Swedish Charlotta texted me at the start of last week to tell me that, while shopping in town, she had bought two films in the immensely sad HMV closing down sale. One was an unnamed indie film starring Emma Watson, and the other was a film she had grown up with, Miyazaki's Spirited Away. She was incredibly keen to show me it when I said I didn't think I'd ever come across it before, and so we found ourselves sitting in front of the telly the very next day, trying out my brand new bargain DVD player.
Thanks to the complicated menu on the actual DVD, it took us a good twenty minutes before we figured out how to watch the film in Japanese with English subtitles, rather than dubbed over with cheesy American voices. Turns out you press play and it asks you about the language, and the language options menu is there only to take up the empty space on the DVD menu. Idiotic. Never had this problem with VHS. Nevertheless, we got there in the end and cheered as we heard Chihiro speak her native tongue for the first time. The overdub option is pointless, anyway. After a few minutes of watching, you're so engrossed that you don't realise you're looking down at subtitles every couple of seconds.
As with the best films, it doesn't take long for the anything interesting to happen. There isn't much background information to give in the opening scenes, as too much would probably distract from the true magic of the other world on the other side of the stone gate. Chihiro's parents, before settling into their new house, decide to take a look through the mysterious tunnel their car is parked in front of. What they find is a creepily deserted theme park-like town and some food that is still warm. The parents tuck in happily, but Chihiro is more cautious. Sensibly, it is shown, after night arrives and she discovers the eerie truth about the place her family has stumbled upon- this is the spirit world.
Left without her parents in this weirdest of weird worlds, Chihiro is forced to work deeper and deeper into the core of this alien society to find a way to stay alive and fit in for long enough to find a way home. Miyazaki shows off his uniquely astonishing imagination as layer after layer of the spirit world is peeled away, introducing stranger characters at every turn to create a Tolkienesque sense of realism in the truly extraordinary. It is obvious that his world is rich and thick with symbolism and metaphors, but that's for figuring out later. The first time you see the film, it's much more rewarding to just delight in the creativity and beauty of it all. The last animated film I looked at was the CGI animated film Wreck It Ralph from last year. I don't think I mentioned the animation techniques once in any of the paragraphs. There just isn't any comparison between computer-generated films and those like Spirited Away, which have been hand drawn carefully in a process that can take years. The 2D drawings, ironically, add an extra depth to the film. In it, you can see the artist's work and devotion towards their product. The detail in the lines of Yubaba's face demonstrates this.
It is easy to get drawn into the world of Spirited Away, and is often surprising to remember, while you're watching it, that it's actually in Japanese and you don't understand a word. There are many things that are left unexplained at the end of the film, and much is simply left to the audience's imagination. This gives you the story from Chihiro's perspective; it is wonderful, perplexing yet not totally unfathomable, and all too fleeting. It captures you and sucks you in, then lets you go again, a little bit wiser for the experience. Spirited Away is a film I wish I'd grown up with.
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