Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can't remember it.

No 339 - Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Director - Hayao Miyazaki

I love Studio Ghibli. I love Miyazaki. He, and his studio, have rekindled a love and excitement about cartoons. It is almost the same thrill I got as a child watching Disney.

Like most Westerners of my generation (though by no means all), I came to discover Ghibli through the release of Spirited Away. It is by no means my favourite, but they're in the list so I can talk about them later. It is, however, my first Ghibli film and so it should be the first one I watch.

I've watched this film several times before in both English and Japanese. For while I have really strong views on dubbing, they don't cross over to animation and I frequently watch the dubbed cartoon (after all lip synch is less of an obvious issue). I have decided to watch the dubbed version this time for 2 reasons:
When I first saw it at the cinema it was the American dub, therefore this is the version that I believe would have been most seen.
Secondly Davigh Chase's voice is far far far less annoying than Rumi Hiragi who plays Chihiro as very screechy. I want to like Chihiro, not want her to be muted.

What I like about Studio Ghibli is that they never go out to make Kid's films. They go out to tell stories. Some of their stories (like the upcoming Ponyo) are more aimed at children, whilst others (such as Princess Mononoke or Grave of the Fireflies) certainly aren't. This one falls in the middle, as it is quite a simple and beautiful love story, but filled with a lot of complex Japanese folklore and mythology.

Simply paraphrased, the film follows a small girl called Chihiro, who is lured to a resort for spirits. Here her parents are turned into pigs, she is forced to work in the bath house until she earns the right to be freed.
There is a love story between her and a mysterious boy/dragon called Haku. There is also an awful lot of talk of spirits and witches and magic, aspects that are deep in the culture and mythology of Japan but are quite alien to my western eyes. However, as I watch more Ghibli films, I'm becoming a bit more experienced with the Japanese spirit world and I recognised familiar themes.
Spirits such as the Spring spirits (large lumbering chicks with vacant stares and hats made of leaves) remind me of Totoro, Ghibli's most famous spring spirit. Totoro's soot sprites also make a return in this. However, this is still a world with only one human character, and no real attempt at explaining who or what the other characters are.

The point I'm trying to make here is that despite an unusual central concept (or perhaps BECAUSE of an unusual central concept) the film captured the western audience and flung Ghibli's back catalog into the public's attention. I love Disney, I really really do - to probably quite an uncool degree - however come 2001, their animation department was pretty much dead (I believe Atlantis was their 2001 release... hardly a Disney classic). So this film came with an epic story, insane characters and beautiful animation and shook up the animation kings.
It bodes well that John Lasseter, one of the key brains behind Pixar and the now king and daddy of Disney's creative department, is a huge Ghibli fan and produced Spirited Away's anglification.

Disney believed that hand drawn animation was on the way out, and that all stories would be moving to computer animation. This is a belief not shared by Mr Lasseter (check out his new ideas for upcoming Disney. Including the proper old school feeling The Princess and The Frog) but was also trounced by Spirited Away.
The animation is beautiful. Truly stunning and should best be admired when checking out the backgrounds. I'm aware that this is a bit of a geeky thing to say, but the backgrounds are stunning. If you haven't seen the film, have a look at the trailer HERE. The animation is quite subtle, rather than the bold lines of Western animation, colours meld into each other and provide an almost watercolour feeling, contrasting boldly with the main characters. Also, check out the stink spirit in Spirited Away. Then go and check out the cursed boar in Mononoke, or the Shadow spies in Howl's Moving Castle or the collapsing giant in Nausicaa. Ghibli love drawing pustulous masses of slime, oozing all over the place and they do it so very very well. It is even more amazing when you think that everything is hand drawn as Miyazaki doesn't believe in using CGI enhancements. Hell, even ALADDIN was using CGI enhancements.

But the final thing I want to talk about, is the sheer imagination of the film (a point I've touched on several times). Without researching Japanese folklore, it is difficult to know what elements were adopted from existing stories, but the tale is incredibly brave. What I love about it is the sheer number of lavish and extravagant characters who appear to be there solely to be extras. The sheer amount of character design is incredible, it makes me think of Del Toro's market scene in Hellboy 2. Only spread out for most of a film.
The vast a varied cast of monsters, ghosts and freaks helps to fully engross the viewer in a surreal and yet believable world. A world where scale doesn't seem to mean anything or where people can travel as small strips of flying origami (paper cutting people to death) or where a love story happens between a child and a river.

Allow me to repeat myself. The central love story is between a small child. And a river.

Yet, whilst that is a very strange thing to type - it makes perfect sense in the film. Surely, that is the true magic of Spirited Away. It creates an elegant story full of fantastic witches and demons and spirits and frogmen. It paints this world in such a beautiful palette. But the true magic is, you believe a girl and a river could fall in love.

And that is one hell of a triumph.

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