“So, your name’s Chihiro. What a pretty name. And now it belongs to me.”
American animation audiences are used to fairy tales on the big screen: They’ve been trained for them since Snow White back in 1937. But Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated Japanese feature Spirited Away is a fairy tale of a different order. The story of a fearful, resentful young girl lost in a crowded spirit world, the film follows lines that Western audiences will find familiar from their own culturally ingrained fables: Chihiro loses something important to her and has to be brave to regain it, she meets strange magical creatures and learns from them, she learns the value of hard work and kindness, and she faces down evil in defense of love. At the same time, Spirited Away is unmistakably Japanese, in its fantastically rich designs, its very specific oddball spirit world (river gods, daikon kami, and all), its storytelling methods, and its plurality, which goes far beyond the traditional good/evil split.
More specifically, the story is unmistakably a Hayao Miyazaki project, full of personal obsessions and perspectives he’s expressed consistently over the course of four decades of featured animation through Studio Ghibli’s writer-director projects including The Castle Of Cagliostro, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, Castle In The Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. “The Japanese Walt Disney” has always loved complicated onscreen moral choices, anything that flies, and creeply oddball cuteness, and they all come to the fore in Spirited Away, which earned the Best Animated Feature Oscar for its year, but perhaps more significantly, took Studio Ghibli to an even more visually sophisticated plane than its already sophisticated features had reached. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful and ambitious film, and the fact that it’s thrilling and strikingly evocative at the same time just heighten the delirium.
We’ll be launching our discussion next week with my Keynote on the film’s place in Miyazaki’s filmography and worldview, plus a Forum featuring Scott Tobias and Genevieve Koski talking through the film’s tone and appeal to younger children. And on Wednesday (a day earlier than usual; we won’t be publishing on Thanksgiving or the Friday after it), Noel Murray will bring up the rear with an essay about how the film follows a tradition of “kids down the rabbit hole” stories. This remains one of the best traditionally animated movies ever made, and we hope you’ll join us in capping Animation Month by talking about it.
December 1: Gremlins
Movie Of The Week will return in 2015.