This is Chihiro. She's ten years old, desperate to find her parents again. And turn them back into humans, from pigs.
Spirited Away is marvellous. It's the latest film by Hayao Miyazaki, regarded as the master of Japanese animation. I'm really glad I was able to catch it before it disappears from the cinemas. However, I don't think it'll suffer too much in dvd form. The painted backdrops are wondrous but all too painterly blown up that big and you're not really getting any extra detail. I'll certainly be getting the dvd, not just to enjoy it again, but to experience it with the original voices and subtitles. It saddened me a bit that while there was a small audience in there, for a mid afternoon showing, there were very obviously student age males. Mostly. In other words it seemed as if the only people seeing it were the ready made anime/manga audience of afficionados. So if even getting an Oscar isn't going to change the thoroughly Americanised habits of the general filmgoing audience, I guess we deserve what we get.
The story has Chihiro and her parents moving to a new house in a new area; in the car, they are trying to reassure her about the new school etc. They take a wrong turn, and find what appears to be an abandoned theme park. The father and mother are keen to explore, not minding at all the strange nature of the deserted buildings and hillsides; but Chihiro is very reluctant... before long, the parents have been turned into pigs, and Chihiro is in a world of ghosts and spirits, in a huge bath house which she will be expelled from or worse unless she can make herself useful. And, with a little help, she does, at the very bottom, literally, in the bath house's boiler room. From there, she makes a few friends and explores, in due course having to deal with the fearsome and freakish old woman who presides over the place. Who makes it clear that it's only a matter of time and capriciousness before her parents are turned into bacon.
Just a child's story, but it does press buttons. As you can imagine, it has much of the quality of a dream. At first sight incidents happen in random fashion, but I'm not sure it's for no reason. He catches the child's point of view perfectly, all the confusion and incomprehension of what adults are intending. A neat detail is the old woman's giant head, it seemed a brilliant way to reflect how some elderly relatives must appear, proffering themselves for a horrific kiss. If it's about anything, it's the child's response to a time of turmoil. I did wonder for a while if the world of the spirits was the land of the dead and they'd all been in a car crash; maybe there is some of that, but perhaps one needs to know more about the older Japanese traditional beliefs.
There is this one thing which I didn't like about the film. At all. The dubbing uses an American translation, which for me really grates. If I could go through the script, and get access to a plain neutral translation of the original, I'd try to back this up. It's very US kid vernacular, and at times all the 'guys' and 'dopes' don't seem appropriate at all. Yeah, I know, it's a difficult one to argue because who is to say that a translation into UK English is any more authentic? I can only go by what I saw, as we get to know the various characters, in scenes where that kind of language strikes completely the wrong note. Some times, it's the fears which aren't coming across; at others, joy sounds trite, or else it doesn't sound nearly threatening enough.
Okay, rant over. It's a film which lives with you. The visualisation is a delight, especially for me many of the broad scenes, of landscapes both mysterious and very foreign, and strange interiors, and vistas of rusting pipes and stairways. And there's so much lovely detail to delight in, even the coal dust creatures which are simply black blobs with eyes but he gets away with it. From beginning to end, there are compelling and surreal scenes, often incidental to the story but nevertheless the substance of it, like the waters and the ghostly train which passes along the surface.
I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that this is all about indulgence in imagery. Director Hayao Miyazaki is a consummate artist and craftsman, but it's the story which has the power. I'd be mortified to think that there may be kids so spoiled by the culture of Barbie and Macdonalds that this unfamiliar species of fairy tale is lost on them. It's not weird because it's Japanese, but because it reflects that time of our life when the real world can be all too much and we're still young enough for the world of the imagination to be nearly real. The trials Chihiro has inflicted on her make no sense but she faces them anyway, on their own terms, experiencing moments of terror and moments of love and friendship. Enjoying the film probably depends on your giving up your adult outlook for a couple of hours, and seeing things through Chihiro's eyes.
Have you seen any others of his films? I have The Princess Mononoke, which would dispel any ideas that's he's only about being cute and cuddly (but remember there are those moments of terror in Spirited Away). He also made Laputa the Flying Island which I have on tape; that's a lesser tale, though I'm very fond of its alternate universe industrial imagery. Major omissions for me are Porco Rosso and My Neighbour Totorro, neither available in any form in the U.K.
I gather this may be his last film, which is very sad; however, if so, you have to be grateful that he's left us with this gentle and beautiful tale. Really nice to see something like this, a film with the quality and depths of art.
28 September 2003
The two sites below both offer some interesting material on the world of the film, and also about Hayao Miyazaki and his other films. You may know that in the West, Disney has taken Miyazaki's work under their wing (controversially in case of The Princess Mononoke, which they appeared to bury). Their website, which includes 'The Miyazaki Collection' produced in Flash, is sadly disappointing as regards its actual content so I'm not listing it here.
Whoever is responsible for this, and however official it is, you almost need look no further. For anything connected to Hayao Miyazaki's films. There's a wealth of material: synopses, interviews, background, essays, forums. And, to be honest, some of the images which I've borrowed for the purposes of this article. Utterly comprehensive.