The phrase “Wagga Wagga” is the Japanese equivalent of a “Ka-Pow” or a “Ka-Spla-a-t”. It’s an onomatopoeia, often reserved for giant robots or a Dragon Ball fight scene.
I am not Japanese, nor do I live in Japan. For me, Wagga Wagga is the name of a small rural city. In Australia, in the Wiradjuri Aboriginal language, it means the “the place of many crows”. I did not see many crows growing up in Wagga Wagga. I mean, I saw some, and they’re somewhere, but for me Wagga Wagga also means “home.”
It means cows.
It means yellow fields, a rubbish mall, and eighteen years of drought.
It means watching anime in a basement in minus-zero degree temperatures.
It means FLCL.
It means Pom Poko.
It means swing-sets and sparkler bombs, skating, and other bullshit.
It means a lot of things, some of them I’m still trying to untangle. Maybe it’s best if I start at the beginning. Maybe it’s best I see things as I once saw things: with anime as the lens, and robots as metaphors.
Part One: The ‘Pom-Poko’ Era
I am hungry and do not understand why we’re just standing in the international movie section. My Dad picks up a DVD. It says Laputa. He heard that this, I don’t know: “Studio Ghibli” (?) makes good kids’ movies? They won an Oscar a while back, and they have a new one coming out called Howl’s Moving Castle. He wonders if it’ll be good. He also wonders if we’ll all enjoy the film.
Most defining childhood experiences can be likened to pouring Pop Rocks over your cerebral cortex. Birthday cakes, roller coasters, Spongebob… putting Laputa into our DVD player was nothing like these experiences. Laputa is a thoughtful film. It’s gently paced, intimate, and can be a quiet movie at the best of times. That said, Laptua is also not the Studio Ghibli work that really stayed with me. Nor was it Porco Rosso, nor The Cat Returns. The movie that changed everything was one we rented around a month later.
It was a picture called Pom Poko.
© 1994 Studio Ghibli – NN
(The next section contains SPOILERS for Pom Poko. Please disconnect from your internet and go watch it.)
From the first frame of Pom Poko, I was hooked. I remember watching each minute of it, laughing at its jokes and gaping at its story all the while. I remember it attaching itself to my brain for reasons deeper than that, though. I saw myself in those Japanese racoon dogs. You see, my backyard was also being demolished. Huge chunks my suburb were being bought up. The places I played “cops and robbers,” or simply daydreamt in were quickly being bulldozed. Like Shōkichi, who watched as his home was excavated into nowhere, I could feel my world becoming smaller.
© 1994 Studio Ghibli – NN
I’m not saying that I had it as tough a displaced racoon dog, of course. That would be ludicrous. But, in my prepubescent mindscape, the connection between myself and these creatures most certainly felt real. This was the first movie that I saw myself in where the good guys actually lost. And, sure enough, the bulldozers kept on coming. The suburbs kept getting built. And just like in Pom Poko, the wildlife of the area started to vanish.
Part Two: “Fooly Cooly” Versus “Furi Kuri”
The first time I watched FLCL, I was fourteen and holidaying with my friend Andy. We were staying near the beach, so naturally, we were in a basement watching cartoons. We powered through Fullmetal Alchemist. We smashed through a comedy called The Wallflower: Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge. And then, out of nowhere, Andy put FLCL into my old, crummy, portable DVD player.
FLCL is a story about a boy who grows robots out of his head. It has manga sequences, guitar battle-axes, and a jaw-dropping soundtrack by The Pillows. While these elements are amazing, it was the show’s opening monologue that will stay in my noggin forever. “Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary,” opines Naota as the camera pans over a watercolour townscape. An iron-shaped building looms in the background. Mist starts to emit from its insides. “The white steam,” Naota continues, “it looked to me like smoke that signified some kind of omen. Smoke that spreads out and covers everything.”
In Wagga, in the frostbitten winter, the whole city is blanketed in mist. It covers the drought and the dirt. It covers the hungry sheep. It covers the mall, all the cars, and every suburb that dotted the ground below it. You cannot see your backyard, let alone the horizon. And when you’re fourteen, without a car, incubated in a school routine, it’s difficult to imagine anything beyond the mist. Everyone is ordinary, and the sense of isolation becomes banal. To say that I felt a kinship with Naota would be a tad of an understatement.
After the holiday, when I returned to Wagga Wagga, I started acting out more. I started skating behind cars and making chlorine bombs in car parks. I think my brain was turning into something new, or maybe I was just feeling small. Either way, I wanted to leave Wagga Wagga. There were no amazing robot fights. There were no transforming dog raccoons. And I wanted to rediscover these feelings. I wanted to know what was out beyond the mist.
And I did. When I was eighteen-years-old, I moved out.
Part Three: Going Home for Easter
To be honest, I am not sure when this internal change took place. I would like to say that I have matured and developed over the years. A more honest answer would be that it’s rather exhausting and ridiculous to make anime your cross to bear. I think my anxieties moved elsewhere, and I admit that I may have gotten lazy. I think that may be an okay, or even somewhat healthy a response.
I have also grown to feel very differently about Wagga Wagga. At the end of the first episode of FLCL, Natao repeats the sentiment that “only the ordinary happens here.” This time, though, he’s looking at a robot. He’s gazing upon a robot that grew out of his brain. At fourteen, I couldn’t see the irony in this scene or the good things about Wagga. And there were good things. I was lucky enough to grow up with my sparkler bombs, bonfires, and a whole bunch of experiences that would have been impossible to have in a big city. Even if the places to explore and dream were eaten up by property developers, at least I had those places for a brief moment.
The phrase “Wagga Wagga” is the Japanese equivalent of a “Ka-Pow” or a “Ka-Spla-a-t”. For me, it means the ‘place of many crows’ and home. And I’ll be going back there soon. Just for a while. I am looking forward to taking off my suit and transforming into a kid again. I hope Dad and I can watch Pom Poko again, and I hope we order the greatest Chinese food in the world.
After all, these are the memories that stick, these are the memories to hold on to.
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