A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 176 – Spirited Away

Spirited Away – August 23rd, 2010

This movie came out the same year I graduated from college and I admit, I never saw it. I often avoid animated films in the theater (I’ve made a few exceptions recently, for the sake of Andy and friends) and eh. I just never got around to it. I wouldn’t say it got hyped to me. I heard great things about it but no one was labeling it as a religious experience or anything. I just didn’t make time to put it in. For one, it’s got subtitles. I’m not fond of dubbed movies but I’m not fluent in any language but English, so subtitles are how I roll. So it’s not like I could be doing anything else while watching it. And for two, even dubbed I knew it would be something I wanted to focus on. And it just never happened.

I admit, I’m not really in a writing mood tonight, which is a shame I know, because this movie was lovely and certainly worth writing about. It is very solidly a coming of age story, wrapped up in folktale trappings and beautifully animated. It’s got symbolism and meaning and subtext jam packed into every inch. I’m sure there are film studies, folklore and comparative lit students still writing term papers on this movie even nine years after its release. It’s that sort of movie. And don’t for one minute think I’m saying that as a negative. It’s a movie that has a lot of love and care in its making and it shows. Which is why I feel poorly about not really being up for a big in-depth review tonight.

Part of my reticence, I know, is that I’m simply not familiar with Japanese folklore. Bits and pieces gleaned from here and there, some other anime, some manga, friends and aquaintences in college, yes. But I just don’t feel like I have nearly enough background knowledge to really talk intelligently about some of the things in this movie. Sure, on the surface I can talk about the coming of age stuff and some rather obvious themes of greed and selflessness, modernity and tradition, but I know I’m missing things when it comes to the specifics. Not to mention anything that requires knowledge of the Japanese language. I feel bad about that.

So I’ll be sticking to the larger themes in the story. Good thing they’re well done and enjoyable. We meet Chihiro and her parents on their way to their new home in a new town. Chihiro’s unhappy about the move and generally acting sullen and annoyed. When the family gets lost and ends up in a mysterious place, Chihiro’s parents break the first rule about visiting a magical land and eat. That’s a common trope in all sorts of mythologies. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on it by now, talking about food as a means of binding someone to a place and the sociological implications. I am not that someone. I just like seeing it pop up. Anyhow, Chihiro’s parents get trapped in this magical land and she stays behind to help free them, managing to befriend a mysterious boy and get herself signed on as a helper in a bath house where the clients are all gods and spirits. The bath house is run by a cranky old witch Yubaba, and she and the rest of the staff think Chihiro’s terribly out of place, what with being human and all. And so Chihiro is faced with daunting tasks and manual labor while she tries to figure out how to save her parents. Who have turned into pigs. Gee, where have I seen that before?

I feel like it would be silly to recount each and every detail of Chihiro’s quest. And it is a quest. We’re not talking the sort of quest where you go and find a magical sword and use it to kill a monster, here. We’re talking a quieter sort of quest. One you might not know you’re on until you’ve accomplished your goal and realize just how far you had to go to do it. But the point of the quest here isn’t so much the goal as the journey. In some ways, there’s a Wizard of Oz or Labyrinth feel to it all. There’s even a bit near the end where two characters are informed that a spell binding them has long since been gone and they could change back any time. Very similar to the “You could go home whenever you wanted!” or “You have no power over me!” themes. And those movies aren’t so much about the goal either. They’re about the journey too. They’re about the obstacles and tasks and puzzles. They’re about learning about yourself and that you can accomplish things on your own if you have to, but asking for help isn’t a bad thing either. And this movie does a wonderful job taking that idea, that theme, and presenting it in a magical way.

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the animation and visuals in this movie. They’re what makes the story truly come alive. Yubaba is a fantastic crone, looking somewhat like a cross between old-lady-Sophie and the Witch of the Waste from Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. She’s all exaggerated features and oversized face. The proportions on the people in the magical world are all off in bizarre ways, looking normal in some respects, and then utterly not. The spirits and gods are a mix of strange and wonderful and there were moments when I wanted to pause just to see everyone in the bath house. This is where I wish I knew more about Japanese folklore. I feel like I might be missing things. Little nods and references. Is six-armed Kamaji a reference to something or someone? What about the big guy who gets in the elevator with Chihiro, with the things that look like daikon radishes? Is that it or is there something more? Is the river spirit something traditional or unique to the movie? And what about No-Face? I just don’t know. But I enjoyed it regardless.

I probably could write more. There’s a lot to the movie and a lot to explore. But if I tried, I’d likely make a mess of it. And besides, even without all the thinky bits it’s still a lovely movie and fun to watch. You can pick it apart, but you really don’t have to in order to enjoy it. There’s drama and a love story and humor and danger and what more could one ask from an animated adventure tale?

August 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spirited Away

August 23, 2010

Spirited Away

I didn’t even start my review for tonight’s movie until we had reached the closing credits. With most movies we put in I’m at least jotting notes, looking away from time to time, or nipping out to grab a cup of tea during the movie. But this film is so mesmerizing, so beautiful and so captivating that I found, even after having seen it before in the past, that I couldn’t look away. It’s the magic and power of Hayao Miyazaki at his very best.

I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales. They can be magical and wondrous, but also dark and frightening. The lands of farie are not places to be traveled lightly, and they are full of subtle traps. If a person isn’t careful they can easily be drawn in and stuck there forever. Just as Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s homage to the twisted farie realm, this movie is Miyazaki-san’s. It’s a fabulous piece of world-building that borrows tropes from traditional tales but adds a typically Miyazakian flare.

Young Chihiro is moving with her parents to a new home. At the start of the film she is petulant and upset, not wanting to move and sad that she’s having to leave her old life behind. But when her father takes a wrong turn they happen upon a mysterious building with a long tunnel running through it – a tunnel that leads to another land. Chihiro’s parents break one of the cardinal rules of most farie lands and gorge themselves on a fabulous feast they happen upon. She chooses not to succumb to the feast and explores further, discovering a huge mysterious building. There she is met by a boy who warns her to flee – to escape back the way she came before night falls. But as she tries to run away she finds that her parents have been turned into pigs by their piggish behavior, and that a vast river has replaced the little stream she and her parents crossed earlier. She is trapped, a lone human among mysterious creatures in a strange and magical realm.

There are a lot of references to folk tales I’m familiar with. The not eating in a mystical realm. The power of names. Curses and witches and dragons. But there’s also a strong Japanese influence throughout. The giant building Chihiro first came upon turns out to be a bath-house for the gods of the land. It’s a very shintoist world, with gods and spirits associated with the rivers, rocks and skies. And it is very much a product of the fertile mind of Hayao Miyazaki. The gods catered to by the bathhouse are a motley crew of lumbering but also charming beasts. There are giant chicks, strange masked ghostlike figures, a bulbous rotund man-thing that appears to be a root of some sort… There’s no way that in one viewing you can see them all. It’s just wonder piled on top of wonder and strangeness piled on top of strangeness.

Of course all of it is brought to life with the most amazing hand drawn animation ever accomplished. It’s a Studio Ghibli thing. Look, for example, at the oozing “stink god” with its organic flowing ichor. Look at the many-armed Kamaji who runs the boilers beneath the building. Look at all the many vast crowds of bizarre creatures throughout the movie. As you would expect given its pedigree this movie is an absolute feast for the eyes.

What I love most about the film, however, is its gentle heart. This is another trademark of Miyazaki. Every conflict in this movie is resolved through the steadfast and unswerving resolve of Chihiro, and by her constant kindness to everybody. She treats even the most frightening beasts with compassion and respect, and the result is that she experiences kindness in return. It’s a message that I truly appreciate. Something that resonates powerfully with me, and something I aspire to in my daily life.

I’ll admit that when I first saw this movie I was not as moved by it. I was contrasting it, at the time, with Princess Mononoke, which is a movie with a much darker and sadder tone to it. I don’t know quite what I was thinking. Maybe I thought that this movie was more childish. But looking at it now I realize that there’s a distinction between childish and child-like. That something doesn’t have to be dark and bleak to be moving. And that nowadays I’m more attuned to movies that present a world-view where optimism and kindness can really make the world a better place.

August 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment