Golden Token: Spirited Away
You gotta love the Japanese, I doubt there are any national identities quite as unique and identifiable as theirs. My Introduction to Japanese Film professor always talked about the Japanese-ness of these films, which was more Japanese and which was less Japanese, and up until now, I have no idea what he meant by “more” or “less”. He does make a good point though, in that when you see something Japanese inspired, you know that it is. Whether its masked sentai, samurai, Shinto, robotics, bonsai trimming, anime, manga, or Bob Sapp, there’s just something uniquely Japanese about it, despite the fact that, devoid of context, some of them are pretty damned unrelated, but we know them as Japanese.
I’m not gonna pretend that I can boil it down to one reason as to why the Japanese have such a unique identity, but I would point out one thing I find very fascinating about this culture. The Japanese have one of the richest cultures of tradition in the world. Their clothes, their practices, festivals and mannerisms have roots to thousands of years of history. And yet, they are at the forefront of technology, creating the most advanced robots, and outlandish electronic inventions. I’d like to think part of why they are so unique is because they have such a harmonious relationship between their past and their present. Unlike a lot of other countries where people would clash based on views of progress vs. tradition, (practically every invention in the western world has at one point or another been met with skepticism), the Japanese seem to embrace the new technology, and are so sure that whatever may come, it won’t make them lose any bit of who they are. That’s pretty damned awesome.
I never thought about it that way, really, until I set up my home entertainment system and popped in a copy of Spirited Away. Spirited Away, or its original Japanese title: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, is the brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki, who is heralded as the Walt Disney of Japan for his influence on Japanese anime. It follows the story of a girl named Chihiro, who moved into a new town with her family. They take a detour and end up in an old amusement park, but as night falls, Chihiro find out that the place isn’t that abandoned after all, and going home may be more difficult than she had thought. I can fairly say that, for me, there’s anime, and there’s Spirited Away. It is the highest grossing movie ever in Japan, and the only Japanese anime to ever win an Academy Award, all of these things are a recipe for one of the greatest movies of all time.
Reasons to Watch:
1) The Story and Themes
Miyazaki is often known for his stories merging nature and technology, and the idea that a girl stumbles into a gathering place of ancient spirits in a theme park built in the mid-90’s pretty much sums up that theme beautifully. The movie merges the old with the new in such a beautiful way that it doesn’t feel that they are in conflict. It feels, oddly enough, that they all belong together. Over and over, we see a cross between the magical world of the spirits mixed with scientific inventions such as trains, bath houses, elevators and the like, and at no point does it feel out of place. It is such a beautiful commentary on the Japanese identity and made me realize the revelations I touched upon above. But most of all, this is my favorite reason for watching this movie because it proves my belief that, many times, fiction speaks more about the truth than non-fiction.
2) The Visual Style
The film has a very unique art style. The character designs hearken back to the anime styles of old, before every other character was a spikey-haired emo kid with big, round eyes. When I was watching this movie, released in 2001, I saw a style different from Fushigi Yugi (Curious Play), Yu Yu Hakusho (Ghost Fighter), or Recca no Hono (Flame of Recca), which pervaded Philippine television in the mid 90’s and 2000’s. The traditional characters drawn through modern techniques breathed new life into a style that back then was thought of as antiquated. I am no anime geek, but as a movie, given the relative comparison to other animated features, that’s what it did for me.
More than the look of the place and characters, I loved the movie’s sense of motion. The characters were so fluid, it seemed that a lot of the spirits moved like water or wind. There was an elemental feel throughout the movie, and I think its the thing that ties the movie together. The motion is constant, and it show how much Miyazaki understands about animation.
Animation is more like a dance than anything else, the point is that you have full, complete motion, and you exaggerate these qualities to appease the eye. This is one illustration of how animation is meant to accentuate movement, and this flow is seen throughout the entirety of Spirited Away.
This is my big problem with the likes of Robert Zemeckis (Polar Express, Disney’s A Christmas Carol , and Mars Needs Moms). He makes all these movies where he basically gets actors and CG-ify’s their face and makes everything look as real as possible. That’s not the essence of animation. It looks boring because everyone expects to see more exaggeration. If you wanted to see the more real movements, that’s why we have live-action movies.
3) The Characters
The characters looked amazing. They were all so varied and well thought out. Even a couple of characters, such as a trio of bouncing heads named Kashira and a spirit known as Oshira-Sama, the Radish Spirit, who had such short screen times, had a lasting impact. They added to the mysticism of the whole setting, but never hit us to the point of sensory overload. Practically every character, except maybe the frog spirits, stands out as totally different from the rest. I really appreciate seeing characters that are so colorful and varied visually. I know that a lot of cartoons have this already, but its a good point nonetheless.
But way beyond their appearances, the characters each have such interesting personalities, what really sets them apart are their motivations and personalities. The main characters weren’t just generic spirits or monsters, but they all had their own personalities as varied as their appearances. And the beauty was that some of these personalities were fleshed out through non-verbal interaction. There is a lot of silence in this movie, but none if it is dead, no pun intended. Even Kaonashi (No-Face), who is one of the main supporting characters, cannot speak on his own, yet he is probably one of the most interestingly developed character among the lot.
I doubt there are many animated features (that are not Pixar) that would make me feel as awestruck and heart-warmed as Spirited Away. This movie is a marvel of the anime world, and belongs in a cut above the rest. For a movie this recently made to be as classic in reputation as it has become, is practically unheard of. It is an animated movie that transcends the that barrier of anime Otaku-esque fandom. Its a film that is uniquely Japanese in essence, but speaks to a more global audience, it spoke to me, and I’m pretty sure it has a few things to tell you too. You won’t be sorry for watching this.