The Legend of Ashima and its Cinematic Translation

Can Legend-as-Genre be Saved, and can Film Help?

Legend (as a oral-narrative story “about” greater-than-life humans) and its cousin, myth (which makes divinities the center of the tale), are two interrelated genres which share a common attribute, or rather problem. In aftermath of declericization and rationalism’s indictment of superstition, and call for the substitution of so-called realism, their episteme and hence their appeal to a “secular” public has shrunk away, to the point where even the articulating of religio-instructive episodes has had to solicit revivalist frenzy in support of obedience. A retreat perhaps to the shamanic kernel of all legends, but nonetheless a setback in terms of stature in the world of art(s).

For public (“mass-consumed”) secular storying, especially in cinema, this demotion of the miraculous and of immortal heroism has consigned the telling and showing very largely into a form of special effects. To see Sindbad or Jason or even Ulysses and Luke Skywalker in action, you must be able to tolerate techno-legerdemain – an extension of Disneyan cartoon-film into stop-action and CGI – or actually be impressed by it in isolo -so much so that the true enthrallment, the rhapsodic state within which symbolic meanings can speak, is discarded, unattainable. (viz the Thirteenth Man, Fast Runner, and many more). The burden has thus fallen to opera (as earlier to oratorio) to thus entrance and speak, using music as the subaltern hypnotic tool.

But of course opera is an elite, small-audience mode of entertainment, even with the Toll Brothers’s clever Closed Circuit simulcasting of recent years.

But though art cinema of course has the potential to widen this appeal: and indeed runs a close second to opera seria in its concern to show/tell myth/legend in one form or another, it has tended to cling to historical melodrama – a bastard hybrid of supposed realism with inflation of putative greatness of character: it is not “sung” or otherwise enthralling- but comes close usually to hagiography, which is NOT what we are considering. Founder-hero stories or films about Jesus are subject to the test of credibility no matter their grand stature within the surrounding culture. Legends, in my sense, are not and cannot be.

And of course such tributes to Great Men demand in the telling that place, time, and even outcome be known or signalled. This is not the diction of legending, which of course demands a “once upon a time” “in a far off land unnamed” bookending, and refuses to be harnessed to any kind of posterior legitimizing.

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