Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)


[Voices; English version] Daveigh Chase (Chihiro), Suzanne Pleshette (Yubaba). Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Rating: PG. Running time: 125 minutes.

Twice now I have seen Spirited Away, and twice I am reluctant to write anything about it and confess I am lost for understanding words. Only this, 2001 and Synecdoche have done this to me in recent memory, all for very different reasons. But it is undoubtedly the case that, despite universal praise, for some reason Spirited Away does not resonate when viewed through my eyes. The first time I could put it down to double-alienation: Japanese animé, when combined with foreign audio, is a pretty impenetrable format for a film to take when watched from the West. Now, however, seeing round two with flawless dubbing from the men behind Disney and Pixar, in particular Lasseter who masterminded Toy Story, the language barrier isn’t a defence I am left with.

Instead, whilst now liberated from staunch observance of subtitles I can naturally see and admire the pure imagination that has gone into production here, and whilst the grandiosity of that task must not be under appreciated – Miyazaki took on the utmost of tedious but ultimately rewarding tasks of drawing thousands of frames by hand, out of a refusal to let CGI dominate – despite all this, I nevertheless cannot help but feel a delightful vision and colour palette is insufficient if not accompanied by a responsible guiding hand taking us through the wild creation. This world is as illogically barmy as the one seen in Alice in Wonderland, with as many grotesque creations as there are beautiful ones. And yet, just as the innocent young girl here, Chihiro, takes for granted the situation she is thrown into with her parents turned into pigs, automatically accepting reality and seldom asking questions, it is demanded of us that we do the same. We are as much in the dark as she is, picking up only little snippets throughout which hint at the nature of the world and its rules of conduct. The result, for me at least, was a level of unrewarded intrigue that leaves a disappointingly sour taste.

It is hard to pin down this criticism in my mind, for obviously I accept that fantasy films exist and that most – even the best – are predicated on certain brute facts about their foreign worlds that we must accept without question. The point, however, is that somehow without ever having any formal explanation, films like A New Hope manage to introduce us to the world of Star Wars and instantaneously give us a sense of what both the Force and the Dark Side consist of, against the backdrop of a clear mission in mind with regards to what the protagonists must do. The same certainly cannot be said for Spirited Away. Nobody seems to mind, and the chances are you won’t too, but for me, its imagination and spontaneity is undermined by a lack of understanding as to what is going on and why. It seems as much of a fantasy film as it does a mystery. I’m on my own, but to budge from this position would be to lie to you as much as myself.


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