Posts Tagged ‘Spirited Away’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 11th 2003:

It’s all too easy to get elitist and precious about cinema from the far east, or western films which seek to ape it (a sentiment I think I shall return to at least twice in the next two or three months). But when faced with a masterpiece like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, it’s quite tempting to lay aside any attempt at objectivity and simply pile on the superlatives.

Hmm. Kinda laid my cards on the table there, haven’t I, folks? But to even attempt any other response to this magical, beautiful piece of animation would be intellectually dishonest. It’s that good. It’s the kind of film that makes one want to be a child again, simply so one could submit to it more easily, unencumbered by worries about job or rent or relationships.

This is the story of a young girl named Chihiro, whose parents are in the process of moving house (somewhat to her chagrin). En route to their new residence, her father takes a wrong turn and they find themselves in what seems to be a disused amusement park. Ignoring Chihiro’s vague sense of unease, her parents tuck into some of the delicious food that’s seemingly been left unattended. But as the sun sets the park reveals its secret: Chihiro and her family have strayed into an odd netherworld which is basically an entertainment complex for the myriad gods and spirits of Japanese mythology, ruled by the grotesque sorceress Yubaba, and any one of several horrible fates could await any human who stays here too long…

To say more would be to spoil the richness and wonder of the magical world Miyazaki and his animators have created. It’s quite extraordinarily detailed, endlessly inventive, and populated by an array of characters who are as bizarre as they are memorable. The story is rooted in Japanese folklore, true – but it’s still hugely accessible and owes an equally large debt to Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm (I’m sure I detected a dash of that old Prisoner vibe in a couple of places too).

But the ideas are equalled, and perhaps excelled, by the quality of the animation. I can’t think of another animated film, certainly not since the 1940s, that’s so evidently had such love and talent lavished over every single from. From simple effects like grass rippling in the wind, to fantastical set-pieces like the visit of a Stink God, the pictures are gob-smackingly lovely, even when the subject matter is either icky or frightening.

Because Spirited Away is basically an old-fashioned fairy tale, as funny and moving and scary and enthralling as any you’ve heard before, and thankfully it eschews any didactic preachy eco-cobblers message in favour of simply making it clear that it’s much, much better to be brave and kind and generous than it is to be selfish and cruel and cowardly. And surely no-one can argue with that. It’s really just a crime against cinema, not to mention our own younger generation, that a film of this stature is tucked away unnoticed in an art-house slot while Disney’s latest formula vehicle for selling fast food is playing on two screens. Do your kids a favour. Do yourself a favour. Seek it out. Seek it out.

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