Figure 1 - Hayao Miyazaki
Figure 1 – Hayao Miyazaki

If you’re into science fiction film, you are almost certainly aware of the phenomenon called “anime” which, although popular in Japan for decades, didn’t really hit in North America until the 1980s, partially through the re-release of the TV series Astro Boy, which had originally aired in the late ‘50s to 1968. (I remember vaguely seeing it in the late ‘60s myself, in the San Francisco Bay area on TV.) That character got new life a couple of years ago with the release of a 3D computer-graphic version (not three-dimensional as in “You wear these funny glasses,” but 3D in the sense that it was created on computer as 3D objects), which kind of tanked. I saw it on TV not terribly long ago, and wasn’t overly impressed. But back to anime. (We run a weekly “anime roundup” on Amazing Stories online, by the way.)

Anyway, a lot of evolution took place, not only in Japan but worldwide, and now anime—not a single style, but a genre of Japanese movie—is a huge worldwide success story. Some anime is based on manga, and some manga are based on anime (and if you don’t know what manga are, you have probably just come out of your bomb shelter à la Brendan Fraser). If you do a Google or Wikipedia search and start following links, you’ll probably be checking this stuff out for weeks. Manga are Japanese comics, and anime? For short, it’s Japanese animation (usually 2D; until recently, hand-drawn in traditional animation style). (Features of anime or manga drawings include the “big eyes” and triangular facial shapes, as well as stylized spiky hair and a limited number of mouth types—happy, angry, surprised, etc.; there are many online resources to tell you how those are drawn. Example: Western-drawn anime in Japanese style is not generally considered true anime, but “anime-style” animation.

There are all kinds of anime, ranging from the Gundam style of giant robots to the gentler, often ecology-themed offerings of Studio Ghibli and director/visionary Hayao Miyazaki—and it’s the latter I want to talk about today. Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo in 1941, and started working in animation in 1963; he worked for several years as an in-betweener and character designer, and directed his first feature in 1979, which was based (extremely loosely) upon Arsène Lupin, the turn-of-the-century gentleman thief created by Maurice Leblanc (at the turn of the century). The Castle of Cagliostro featured Miyazaki’s Lupin III, the grandson or something of the original Lupin; Cagliostro, of course, was the name of the original Lupin’s arch-enemy.

Figure 2 - The Castle of Cagliostro - Arsène Lupin in green jacket
Figure 2 – The Castle of Cagliostro – Arsène Lupin in green jacket

The Castle of Cagliostro was successful enough to get him another shot at directing, and Miyazaki’s second feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, came out in 1984. It was the first of his movies to feature what would be a recurring theme, that of ecology—although this one was not as pointed as his 1997 hit, Princess Mononoke. It also featured a couple more of his frequent and recurring themes; the primary one being a young female protagonist, and the secondary one being flight. In many of Miyazaki’s films, characters are able to fly, either by mechanical means or occasionally by more fantastic ways (such as secretly being dragons!). Nausicaä was so successful that Miyazaki co-founded his own studio, Studio Ghibli, which is still releasing films to this day.

A quick list of only the best-known feature films that Miyazaki has directed (because his films are not all feature films, nor does Studio Ghibli’s entire output consist only of his films) follows:

1979 The Castle of Cagliostro
1984 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
1986 Castle in the Sky
1988 My Neighbor Totoro
1989 Kiki’s Delivery Service
1992 Porco Rosso
1997 Princess Mononoke
2001 Spirited Away
2004 Howl’s Moving Castle (based on a Diana Wynne-Jones book)
2008 Ponyo
2013 The Wind Rises

Figure 3 - Still from Princess Mononoke
Figure 3 – Still from Princess Mononoke

I think it was 1997’s Princess Mononoke which began Disney’s collaboration with Ghibli as the Western distribution (and translation) service; Pixar’s John Lasseter is a personal friend of Miyazaki. Disney continues to release Studio Ghibli films, though Miyazaki claims (again) to have retired as of 2013, though he previously had “retired” some years earlier—from directing, I believe, though he continued to write or co-write screenplays, such as The Secret World of Arietty  (2010, based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers). His son, Goro, directed an adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tales of Earthsea, though reactions to that film (2006) were mixed. (According to Wikipedia, Miyazaki first retired after personally drawing 80,000 drawings for Princess Mononoke. No kidding! Who wouldn’t be a bit burned out by then?)

2001 saw the release of the subject of this week’s column—the Miyazaki-authored and directed film Spirited Away, which was a runaway box-office hit in Japan; it also won an Academy Award for Best Animated picture. According to Wikipedia, it is the Miyazaki film that has achieved the highest critical and box-office success to date;

it’s also the Miyazaki film most non-anime fans know of. So I thought today might be a good day to talk about this strange and wonderful movie. By the way, in contrast to much anime and manga, Miyazaki’s film characters don’t usually hew to that traditional “big eyes” style of drawing (well, they do to a small degree) and are more realistic in some ways, at least to Western viewers.

Figure 4 - Spirited Away wallpaper by Behruz Noorey featuring Chihiro and No-Face
Figure 4 – Spirited Away wallpaper by Behruz Noorey featuring Chihiro (center) and No-Face (right)

Although many of Miyazaki’s movies have an overt or underlying “ecology” theme (most notably Princess Mononoke), that isn’t evident in this one, although a few of his other recurring themes do show up in Spirited Away: the protagonist is a young girl, Chihiro; flying is central to one of the characters; there are animated soot balls (little fuzzy black things with eyes); there is an old lady who’s a witch of sorts—the witches’ images are always similar to each other and, for some reason, remind me of Phyllis Diller—and other, more minor, correspondences. Figure 4 shows Chihuro, the main character of Spirited Away, on desktop wallpaper, from Behruz Noorey’s Deviant Art page.

Figure 5 - Aurora & Phillip from Disney's Sleeping Beauty
Figure 5 – Aurora & Phillip from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Why does Spirited Away resonate with me? For one thing, the art is, like all Miyazaki films with the exception of Ponyo, wonderfully drawn. (Although Spirited Away appears to be traditional hand-drawn animation, in reality it combines some computer art—and I don’t know which parts are computer, myself—with traditional animation.) Regarding “realism,” take, for example, traditional Disney animated movies (Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, etc.). The characters and backgrounds are well drawn—Disney’s animation has always been noted for the realistic way in which characters move; they developed Rotoscoping to a high art—and the backgrounds are artistic, but there is never any thought that you are watching a real world. In Figure 5, you can see the difference between traditional cel animation—look at the characters of Aurora and Philip against an “artistic” forest background—versus the more realistic Miyazaki anime (Figure 6). Although both have their “cartoony” qualities, Miyazaki’s art appears—at least to me—more realistic than “arty.”

Figure 6 – Spirited Away train
Figure 6 – Spirited Away train

With Miyazaki, it’s as if you are looking into a depiction of a real world by a master watercolourist. From the ripples in a stream flowing over rocks, to the wind ruffling the grass in a field, even to moss growing on an eroded stone statue in a disused and forgotten amusement park, this art smacks of realism. It sucks you (okay, me) into an alternate reality where a dragon, or a witch or people interacting with spirits seem perfectly normal and acceptable. I’m not saying these characters are rendered as realistic in the way, say, that Gollum is in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-esque movies; they are indeed cartoons, and characters like the spirit No-Face, or the witch Yubaba, or even Chihiro herself are often cartoonish, but that doesn’t detract from the semi-realism of the film for me.

Also, the protagonists, like Chihiro, seem like normal little girls whose world changes from the familiar to the downright weird; as one accepts the odd things that happen in dreams, his protagonists accept their roles in a world changed to the strange or occasionally nightmarish. And because you, the viewer, have accepted the protagonist and her viewpoint—not only in Spirited Away, but also in films like My Neighbour Totoro, for example—you also begin accepting the weird situations the protagonists (and you, the viewer) find themselves in.

For me, there is an enchantment in most Miyazaki films that sucks me in and sweeps me away on a tide of belief in the strange. And maybe that says as much about me—I grew up on the fantastic—as it does about these films. Like many SF/F people, I could happily live in Miyazaki’s worlds.

Anyhow, back to Spirited Away. The plot is easy to follow, at least at first. Chihiro’s father has accepted a new job, and they have to move to a new city in a new prefecture—Japan’s equivalent of states—and she’s not happy about leaving the familiar; her school and her friends. When they arrive at the new town, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn and the family ends up at a dead end facing a disused and deserted theme park. The father explains that in the ‘90s, during an economic boom, theme parks opened up all over Japan; when the economy tanked, most of them went bust. The parents, despite Chihiro’s protests, decide to explore. Past a grassy hill populated with fanciful stone statues, they cross a dry river bed and find the main buildings of the park.

Although much of the park appears decrepit, there is one street of restaurants which appears to have an open restaurant, and the parents—who have missed their lunch, decide to sit down and help themselves to the plentiful food piled on the counters—despite there being nobody else around, apparently. “I’ve got plenty of credit cards and cash,” the father says, “so I can pay when we’re finished.” Chihiro isn’t hungry and doesn’t trust the food, so she decides to explore while the parents are eating.

Figure 7 - Chihiro and soot balls
Figure 7 – Chihiro and soot balls

Chihiro sees an enormous bathhouse which appears to be in operation, although no customers or attendants are nearby—then she meets a young man named Haku, who tells her she must go back before dark (and the lights are coming on) or she will be in trouble. She runs back to the restaurant, and finds her parents have become enormous pigs, who are surrounded by the remnants of a gigantic meal; she doesn’t believe that her parents can have turned into animals and runs back towards the car, only to find that the dry river bed is now an enormous river. A big paddlewheel boat docks and spirits of all shapes and sizes begin to disembark. She is then found again by Haku, who tells her she must get a job in the bathhouse or the witch who runs the place, Yubaba, will turn her into an animal, and she’ll never be able to save her parents.

I’m unable to find out whether the spirits she meets in this movie are actual Japanese spirits, like the giant radish (daikon) spirit, or the ghost No-Face, who—like Chihiro’s parents, who eat “mass quantities” and are turned into pigs—symbolizes gluttony. There is a lot of symbology in this film, and to someone who’s not steeped in Japanese culture, there is probably a lot that escapes me. I just know that Chihiro’s character development, from beginning to end, sounds right. She goes from being a spoiled ten-year-old to a self-reliant young woman who’s able to make more adult choices and decisions, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion. Along the way she meets strange and wonderful people and things, some of whom/which will probably stay with you long after the movie has faded.

Figure 8 - Spirited Away - Chihiro and No-Face
Figure 8 – Spirited Away – Chihiro and No-Face in bathhouse

Possibly because she helps a sootball with a particularly heavy piece of coal (see Figure 7), the many-armed Kamaji (Boiler Man) says Chihiro is his granddaughter, and Chihiro is taken to meet Yubaba, who gives her a job in the bathhouse. She is called “Sen” by the bathhouse’s inhabitants—and I found this out through IMDB—because the “chi” part of her name and “sen” are both written with identical kanji symbols. (There are more than a few things about this film that won’t be known by Westerners and those who are unfamiliar with Japanese culture. But I suggest you look at the IMDB listing after you see the film, not before.)

But Chihiro’s/Sen’s adventures are just beginning; she finds out Haku’s secret identity; meets Yubaba’s identical twin sister Zeniba and the giant baby; she has a series of increasingly odd encounters with the ghostly No-Face spirit. I don’t want to go into too much detail; if you’re familiar with my reviews, you know I abhor spoilers. If you’re interested in finding more out before you rent the movie (or buy it—although I warn you, a blu-ray will cost around $30), —if you must know in advance (because finding out is half the fun), go to IMDB and look it up; link provided above. The English-language voices are provided by Suzanne Pleshette (Yubaba/Zeniba), David Ogden Stiers (Kamaji), Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis (Chihiro’s parents), John Ratzenberger (Assistant Manager) and others.

If I had as many arms as Kamaji, the boiler man, I’d give this film three or four thumbs up. Since the day I saw my first film by Miyazaki, I’ve been a confirmed fan. I urge you to give him a try! (Also try my other favourite Miyazaki—My Neighbour Totoro; you will be delighted!)

Please comment on this week’s column—or send a correction of any errors you see. (Sometimes I type these pages in a white heat and forget stuff or get it mixed up. Not often, but I did last week!) If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—go ahead and register. Then you can comment here. Or you could comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome, and please! Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment! My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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