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What to eat while watching:
Strong Bad, when asked what he would look like as a Japanese cartoon said, "My head would have to be little bitty with real big eyes.... And for some reason, I got blue hair. You gotta have blue hair. Then there's my mouth: real tiny when it's closed, ridiculously huge when it's open." And it's true: there are some aspects of "Japanimation" that make it instantly recognizable, such as the petite-or-enormous facial features of its characters.
But there are other common facets of Japanese animation that are subtler, but no less distinctive of the style. For one thing, you'll notice extremely detailed, realistic backgrounds in most Japanese animation. Settings are rendered with incredible care and attention to light and shadow, so that human characters are more abstracted than the settings in which they move.
Rather than get into a deep discussion of the differences between U.S. animation and Japanese animation, I'll refer you to the excellent book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It's a treatise in comic-book form that casts a great deal of light--and credibility--on this often-overlooked art form, and overlaps into the realm of animation. The other reference you should check out is Strong Bad, himself animated, at www.homestarrunner.com.
Spirited Away is a great example of Japanese animation, and more than that, it's a very fine movie in and of itself; similar to the way in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a top-notch martial arts film which supercedes that genre by being a superb adventure all around. As such, this movie holds the record in Japan for the highest grossing movie of all time.
Spirited Away begins as young Chihiro embarks on a move with her parents. She sulks in the back seat as her father misses a turn, then tries a "short cut" through dense forest. The road ends at an overgrown building with an entryway, and, feeling game, dad decides to explore it. Chihiro is afraid, watching her mom and dad enter the strange tunnel. But she doesn't want to stay alone. The animators capture her youth in the gesture of her bouncing in place as her parents start to vanish into the gloom. Then she runs after them, not wanting to be left alone.
On the other side of the building, they discover and abandoned theme park. The space is clearly enchanted, but the parents, being adults, don't recognize the otherworldliness of the deserted place. Instead, dad smells something delicious and explores the ghost marketplace until he finds plates of steaming food. He and mom dig in, figuring to pay the proprietor whenever he or she returns. But by now we all know, as Chihiro does, that something isn't right, and indeed, her parents undergo a monstrous transformation that leaves the girl alone in an alien world.
A magical boy named Haku finds Chihiro and asks her to flee the weird place, but she wants to rescue her parents. This will be difficult because the abandoned theme park is actually a bathhouse for spirits. They come in mobs, like Midwesterners to Disneyland, to soak and regale themselves; but they can't tolerate humans because humans have an odd smell and don't belong there. Haku, however, is an important ally to Chihiro, and she makes more friends as she is slowly subsumed into the bathhouse staff.
The spirits are amazingly drawn, and really let the medium of animation run to the limits of its capacity. Characters are fully embodied by their renderings. The man-creature who runs the bathhouse's boiler room, for example, is an eight-limbed hermit, but with an avuncular soft spot for Chihiro. Despite living in the basement, he wears sunglasses; and since he has to stoke the coals, enchant the soot, deliver the herbal salts, and manage the thousands of baths above, his many, extendable arms make him a well-drawn candidate for the job. No live-action actor, even with computer enhancement, could capture it so well. Not even Christopher Walken. Not even Keanu Reeves!
Yubaba, the bathhouse matron reluctantly hires Chihiro as a bath cleaner. As part of the deal, she takes Chihiro's name away and reassigns her the name, Sen. Running hot and cold, but always with an eye toward profit, Yubaba forces Sen to take on the hardest, most difficult chores. But Sen manages to excel and slowly win the respect of her coworkers, though freedom from Yubaba and the disenchantment of her parents continue to elude her. In the course of this surreal tale, she falls in love with Haku, befriends a lonely spirit called No Face and meets Yubaba's twin sister, Zeniba.
The landscape is startling, stark and beautiful. The spirits are strange and alluring. The whole movie is rendered with incredible care and attention to detail. There's also some dry humor, as in the dialogue between Chihiro and Zeniba. Though the "camera" cuts back and forth between them, Zeniba's mountainous nose remains in the frame even when the rest of her body is out of the picture. I got a chuckle out of that.
Some familiar plot devices made me think of other Asian genres. As in the typical martial arts film, our hiro, I mean hero, has to slowly gain the respect of her fellows by trial, error, and perseverance. She also needs to resist the temptations of greed and gossip. Another familiar plot device, that it was all a dream, is quickly and thankfully dismissed. Though the entire thing is a fantasy, I rather like that it's not relegated to the fickle realm of the unconscious.
In all, I was transported more by this movie than any other I can recall seeing in the past year. Though I had to still the film and rewind a few times due to phone calls and pet care, I didn't find the interruptions distracting at all. The film so totally engrosses that it permeated my own dreams that night. I strongly recommend this movie. It's really beautiful and engaging.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.