Director: Hayao Miyazaki
“With every film that he makes, Hayao Miyazaki sets the standard for animated features higher and higher.” (894, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Studio Ghibli has, in the past, been called the Japanese Disney. I guess because the films that set the studio apart are, for the large part, animation you could draw a comparison. And of course John Lassiter takes control of the American/English language versions. However I think that it’s too sweeping a statement. The films that come out of Studio Ghibli are as different to those that emerge from Disney as can be. Don’t get me wrong I love Disney – I have since I was tiny and probably will until I’m old and grey – and the films of Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, are exquisite but there are moments when a creepiness, or maybe uneasiness is a better term, emerges. Joshua Klein says “[…] his unfailingly intelligent films appeal to both children and adults, simple enough for the former to enjoy yet complex enough for the latter to appreciate on a different level.” (894) and this is another similarity with the Disney films.
I have watched Spirited Away a couple of times recently, once in the dubbed English version and then again in the original Japanese with English subtitles. I definitely prefer the Japanese version. I understand the idea behind the English language versions – they make the films a whole lot more accessible to a much wider audience but to me it just makes more sense to watch them in Japanese as they were intended. I certainly found the English version of Chihiro extremely annoying and quite grating however this wasn’t the case in the Japanese version.
The artwork is incredible and has an etherial quality to it. The level of detail in the backgrounds is always beautifully rendered which is a contrast to the sometimes simplistic character presentation. “[And] he certainly isn’t a precursor of things to come, because it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miyazaki doing what he does.” (894) Miyazaki has unquestionably created the most intriguing and beautiful films made the prestigious Studio Ghibli and they now have an almost precious quality to them following the announcement of his retirement. Spirited Away is one of his best pieces of work.
Klein says “Spirited Away is in many ways Miyazaki’s Alice In Wonderland. The writer-director’s hand-drawn scenes burst with energy and invention, and Miyazaki takes full advantage of the fantastical story to devise dozens of unique spirits and creatures that roam this world of utterly inscrutable rules and impenetrable logic.” (894) and I can see the comparisons. Chihiro goes down a rabbit hole of sorts and finds herself in a world beyond her control and completely foreign to her, much like Alice does. She finds herself surrounded by a whole host of unusual creatures and characters. Disney are great at creating lovable anthropomorphic characters. Ghibli goes one better and brings fantastical creatures into being. I particularly love the strange chicks and the soot demons. And for the most part No Face is adorable except when in the bath house and then he becomes this disturbing non-stop eating machine.
Watching it as an adult I get the underlying morality to the story – one that is essentially about greed and gluttony. Chihiro’s parents literally turn into pigs as a result of their gluttony. Similarly the bath house falls under the destructive control of No Face due to their greed for the gold he materializes. Yubaba is one of my favorite characters. The level of detail that went into drawing her is superb. She is a fully texturized character unlike some of the other human (for lack of a better word) characters. I can see similarities between her and the Queen of Hearts – further strengthening the comparison Klein made that this is Miyazaki’s Alice. They’re both larger than life characters, literally so as Yubaba towers over Chihiro, in control of their own empire, complete with workers who are scared of them. And both are ever so slightly insane.
Spirited Away always makes for interesting viewing for me, as does any of Miyazaki’s films. I love the artwork and the storytelling style is one that always intrigues me – I find it quite different to Western styles of storytelling. There’s a much more obvious and pervasive magical, otherworldly and mystical element to the Studio Ghibli films. I would say that it’s best to watch them in the original Japanese – it is worth it I promise.
“He is one of a kind, and as such his films hold a special place in the heart of movie lovers.” (894)