-dimensional communication tool.

Because Nolan’s vision is founded on deeply researched scientific principles, rather than on a screenwriter’s rabbit from a hat, it is compelling enough to feel as though it might be true. It also needs strong visuals to bring it to life, which it has in spades given the budget — although the shots of the singularity before Cooper crosses it are considerably more impressive and kind of a shame to leave behind.

The other key ingredient is a lead actor who can sell something so fanciful. Fortunately, Nolan has Matthew McConaughey, one of the better A-list actors of our time (now that people are taking him seriously again). McConaughey — and the script — lay the ground work throughout the film for the broad emotional payoff in the tesseract as Cooper finally reconnects with his estranged daughter Murph in an entirely new medium. We have seen Cooper and Murph’s previously tight bond unravel in clearly defined stages over the course of Interstellar; after all that, you can feel Cooper’s desperation, and the tears streaming down McConaughey’s face feel wrought from deep psychological pain.

Contact 1997 wormhole black hole event horizon

McConaughey has been there before, of course — well, he’s nearly been there. He played Palmer Joss, the love interest and theologian rival to Jodie Foster’s scientist lead Ellie Arroway, in the superior Contact. Zemeckis’ film is heavier on philosophical debate than Nolan’s more family-focused opus, though it is no less earnest. And when it finally takes a trip down the wormhole, it follows the same tack as Interstellar in using it to address the protagonist’s deepest psychological trauma — in Arroway’s case, the death of her father when she was a child.

The science behind the wormholes in Contact is mostly unexplained and far more speculative than that in Interstellar, and therefore less sound. The script, adapted from a Carl Sagan novel, seems content to leave Arroway — and the human race — as the unknowing beneficiary of alien intelligence. In some ways, this is better; rather than muddying our view with intangible theories and concepts, Zemeckis just presents the wormhole experience and lets it wash over you. However, it leaves you with less to mull over afterwards. (And fewer clickbait thinkpieces that attempt to explain what really happened.)

Where Contact‘s journey beyond the infinite surpasses Interstellar‘s is in its visuals, which are more striking and head-trippy even though they were completed nearly twenty years before, and in its lead actor. McConaughey portrays Cooper’s emotional crescendo just fine, but Foster throws herself into the green screen with all of her considerable acting might. The climax follows nearly two hours of build-up, during which we are invited to question whether we have more in common with Arroway’s dedication to empirical evidence or Joss’ religious conviction, and indeed, whether the difference between their respective faiths is so great. And when Arroway disappears beyond the void, she is frantic, sceptical, lost for words, and in rapture. She is caught between her relief of grasping what she had long yearned for and her desire for the experience not to end. She makes the unfathomable bright lights real.

The effects are wonderful, but it’s Foster that sells it — every moment of it. Later, she delivers a stunning monologue when trying to explain her experience to a Senate inquiry, holding the crowd (and viewer) spellbound regardless of whether or not they believe her. It goes to show that with good dialogue and a great actor, you can make almost anything seem possible.

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John Key, the waitress, and ownership

John Key not sorry for being a man t-shirtIn case you’re not already aware, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged apologising to an Auckland waitress for repeatedly pulling her hair on several visits to a local cafe, describing the incidents as “in the context of a bit of banter that was going on”. It is also however in the context of Key previously pulling this girl’s hair and this girl’s hair, and in the context of Key wearing the above t-shirt during the 2014 NZ election campaign — which was when the cafe hair-pulling incidents took place.

When you pay your $4.50 in a cafe, that gets you ownership of a frothy drink to consume, and temporary use of the vessel it’s served in. It doesn’t entitle you to any kind of hall pass to treat the cafe staff as you please. You don’t temporarily own them, or any part of their body.

When you’re elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, that gets you stewardship of the nation’s legislative system and representation of the nation’s people and interests on the global stage. It doesn’t entitle you to ownership of the nation, or any of its people. You cannot go about the place doing as you please just because you’re Prime Minister. You are a servant of the people, rather than having them in your power.

If you’re a man, you are the beneficiary of centuries of patriarchal dominance in society — especially if you’re a white man. Your experience of the world is different from that of women, who have been oppressed for centuries and continue to be oppressed in obvious and subtle ways. (Take a look outside the gender binary and the oppression gets even worse, as it also does for those who are not light-skinned.) A penis doesn’t allow you to treat women in a way you would not treat men, or to exert ownership over them in any way.

There’s a different kind of ownership. It entails owning up to your mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. It entails respect for yourself and for those you meet. It entails owning your masculinity consciously, even though centuries of patriarchal dominance mean you’re rarely reminded of it — certainly not in the way women are reminded of their oppression on a daily basis. It entails a responsible approach to one’s place in society, especially if you’re at the very top of the pyramid. And it entails taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

In New Zealand, John Key is now a central part of the narrative of ownership and entitlement by the rich, by the powerful, by white people, and by men. That narrative needs to change. I might once have said it needs to change from the ground up, that the culture of male entitlement and abuse of power is best addressed at home, at work, and — yes — in the local coffee shop. But perhaps a top-down approach is better, especially while the topic is hot. Some ownership of the issue by NZ’s most powerful man, and one of the most cultishly supported figures in NZ’s political history, would be welcome.

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Things of 2014

Front Page

As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.

But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.

Sports & Leisure

Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.

Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.

When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.

It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.

On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.

There was also the Football World Cup, which is always a joy. This was my favourite ‘fuck yeah’ moment.


My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.

Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.

I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.

In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.


We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.

My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.

As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.


The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.

My favourite film of the year is tricky. There are quite a few contenders: BOYHOOD, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, VOICES FROM THE LAND, and UNDER THE SKIN. The latter was particularly memorable, one of those rare films that’s so unsettling I couldn’t shake its sounds and visions for weeks. I also really liked NOAHTHE LUNCHBOX, THE DARK HORSE, and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.

And then there were the losses, particularly Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose greatness is now a void in cinema. Neither of them will make any more films, and both cases but especially Hoffman’s, that is a great loss to the medium.


I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.


Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.


For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.

Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.


As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.

More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.

I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.

Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.

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On The Right Track

Abhay and I fell in love at the cinema: a relationship studded with sprocket holes. First date was Herzog, first kiss Godard; our first ‘I love you’ followed a screening of Cocteau’s timeless Beauty and the Beast. Our romance burned like an old projector lamp: fiercely, and for a short time. We lasted six months.

But Thomas – now, Thomas is different. His mixtape won me over: Shaa’ir and Func, Sulk Station. Cool, but not self-consciously so. We unspool slowly, comfortably, easily into each other. I think I’m on the right track with this one.


This story was written for Bench Media’s One Frame Stories, which calls for stories of under 99 words based on an image prompt. My submission to Frame Two got lost in the system somewhere, so I’m publishing it here.

You can submit to the latest OFS round here. Only 99 words! It doesn’t take long.

(Photo by Jan Photography)

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directed by Gerard Smyth
Interview on Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon, 23 July 2014

The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.

I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid,  self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.

Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.

In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.

Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.

Learn more about Karunai Illam — and, if you like, donate to the organisation — here.

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Kaguya-hime to sakura

(c) Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
directed by Isao Takahata
Review: The Japan Times

A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.

Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)

She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”



It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.

The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.

You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.

This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.

I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.

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