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Celebrating Strangeness

I was talking with my daughter about Studio Ghibli and its extraordinary influence on world culture- if you are one of the few that don’t know they’re the Japanese animation studio behind almost every major anime to come from that country in the last thirty years. But unlike their clunky brethren in the States- Marvel comics- who, let’s face it, produce clichéd garbage for people brought up on superheroes, Studio Ghibli films are very strange. One of my favourites, The Wind Rises, is a fictionalised biopic of the designer of the Zero fighter plane of WW2- not about a man of action, not about a pilot- it’s about a man who spends his time….drawing. And his wife dies of tuberculosis. I don’t think that’s even a word in the Marvel Universe. It was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2013 and went on to makes hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. So, even though I value strangeness for its strange influence in the world, even on the most basic left brain analysis- box office takings- it does very well thank you. And the global success of the films underlines the influence of strangeness all over the world. Indeed Studio Ghibli has probably done more to spread Japanese culture- especially among the young- than any of the ubiquitous products of Japanese manufacturing.

Strangeness has been adopted by quantum physics to describe a quality preserved during the creation of a new particle but not preserved in its decay. There is something suggestive here- strangeness is elusive, can’t be bought and sold and passed on- it has to be created.

The connection between right brain creativity and strangeness is also interesting. Left brain creativity is a + b = ab (that’s a squashed next to b rather than a times b). Left brain is pure Hollywood- alien is a successful film, predator is a successful film- I know- let’s have alien versus predator! Imagine that meeting! Or the even more usual…Jaws…2 (and 3 and 4 and 5). Left brain creativity is the mind running along rails. It’s about putting pre-existing stuff together in a slightly different and somehow wholly expected way. Left brain creativity is when you think making a book into a play is a creative act. Well I guess it’s more creative than just reading the book, but not much. A right brain Japanese toy maker invented Transformers. Left brain people turned it into the movie franchise we have today. But those left brainers can only make further spin-offs and variations of the transformers idea. They cannot originate a new idea. A strange idea.

Right brain creativity is what we usually mean when we use the words really creative. Right brain ideas come out of nowhere. Such an idea takes us by surprise. Its antecedents aren’t obvious. It’s strange. When people reach for a word to describe it they usually stick with genius. Which is shorthand for I could never have thought of that.

But I prefer strangeness- it’s less reverential and more useful. Aiming for strangeness as an end in itself can push you from left into right brain creativity. It can open out the whole field so you aren’t restricted. You learn to tune into what you really like not what you think other people will praise you for liking. Finding out what you really like is not the easy path it sounds. By embracing strangeness you find out the limits of your interests, you get a map of the creative possibilities in your life.

One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare is that it is really strange. Even now, after years of scholarship, there are passages and phrases that resist definitive interpretation. The huge vocabulary, the exotic locations- they make TV and Film of the 21stcentury look babyish and cowed by comparison.

What are the roots of strangeness? They lie in the mysteries of the right brain and the many dimensional world we know that exists alongside and above and below this one. Strangeness is a concept that tends to find those who embrace the utter mystery and awe at all we do not comprehend. Go and look for it. Make it. Maybe even sell it.

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