Last night, my wife took me (somewhat reluctantly at first) to see a 15 year-anniversary screening at our local cinema of one of her all-time favorite movies; the Academy Award-winning modern classic, “Spirited Away” (2001). The animated feature is from Ghibli Studios, and is generally believed the be the masterpiece of prolific and legendary Japanese anime filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki.
First off, let me preface by saying that despite my love of all-things science fiction, I’ve never been a particular fan of anime. I’m a fan of animation (more Disney/Warners). But something about the specific trappings of most anime I’ve seen just doesn’t really ring my bells. I’ve watched and enjoyed a few over the years (“Ghost in the Shell” and others), and I’ve even accompanied my wife to a few anime conventions. I’ve even worked at Anime Expo 2004 once, under my former employer many years ago. But I’m not exactly what you’d call an anime fan. So the idea of going to a Miyazaki movie screening was a dubious prospect, but my wife is more than patient with my many odd-cinematic cravings, so I went.
The story begins with a young modern-day Japanese girl named Chihiro going to a new school with her parents. Nothing terribly groundbreaking so far. Not too dissimilar from other anime I’ve seen at the 1-2:oo minute mark. But along the way, they take a wrong turn and stop at what appears to be a seemingly deserted village…
***** SPOILERS *****
Within this village, Chihiro’s rather blasé parents wander into a restaurant and, not able to find an owner, begin gorging themselves on freshly prepared food with selfish consumerist abandon (insert message here).
As they literally ‘pig out’ (see: above), Chihiro is frightened and inadvertently goes deeper into the village as night begins to fall. She discovers the village is, in keeping with ancient Japanese Shinto traditions, a ‘resort’ for the spirits. The spirits of rivers, of places, of animals, etc. visit, take luxurious baths, dine, board, etc. Chihiro stands out as an unwelcome human in this eerie community of non-humans who live to serve the spirits; and who all work for an opportunistic old crone named Yababa, who lives with a trio of disembodied heads and a giant baby named Bo (this is anime on drugs… any questions?).
At this point, the imagination of the film is fully unleashed, and the heady feeling I had of this incredibly detailed and fertile world reminded me of when my 10 year old brain first saw the cantina scene of Star Wars back in 1977 (pre-“New Hope”). Or more accurately perhaps… the movie’s true antecedent, “The Wizard of Oz”; with more the darker tone of the L. Frank Baum “Oz” books than the somewhat more ‘Hollywood’ 1939 movie.
The comparisons to “Oz” are fair; you have the young girl, separated from her parents and thrust into a bizarre fantasy land ruled by a witch with decidedly odd companions. Personally I found the disembodied green heads and giant temperamental baby far more disturbing than any casual horde of flying monkeys. And, as with “Oz”, the story of “Spirited Away” is also about acquiring friends in this bizarre dreamworld to get back home. The Odyssey to the setup’s Iliad. The journey home is a classic theme, and I was amazed at how fresh it seemed in this movie. It’s the oldest trope in the book, but it was so imaginatively done that I scarcely cared. And since this movie surprised me at virtually every turn, I was genuinely curious as to whether “Sen” (Chihiro’s given name of servitude under Yababa’s contract) would ever truly make it or not. Yes, there is a pubescent love interest, though “Haku” is not quite a dashing hunky type, so even that convention is avoided. Haku’s backstory is also quite compelling as he is not quite what he seems (as is everything in this wickedly imaginative world). And given that Sen and Haku are children (in appearance anyway), the romance is very G-rated. No shameless, “Twilight”-style pandering, thank goodness… and no goddamn sparkles either!
This is a children’s movie in many ways, but most importantly it is not a childish movie. That’s the key difference. The movie is told via a child’s perspective (low angles are repeatedly used in the imagery to convey this) but it never pandering and rarely cliched. It is also a rich and rewarding fantasy that I honestly did NOT anticipate. For a first introduction into the world and mind of Hayao Miyazaki? This was a hell of a first impression; especially seeing it on a big screen. I can’t overstate how important seeing it in a theatre was for me, since it totally immersed me into Miyazaki’s mind and imagination. I’m not sure how strong the impression would be if I’d only seen it on DVD. Then again, my wife has enjoyed it on DVD for years and she ADORES this movie, so I may be wrong on that one. As for Miyazaki’s other works? Well, I can’t speak to those yet (perhaps in a future post?), but “Spirited Away” left me deeply impressed.
Now I get what all those other Miyazaki fans are talking about… including my own wife.