Spirited Away (2002)      

*WARNING: This Is An Unfinished Review - I'm printing it anyway because I won't have time to work on it before it becomes obsolete. I know the law. Fuck Nabokov.

MPAA Rated: PG ("Some scary moments")

I don't have answers. But here are some questions generated by this film. How much of its appeal to smart Westerners results from it being a Japanese movie? Would it be better or would it be less extraordinary if I followed Japanese animation?1 If I were Japanese? And what about the couple of plot elements Western audiences found 'icky' like the sexual tension between a nine year old girl and a fifteen year old boy going on thirty? Facts—these are the few things we have to work with. Fact one: we are told it was huge in Japan. I'm sure this is true. Fact two: Experts agree this is much better than his previous film 'Princess Mononoke.' Since when do experts agree? I probably made this one up. We have one fact. The notion that there can be no purely Japanese animation because of Western influences is a distraction, and we must operate under the premise that if Little Mermaid is 90% American, then this is at least 70% Japanese. Fact: If you think that was icky, try Eric Rohmer!

new truths about Japan

Japan has a very special quality; more, I think, than any place else in the world. Its surface is a mirror or, perhaps better, the dark waters in which Narcissus saw himself. When he looks at Japan, each Western visitor sees something of himself, or rather himself as he would like to be. It is hopeless, I am afraid, to suppose that a Western visitor's observations reveal any new truths about Japan.

— Charles Moore (Impressions of Japanese Architecture)

understanding The Seven Samurai

An American critic attempting to describe what kind of movie The Seven Samurai is, and to assess its qualities as a work of art, may experience some constraint. Kurosawa, has said, "I haven't read one review from abroad that hasn't read false meanings into my pictures." I might feel more uneasy about my ignorance of Japanese traditions and the "false meanings" I may read into Kurosawa's work had I not learned that Kurosawa himself was responsible for the framing device of Rashomon: by Yankee cunning I calculate that if he could rise above such blunders, my interpretation of his work may not be destroyed by occasional errors. For example, is the setting fifteenth or sixteenth century Japan? I can't tell the difference. And I can't really understand the Japanese code of sexual honor-the intense shame of the farmers' wives who, having been abducted by the brigands, are so dishonored that they choose death rather than rescue and reunion with their families.

— Pauline Kael (I Lost It At The Movies)

So Moore says we can't, Kael says we can. I haven't made up my mind.

Fragments of Contentions
  • the unexplained elements which seem to assume some sort of knowledge - like you already read the book - or something - the characters and events which seem to imply or invite speculation on back stories which may or may not have actually been written - it's very much like Dune.

  • never stopping and dwelling - contrast the flying dragon thing (the little romantic suggestion, which was just right) to the cave saga in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - so it's not a question of Eastern films dwell too much - it's a question of Miyazaka doesn't want to waste our time. Ang Lee has no problem with that.

  • the icky or disturbing elements, rather than being a flaw, are precisely why this film is so compelling - so much more compelling than Disney - a Disney movie just wouldn't have eaten the customers - the closest thing would be the walrus and the oysters from AIWL (1951) - which still affects me to this day - the bath house itself, naturally had an undercurrent of prostitution - but I had better not start talking about being attracted to animated Japanese women.
Theory in Progress

The characters are all part good and part evil

You have to get out of America for this nowadays. Amores Perros is an example of a non-cartoon in which characters are portrayed as complex, both likable and hatable. A Mexican film. Another good example would be the great westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, where one must resist the temptation to pass judgment, and just accept the characters (including and especially the Rotweiler) for what they are. So everyone's in color, except Angel Eyes (Good, Bad, Ugly). That guy was a total asshole. Oh, and by the way, a black and white western just doesn't make any sense. High Noon is a great film, but it's not a western.
In chronological order
  • The parents really were obnoxious pigs/but they are parents and they're to be loved.
  • The cranky boiler room man had the appearance of being a schizoid spider man, but was probably the most unilaterally good character in the film (he and his soot balls).
  • The no face monster was both to be pitied and reviled.
  • Haku was sort of part good, part evil. I mean how did he ever get mixed up in that whole racket in the first place. A little Darth Vader action going on there if you ask me. Going on in all of us.
  • The girl was innocent enough, but there is one point of interest. In the end, she chooses to face the challenge rather than take the baby up on his offer. this echoes Michelle Yeoh choosing to fight the young girl in Crouching Tiger not because it was necessary, but because she wanted to assert herself. I'm actually not sure if this brashness is supposed to be admired without reservation, or whether I am not the only who would have just said, okay, and opted out of the final conflict. What would Japanese people say about this? Or Miyazaki?
  • The grandmother (both of them) seemed to be both good and evil in one. Like a person and their un-doppleganger.
  • The baby wasn't really evil, just spoilt, and huge. But still an interesting character.
Other People's Thoughts
From: Take a Letter Maria
To: Bacon

yep, the whole haku/sen axis was icky considering she was barely
pubescent - save the children - although i shouldn't be talking

Oh no she shouldn't!

On Sat, 19 Oct 2002, Plain Film wrote:
> and what about the whole 'african americans' on the train thing. that was a
> bit odd.

japanese are either racist or have some pretty skewed perceptions. that's
what i've concluded from most anime. i don't remember what the guys on
the train look like. it's just strange. black people show up all the time
in anime - boorish, with curiously exaggerated features - and it's so
strange because you can't even tell if they're black or what. i don't
really know what i am talking about. but i understand what you mean.

another thing i like about miyazaki is the existence of a plucky young
female hero that hasn't discovered sex, is mostly sexless - except, like i
said, that damn haku thing - maybe it was a ploy to get more viewers.

and so many side jokes, it was unbelievable. the crow with the baby, the
three bouncing heads. all these little things.

mr plain film —
Another letter sent to me 2 weeks before I went and saw the film
From: Take A Letter Maria
To: Bacon

I know you don't have time, but…

a lot of anime is not worth it. but hayao miyazaki is something
different. his tales have universal appeal. and yet. his style
is distinctive, quirky, independent. that's the thing. it's real art, but
has scope and reach. that's because of the medium he's chosen - all of his
heroes are children. but of course it's no kid's flick. and just
graphically. it's better than anything i've ever seen put out by disney.
and disney's gone down and under. hayao miyazaki is one of the world's
greatest fantasists. this is something you absolutely have to see. if you
don't see it now, i will have to wrangle you a copy. pirated bc i have my
Elvis Mitchell wrote me the other day to tell me:
…with the voices of Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette and Jason Marsden. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki (PG, 125 minutes). The towering, lost dreaminess at the heart of this magnificent animated film is remarkable. Rather than "Spirited Away," the movie could better be considered Mr. Miyazaki's "Through the Looking Glass." His specialty is taking a primal wish of kids, transporting them to a fantasyland and then marooning them there. The picture's theme is dislocation. That's what happens to little Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), who's trapped in a dream world not of her making. No one else conjures the phantasmagoric and shifting morality of dreams - that fascinating and frightening aspect of having something that seems to represent good become evil - in the way this master Japanese animator does. His movies are as much about moodiness as mood, and the prospect of animated figures' not being what they seem - either spiritually or physically - heightens the tension
And finally, one cardiology fellow/anime expert says:
'It's alright. Have you seen Akira?'
Well have I?
Umm...a long time ago.
It was a long time ago.
I know. I know.
And now? [four weeks later]

1 Places to See or DVD Titles?
The Japan I visited comprised Tokyo (including a swimming pool with waves, at Summerland as well as Korakuen and Rikugien), Nikko, Takayama, Ise, Miyajima, Kurashiki, Okayama, Kyoto (for the Katsura and Shugaku-in palaces, the Kiyomizu-dera, the Nijo Castle, Daitoku-ji, Tenryu-ji, Ryonan-ji, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Saiho-ji, and so on), and bits of Nara, Osaks, Kobe, Nasoshima, Takamatsu, Kochi, Kompira, and villages on the way to Fukui and the Sea of Japan. I had seen some of these places before, long ago, and a few more recently. This time I was fully and blindingly transported (an emotion previously limited, for me, to the Athenian Acropolis, Chartres, the Alhambra, Batalha, L'Avventura, the Villa Giulia in Rome, John Soane's house in London, and the University of Virginia) by the Saiho-ji and the Yoshijima house in Takayama.

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