Thursday, May 28, 2009

Great Movies: Swept Away By The Wonders of Growing Up

By Alec Horowitz

‘Spirited Away’ is Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, which is saying a lot for a man who makes a masterpiece every time he makes a film. This is the second Great Movie column I have written about a Miyazaki film, the first being ‘Flying Into Adolescence’, about the wonderful ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. As I will point out, yet again, our hero is a heroine. Miyazaki likes female characters. When asked about what inspired him to make this film, he said he went out to dinner with a friend, whose daughter came along with them. She seemed lost in her own world. The film starts indeed with a daughter, sitting in the backseat of her parent’s car, holding onto flowers, upset about having to go to a new school. She comes off as a spoiled kid.

Their car arrives in what her parents think is an abandoned amusement park. She is scared. She feels something wrong that her parents don’t see. Her parents walk into a line of booths. They quickly see free food, start to chow down and say ‘Don’t worry, daddy’s got a debit card’, and soon they are magically turned into pigs. Spirits start to come out and ten year old Chihiro is lost, and now a temporary orphan. The spirits are colorful and a testament to animation. She meets a boy who works there named Haku, who tells Chihiro he has known her since she was very young. She is baffled but too scared at the moment to ask questions. She starts to fade. Haku gives her a piece of food to keep her strength up.

She soon meets new friends and foes. A bathhouse girl named Lin, who becomes like an older sister to her and an old man with many legs who works in the boiler room named Kamajii. One of the most charming scenes early on in the film is when Lin tells Chihiro to say thank you to Kamajii for giving her a job. It’s a small scene, but it’s the first scene that shows growth. Maybe Chihiro’s parents didn’t teach her to say thank you but Lin will.

The film’s music is lovely because the Japanese Philharmonic performs it. The song ‘One Summers Day’ is haunting, as it begins with just a few notes of a lovely piano. Chihiro soon meets her first villain, Zeniba who takes away her name, after she is forced to ask for her first job and refuses to leave till she gets it. If she can do the job, Zeniba will let her family go. If she doesn’t, she will work at the spirit resort forever.

Chihiro meets another villain. The villain is a spirit of greed. Though, he doesn’t stay a villain and even he can change when he finds somewhere that he is accepted, but I’m going to give away too much. I will just say there is a scene where he offers her gold. She refuses to take it; instead just saying his thank you is enough. She is growing up. Growing up is what the film is all about. This is Miyazaki’s masterpiece. I’m not going to give away too much than I already have. Expect to say I hope you find this film as wonderful, haunting and memorable as I did.

I remember seeing this film in the theater. In the United States, the film was released by Disney. People assumed because it was animation, it was just for kids, but the theater ended up with many screaming and crying kids. Japanese animation, or as they call it, 'anime' isn't often made just to please children. The Japanese understand that animation is a artform. They understand that it is a art. Hayao Miyazaki understands that animation is a artform where you can find magic in the quiet, the dark and yes, even the cute.

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