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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, April 01, 2003 at 8:55PM :

In Reply to: You will understand this, I think posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, April 01, 2003 at 8:32PM :

Ah, that horrible Baba Yaga... always scaring good children.
Ghost World

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films are popular the world over; here's hoping his Spirited Away makes an impact on America

By Noel Murray
Nashville Scene
October 2-9, 2002

Spirited Away

dir.: Hayao Miyazaki
PG, 124 min.

Hayao Miyazaki has been called "the Walt Disney of Japan," but American audiences looking for Disney-style slickness and sentiment in Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli productions tend to walk away disappointed. Undeniably, there's a rare beauty about his animated features (of which the best known in the U.S. would be My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke). Largely eschewing computers, the Ghibli team are famous for hand-painting nearly every frame of their pictures, and when Miyazaki writes and directs, he reportedly checks his assistants' work frame by frame and repaints cels himself if he's not satisfied. The resultant films have such lushness and color that even the backgrounds look ready to be hung on a wall. But the Miyazakis don't have the fluidity of Disney. Ghibli animation--like almost all Japanese anime--contains a surfeit of jerky motion and simplified expression. When people say that Miyazaki characters act like real people, what they mean is that their broad gestures are well-observed. The little girls in Totoro and Kiki run and stumble and daydream in ways that are keenly familiar, if noticeably unfussy.

In Miyazaki's latest feature, Spirited Away, the lead character is Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl whose perpetual boredom and petulance is indicated by her folded arms and purposefully impassive face. As the movie opens, she's moving to a new community, and while Chihiro rides in the backseat of the family car and thinks about the friends she's left behind, she tries to ignore her parents' almost offensive cheerfulness. Then, while searching for the right road to their hillside house, Chihiro's mother and father drive up to a dark tunnel. They all get out of the car and walk through, eventually to what looks to be an abandoned amusement park. After her parents smell some food, they sit down and start eating while Chihiro wanders off grumpily. When she returns, they've turned into pigs.

Spirited Away was created in Miyazaki's typical style: Starting with a loose idea, the director makes up the particulars of the story while the movie is in production. He and his assistants animate a sequence, and then the director stops to contemplate what should happen next. In Spirited Away, this slow process creates a delightful situational logic: At any given moment, what's happening follows sensibly from what happened immediately before, even if it doesn't necessarily jibe with what happened 20 minutes ago. After her folks undergo their porcine transformation, Chihiro quickly has to learn to make do in a ghost town populated by actual spirits. With the help of a sporadically friendly boy named Haku, she gets a crash course in the rules of the shadow world into which she has trespassed. But she ultimately goes against his advice and applies for work with the witch Yu-Baaba at a public bath patronized by deities and demons--all with quirks that ape human failings and remind our heroine of how she'll need to be both clever and morally forthright to get out of her predicament.

If the narrative drift of Spirited Away can be hard to follow, the action is mostly brisk and relentless. But as with all of Miyazaki's films, Spirited Away comes so clearly from the animator's subconscious that it can almost make a person drowsy. The moment-by-moment plundering of his own head leads Miyazaki to return to certain images and themes. He loves airplanes and other flying crafts and beasts; he also likes to draw massive, lumbering, awe-inspiring god-creatures. He punctuates scenes with quiet images of grass and trees bending in the wind, and is similarly concerned with conveying size and scope. He's deeply in touch with the emotions of children, but also populates his films with elderly characters who share warring impulses of benevolence and ruthlessness. Amid these various thematic concerns, Miyazaki has a central message to impart about the dangers of man losing touch with the natural world in the rush to adopt the latest technology.

Most distinctive in Miyazaki's career has been his global sensibility, which gives his pictures a sense of design equally influenced by Japanese and classical European elements. His first feature, the nuanced 1979 spy adventure The Castle of Cagliostro, takes place almost entirely in picturesque French vacation spots, and the action in Kiki occurs in a vaguely Bavarian village. Miyazaki's Euro-fetish reached its apex in his underrated 1992 film Porco Rosso, which pays homage to Milton Caniff and Howard Hawks in its tale of a mercenary humanoid pig aviator in between-the-wars Italy.

Though Miyazaki's work should have enough familiar elements to attract a sizable American audience, he hasn't had the success in the U.S. that he's had in almost every other global cinema market. The Walt Disney Company bought the rights to his films years ago and saw respectable home video sales with its sensitively dubbed versions of Totoro and Kiki. But the studio stumbled when it farmed out the theatrical release of Miyazaki's 1997 worldwide smash Princess Mononoke to its arthouse-minded partner Miramax. Mononoke didn't connect with a broad American audience in part because the translation was too staid and too caught up in explicating the arcane, very Japanese mythology at the expense of rounding out the characters. It's also one of the weaker Miyazakis, even though the film was, prior to Spirited Away, the all-time box office champ in Japan. The ponderous eco-awareness and the complicated tribal conflicts largely rehash the ideas of some of the director's simpler, more deeply felt earlier films.

Spirited Away, by contrast, should connect with almost anyone who sees it. The atmosphere is gentler and more in tune with the rhythms of universal myths and fairy tales. Though the setting is definitely Japanese, if not downright exotic, the character of Yu-Baaba and other elements of the story are rooted in the European "Baba Yaga" folktales. Much of Miyazaki's method here is based on dazzling the audience by contrasting the common and the uncommon. There's scarcely a frame of Spirited Away that doesn't contain something amazing, from floating frogs and "stink gods" to skull phones and trains that glide across water.

Miyazaki also restrains his preachy side, letting his warnings about greed and irresponsibility emerge naturally from the actions of Chihiro and the strange characters she meets. Spirited Away is about the trials of transition, and this theme may be the ideal match to the filmmaker's "and then this happened" approach, since nothing in the story has permanence. Though Spirited Away initially seems to be mostly an eye-popping head trip, the soul of the movie is revealed in the final image of Chihiro. She turns her head to look back at yet another world that she has to leave, and though she's as expressionless as she was at the beginning of the story, she carries the audience's pining for innocence lost behind her blank eyes.

-- Sadie
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