Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikushi)

Sen to chihiro no kamikushi

She isn't the hero we want, but she's the hero we need

dir: Hayao Miyazaki


The great difficulty in reviewing one of Miyazaki’s animated movies, compared to just watching them, is that the temptation to reel off superlative after superlative usually proves too great for the humble reviewer. Also, Miyazaki is revered to such a degree as the reincarnated Japanese alternate reality Walt Disney that everything he touches is tainted with greatness in the eyes of reviewers, humble or not.

The high praise makes latecomers come to his films with an insane level of expectation, which usually results in bewilderment when they see something like this, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbour Totoro which are different but simpler stories than what they could have expected.

Well, I’m neither a worshipper nor much of a reviewer, so it’s as easy for me to reel off expletives and superlatives as it is to watch one of his flicks and to sit there, thrilled out of my goddamn mind.

Spirited Away is a singularly beautiful experience, as similar as his other films (plucky female characters triumphing over adversity with hard work and intelligence), and as resolutely different from anything else in existence. The story mixes recognisable story dynamics with quintessentially Japanese story-telling (which doesn’t resemble at all the usual ‘hero’s journey’ Campbellian crap at all) and presents it all within the production of the
most beautifully simple and complex animation not reliant on thousands of computer geeks working in concert.

It would be a lie to say that all of the animation is hand-drawn, because it’s not. Miyazaki carefully uses CG in appropriate circumstances to create images and transitions between scenes not possible otherwise. But in every other circumstance it looks like every frame of every cell has been lovingly painted by a craftsman who loves what they’re doing.


Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime)

Princess Mononoke

It's not every day you get to see someone kill a god

dir: Hayao Miyazaki


In an ideal world, people would be watching the animated films produced by Studio Ghibli, especially ones produced by Hayao Miyazaki, every day of their lives. Most of the channels on TV would play the films one after the other. Other channels not playing films like Spirited Away, this one, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso, or Laputa: Castle in the Sky would be running documentaries about the films, or about Miyazaki, or just a parade of interviews with people, Nihonjin or otherwise, saying how great he is.

Sure, most of the interviews would amount to giggly people saying “Um, oh gosh, he’s like, so great, he’s like the total best, um, like, I totally love him,” except it’d be in their chosen language. Swahilis chanting his name, Laplanders and the headhunting tribes of the Papua New Guinea highlands: all united in their adoration of the master of animation.

I know how ridiculous it is to speak about how great Miyazaki’s flicks are. To people who can’t stand animated flicks (like a good friend of mine: the Courageous Canuck Big C), all this blathering is meaningless. If you can’t get into animation, then you’re not going to get why he’s so good at what he does.


Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Just looking at this image makes me tear up

dir: Isao Takahata


For all the pop culture popularity of Japanese animation, it still has a pervasively negative reputation. The main reason for this being, of course, the relatively small percentage-wise amount of anime that seems to be exclusively created for the purpose of creating violent stroke material. Anyone confused as to what I mean by ‘stroke material’ should know that I’m not referring to people having aneurysms or lapsing into comas.

In the same way that it would be inaccurate to say that all French cinema is basically films like Irreversible or Baise Moi, it’s unfair to tar Japanese animation with the hentai / giant robots / tentacle / schoolgirls brush. Sure they play a part, but much of it is just about telling a story.

Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking entry in the genre, which has nothing to do with science fiction or girls having their underwear stolen by demons. It is a simple story (on the surface) about a brother and sister trying to survive in Japan during World War II. It has recently been given the royal treatment on DVD (Madman), which is why I felt inspired to write about it now, having just purchased it. The two disk set certainly is worth the purchase price for the film alone, but contains a plethora of worthwhile extras that sweeten the deal even more.

For a film of such beauty in which nothing much happens apart from the long, idyllic march to the grave, the makers have transcended the basic elements that constitute our expectations (at least mine as a non-Japanese viewer) of animation and crafted a story no less poignant or evocative than any live action film. Constructed with an incredible amount of craft, each panel seems to have been lovingly painted by people who had an infinite amount of time on their hands, which is obviously not the case.

Put together by the famous Studio Ghibli (directed by Isao Takahata, and not the ‘master’ Hayao Miyazaki) it exemplifies all the trademarks of that studio’s work which, bizarrely enough achieves everything Disney wishes it still could but never will again: great looking animated features that tell great stories and are massively, commercially successful. The irony of course being that Miyazaki created the studio having been inspired by the earlier works of the Mouse House in no small part.