Spirited Away

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(Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

No Place Like Home

Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki crafts beautiful cinema – not just animation – like no other. The worlds he creates typically exist within our own, but there is always something thrillingly otherworldly about them – intersections between the terrestrial and the spiritual, the mundane and the magical. Throughout a decades-spanning career, none of his films balance these overlapping realms quite as effectively or poignantly as his first film of the 21st century, the beloved Spirited Away. In the context of Miyazaki’s entire body of work, Spirited Away perhaps feels most pertinent as its setting is firmly rooted in the present as opposed to his other prominent works that recall mythic eras of kingdoms and empires. Tradition has taught us to expect the fantastic when reading literature or viewing films depicting royalty, castles, or pre-Enlightenment mysticism. But, with Spirited Away, Miyazaki asks us to believe the unbelievable hiding just around the corner in today’s world – or in this case, within an abandoned amusement park.

In this way, then, it most closely resembles Miyazaki’s early triumph My Neighbor Totoro. But, where the innocent pair of sisters in that film readily accepts the presence of the giant, wide-grinning spirit who serves as more of a fixture of the background than a furtherance of the girls’ story, Spirited Away finds its heroine, slightly older and less naïve, confronting the unknown of this somewhat perilous realm as a skeptical outsider. The intrigue, then, is found in this unprecedented characterization in his work that posits his protagonist as a foreigner – like us – in his wild imagination. This is also what makes Spirited Away that much more special: there is an invitation present in young Chihiro for us to come along with her and explore the depths of this artist’s creativity. We are no longer distant observers; her story is just as much ours as hers or his.

We meet Chihiro, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest character, as a saturnine young girl in the backseat of a car that will bring her unwillingly to her new home. Her protests falling on deaf ears, Chihiro’s parents ignore their daughter’s plight and assure her that she will make new friends at her new school. Unconvincing and condescending in their interaction with their daughter, Chihiro’s parents are quickly established, not as the enemy, but as a foil to her inherent childlike naivety. They represent the stifling hyper-rationality of the modern world that Miyazaki often rebukes (a point that is taken to its extreme later on when their consumerist gluttony transforms them into actual pigs). When Chihiro’s father takes a wrong turn, they stumble upon an abandoned theme park. And, much to the chagrin of the easily frightened little girl, her parents decide to take a look around. Soon discovering this park may not be as vacant as they first thought, the adults are overcome with the delicious smells of cooking food, sit down to satisfy their voracious appetites, and reassure themselves that they’ll pay whatever they owe when they finish.

Miyazaki wastes no time in unleashing his imagination. Her parents’ transformation into grotesque-looking swines coupled with the sudden appearance of dark, homogenous phantoms rapidly turns Chihiro’s uneasiness to panic. With the valley between this little village and the family’s car now submerged in water, the girl has nowhere to go as she startlingly finds herself disappearing in this spirit world where she doesn’t belong. When a mysterious boy named Haku shows up and begins to give her directives, she chooses to believe him more out of desperation than trust. Following his instructions, she convinces the boiler “man” Kamajii to give her a job at what she discovers is a great bathhouse for spirits. What follows is the splendid story of young Chihiro gaining her courage, facing her demons, and learning the value of friendship. Along the way, she encounters unforgettable characters in the multi-armed Kamajii, the ever-complaining Lin who also has a sweet spot, the fuming bathhouse matron Yubaba, the frightening and enigmatic No Face, and her first and most loyal friend, Haku.

Miyazaki’s film takes many narrative detours as it wanders between these seemingly disparate episodes (never forgetting its central thread of Chihiro’s need to restore her parents) allowing the director to cover a lot of thematic ground. He touches on the temptation to succumb to avarice at the expense of our better judgment – not only in the transformation of her parents, but also in the No Face subplot where various spirits, enticed by the promise of gold, are literally gobbled up by the amorphous creature. The filmmaker also revisits a common theme of his in humankind’s mistreatment of the environment – a presumed “stink” spirit arrives at the bathhouse where Chihiro uncovers his true identity as a river spirit polluted by urban waste. The moral is obvious, but its brief inclusion in a much fuller story makes the message less overt than the film’s predecessor Princess Mononoke – a film almost exclusively concerned with this notion.

Most crucially, Miyazaki explores the idea that in all of us there exists the potential for good and for evil. None of Spirited Away’s characters are cookie-cutter generalizations. Each is impressively multi-layered and shifts allegiances throughout. The most significant instance of this notion for Chihiro can be found in Haku, but the most obvious dichotomy exists in the late-film revelation that Yubaba has a twin sister, Zeniba, who looks and sounds exactly like her. With Zeniba’s help, Chihiro learns that Yubaba too has a weakness and ultimately can be reasoned with. This last feature of Miyazaki’s film most distinctly sets it apart from what most commonly refer to as “kids’ movies” – a sad, but often true designation that fairly or unfairly gets tied to most animated films. Miyazaki never makes the concessions even critical darling and animation juggernaut Pixar sometimes makes – potty humor, intentional kiddy jokes, clearly defined villains. Instead, he opts for more complicated characterizations and trusts his audience to pass moral judgments on its own.

To construct this densely rich narrative and utterly imaginative setting, Miyazaki and his team of animators at Studio Ghibli bring to life some of the most breathtakingly beautiful traditionally animated visuals in film history. Animation is assuredly Miyazaki’s perfect medium as it grants him complete artistic liberty to create the characters, creatures, and architecture that populate his imagined world. Spirited Away is flush with meticulous details – the ornate castle décor, the features of each different spirit, the emotions present on its characters’ faces – that add to the believability of the story and allow us to get lost in this strange new world.

Over the course of Spirited Away’s two hours, Chihiro goes through remarkable change; we see her grow onscreen. By film’s end, she willingly accepts the bizarre when it at first terrified her. She confronts the unknown with confidence. And, after she wins back her parents’ freedom, she follows them out of the abandoned theme park with head and shoulders high, presumably determined to face the challenge of adapting to her new home. In the end, then, Miyazaki’s greatest achievement is less about daydreaming through life and living in the fantastic and more about how our experiences (whether real or imagined) shape us and prepare us for real life. Chihiro knows she’s never destined for life in the spirit realm, but her journey to the bathhouse and back leads her home – a place everyone’s path toward self-discovery will lead them if he or she is ready – like Chihiro – to meet it head on.

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The Wind Rises

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(Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)

The Consequence of a Dream 

Cinema has suffered an unfortunate loss if it is to be believed that The Wind Rises is indeed Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. But, as it appears likely that this notion is true, the film also stands as a fitting swansong for this most beloved of artists; a natural progression of Miyazaki’s work and fascination with the ability to fly given an entire feature dedicated to the art and science of flight. Leaving behind the soot sprites, bathhouse spirits, and forest gods that populated his most famous works, The Wind Rises is firmly rooted in reality, documenting a fictionalized biographical account of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi on the brink of WWII. Soft-spoken, kindhearted, and with his head in the clouds – probably not unlike Miyazaki himself – Jiro spends his youth and his young adult years chasing down a dream to expand the possibilities of air travel through innovative and boundary-pushing designs. “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,” the real Horikoshi once said – subsequently inspiring Miyazaki to adapt his story – and the filmmaker captures that hope in this touching and visually stunning portrait of a daring dreamer.

Jiro’s vision of the future of flight comes at a most devastating time for this young engineer as pre-war Japan enlists its greatest minds to further the industrialization of the economically lagging nation in attempts to catch up with the West. And, as history has taught us, in its desperation the great Asian country chose the losing side during the impending war. Thus, Jiro is caught in a moral dilemma – implicit in the film’s narrative – that has paramount implications regarding innovators, their creation, and how it is employed. Miyazaki’s film, then, raises the important question: Is art worth creating if it’s going to be exploited? And while the film does not explicitly address this question – or the notion of whether or not this creator is complicit in the destruction of all his creation has wrought – Miyazaki is fully aware of the impact his chosen subject matter may have on a world where his country did not emerge a victor of that war. The beauty lies in the decision to leave the waters muddied. The Wind Rises does not merely make a generic anti-war statement, nor is it a questionable endorsement of Japan’s role in that great conflict.

This is because, at its core, Miyazaki’s film is not about WWII at all. Yes, the prospect of the inevitable war looms over the entirety of the film, but Miyazaki is less concerned with the details of said events and more interested in unearthing the motivations and inspirations behind this engineer as he seeks to create beautiful airplanes. At one point, Jiro asks his friend Honjo who he thinks the military will use these planes to bomb to which he replies with a list of several European and other Western nations almost absent-mindedly, eventually concluding with a “does it really matter?” shrug. This attitude belies the character of both Jiro and Honjo and leads us to wonder if these two subconsciously pretend their advances aren’t being used to destroy human life in order to suppress the guilt and continue on in their work.

One might sit through The Wind Rises and feel dissatisfied with the film’s somewhat ambiguous finale. On the surface – especially to Western viewers – we might wonder why Miyazaki lets Jiro off the hook so easily. It brings up the question mentioned earlier that Miyazaki’s film avoids: Should Jiro be held accountable for the terror that he helped create? Without the film’s final scene, it would seem as if Miyazaki does absolve his subject, but the inclusion of that last sequence is telling and perhaps most crucial in understanding where the filmmaker stands on the issue. After the success of his Mitsubishi A5M, the crowning achievement of his hard work, Jiro traipses through the debris of destroyed aircraft and the carnage of this worldwide war. He’s met once again by his childhood idol Giovanni Caproni in a vision and expresses regret that his machines had been used to such horrific ends. Caproni consoles him by reminding him that he still succeeded in creating beautiful airplanes – his entire work’s mission. One might read an ends-justify-the-means motif in the film’s final moments, but it would seem rather that Miyazaki is able to see a silver lining. The film ends with Jiro’s wife encouraging him from beyond death to live his life to the fullest.

Jiro, it seems, has not been fully exonerated. In the end, he must reckon with the consequences of his dream and how it was twisted into something deadly and utterly regrettable. He, like his entire country, does not walk away unscathed, but Miyazaki’s charge via Nahoko is one of redemption: Jiro’s talents and genius can be used for good. And, with the Second World War behind him, that is what we presume he will do. It’s an uplifting and apt ending for a film (and a career) from an artist who used his unparalleled skills of storytelling and gorgeous animation to create some of the past thirty years’ most beautiful films beloved by audiences worldwide.

Thus, it would be remiss to make no mention of the superb craftsmanship of The Wind Rises, certainly one of Miyazaki’s most technically accomplished films in his already impressive repertoire. The filmmaker’s imagination, though not stretched to its fantastical limits, has not been merely tamed as he places his story in a very real-world setting. In fact, this setting unlocks an as yet unseen attention to detail that makes this animated film feel very much lived in by its characters. The movements and gestures of his characters are perfectly fluid giving them an uncanny humanlike realism (with, of course, the exception of the intentionally caricatured Kurokawa, Jiro’s amusingly scowling and short-statured supervisor). Too, it’s clear the team of animators at Studio Ghibli have done its homework in creating an exquisitely detailed 1930s Japanese landscape. The vistas of the countryside are lush and gorgeous in a way only an animated feature helmed by Miyazaki could be.

Though this newfound and welcome adherence to realism dominates most of the film, Miyazaki manages to find a way to unleash his wondrous creativity in splendid fashion. As alluded to previously, the narrative is punctuated by imagined encounters between Jiro and the famed Italian engineer Caproni who consistently serves as a major motivating force in the young man’s work. These moments of brief plunges into Fellinian surrealism (and no, not just because Caproni is Italian) allow Miyazaki to indulge in the fantastical elements of flight present in most of his previous works. Similarly, in discussion of this film much has been made of the early earthquake sequence that brings Jiro and his future bride together – and for good reason. In an incredible and unexpected sequence of shots, Miyazaki first shows us the cracking of the tectonic plates far beneath the earth’s surface, then the rippling of the ground that moves under rows of houses like waves in the ocean, and finally to the near derailing of the train carrying our protagonist. It’s a visually arresting scene – one as effectively devastating as anything CGI could create in a live-action film – that serves as a powerful reminder that animation is as important a medium for artistic expression as footage shot with a camera.

Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly given the sheer number of memorable images and characters engraved in the minds of longstanding Miyazaki fans, The Wind Rises also boasts some of the most beautiful visuals he’s committed to film. Much of this is due to the pace in which the film moves along. Miyazaki generously takes the time and grace for compositional shots that give us room for contemplation and add to the film’s very lived-in setting – rain beginning to fall on weeds before pouring, stalks of wheat blowing in the wind, cigarette smoke swirling and filling the air, snow falling lightly against beautifully drawn backdrops. It all adds to this subtly moving, tenderly crafted story that is not overburdened by its complicated subject matter, but instead remains an honest meditation on the will to pursue one’s dreams. As Nahoko reminds Jiro, and by proxy Miyazaki to us, the wind still rises; therefore we must try to live.

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