Saturday, 28 January 2017

World Animation: Japan - Spirited Away

Despite the enormous amount of anime now available for viewers to watch, films made by Studio Ghibli always always stood out due to their unique style, intricate animation, and often deep, complex characters and themes. While there are a number of films made by this studio that were successful outside of Japan itself, there is no doubt that Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001) was a massive success both within Japan and around the world. Despite it being aimed towards a younger audience, it resonates with nearly everyone.

Fig 1. Spirited Away (2001)
One factor that could have influenced the success of Spirited Away could be due to its western influences which made it more palatable to those who do not often watch anime or other films/animations from Japan. "There are actually many Western influences and resemblances: Homer's Odyssey, Lewis Carroll, L Frank's undoubtedly in a class and genre of its own: its alien, exotic qualities, all the more intense for a non-Japanese audience, are part of how extraordinarily pleasurable it is to watch," (Bradshaw, 2003). As the culture of Japan is so different from western countries such as America, the stories, characters, and themes in anime are often lost to those who aren't accustomed to it. Even though Miyazaki seemed to want appeal to the western world more than Studio Ghibli's previous films, it is clear that he put an immense amount of much love into Spirited Away. Proof of this is the depth of the characters, the themes throughout the film, and the dedication to art and animation that is consistent through the whole two hour film (which is quite long for an animated film).

It is hard to get people to fully understand how time consuming and labor intensive animation is unless they have made animations before. It is not a fast process and it is not an easy process even if computers are used. Good animation takes time, patience and practice, and it can be difficult to make the person or thing that is being animated to feel real and alive - to give it weight and true emotion. Miyazaki does this and more in Spirited Away, "animation is a painstaking process, and there is a tendency to simplify its visual elements. Miyazaki, in contrast, offers would be easier to suggest vaguely moving presences, but Miyazaki takes care to include many figures we recognise. All of them are in motion. And it isn't the repetitive motion of much animation, in which the only idea is simply to show a figure moving. It is realistic, changing, detailed motion," (Ebert, 2012). Even in crowds of people, you can see faces that you recognise but are not needed for that specific scene. Them being there doesn't always have significance but it feels more realistic. The more you look at the surroundings the more little details you see going on. The personalities of the characters can be seen in their actions and movements at all times, nothing feels like stock or generic animation, everything is there to enhance the atmosphere - even if it is not part of the actual story. This gives realness and depth to the world that is absent from many other animated films.

Fig 2. Crowd of Familiar Faces Wave Chihiro Goodbye
Even though Studio Ghibli is considered to be 'the Disney of Japan', it is very distinct from Disney itself. Both Studio Ghibli and Disney worked together to bring Spirited Away to the rest of the world, but putting 'Walt Disney Studio Presents...' before Studio Ghibli's name on the film's poster feels unfair, "rather than Disney's Spirited Away, the movie could better be considered Mr. Miyazaki's 'Through the Looking Glass'...shifts of the character's personalities reflect what distinguishes Mr. Miyazaki from Disney or any other American Animator. His movies are as much about moodiness as mood, and the prospect of animated figures not being what they seem -- either spiritually for physically -- heightens the tension," (Mitchell, 2001). The amount of depth within Miyazaki's characters is unique when compared to other animations, and this is not limited to the main character. The majority of characters have a level of depth and complexity that is very unusual in an animated film, but it makes you more invested in the story. Even if it is so fantastical and culturally alien to some viewers that they do not understand why something is the way it is, they still go along with it.

Even if the audience doesn't always understand (most likely the western audience) why things happen, why there is a giant talking baby, why there are little fuzzy puff balls with eyes moving coal around, or why a spirit called No Face is so intent on becoming friends with a human, the story is still impactful. Spirited Away contains an array of themes that moral lessons that tend to be important values in Japanese culture. This includes caring for others (especially your family), respect (especially for your elders), working hard, and dedication. All of these themes are in Spirited Away and is shown as we see the main character, a 10 year old girl named Chihiro, grow up as she learns to overcome different obstacles. Initially she is stubborn, sullen, and relatively impolite. However, as she becomes more determined to save her parents and help her friends, she matures and achieves her goals, showing the audience that respect, dedication, and love are all important when it comes to growing up.

Interestingly though, it is not just the young Chihiro that is seen as somewhat unfavourable in the beginning of the film. One of the other main themes - if not the main theme - in Spirited Away is about greed and how greed has a negative impact on everyone. "Chihiro's parents fall eagerly upon the counter jammed with food and stuff their mouths...they eat so much they double or triple in size. They eat like pigs, and they become pigs. These aren't the parents of American animation, but parents who can do things that frighten a child," (Ebert, 2012). However, this is not the only example of how greed is expressed as toxic. Everyone in the bathhouse, where the film takes place, is obsessed with gold. It leads to the evil witch, Yubaba, to steal the names of her employees so they're locked into work due to the loss of their identity. The greed of the employees within the bathhouse corrupts No Face, who absorbs the emotions and energy that surrounds him. It also caused Haku, a river spirit who can shapeshift into a dragon, to steal a magic golden seal from Yubaba's sister which caused him to be gravely injured/sick. The main lesson is simple and obvious - do not be greedy.

Another interesting aspect of this film is the hinted jabs at pollution and urban expansion. While it isn't necessarily as direct as the other themes, once you look deeper into the film it can be seen hinted at throughout the story. "There is a malodorous heap of black slime, a river creature whose body has sopped up piles of pollution. Shape-shifting, so common in Japanese fantasy, takes place here, and the Haku, who first befriended Chihiro is revealed as a lithe sea dragon with fierce fangs," (Ebert, 2012). Both of these - the 'heap of black slime' and Haku - express the negative environmental impact that humans have. When the black slime first shows up at the bath house, everyone recoils in disgust and the job of serving the slime is thrust upon Chihiro. The little girl takes on the task, and then realises that something is wrong with the creature. Everyone works together and pulls all of the garbage and pollution out of the spirit, which is revealed to be a powerful water spirit. Chihiro is rewarded for her efforts. Similarly, Haku has forgotten his name after he sold himself to Yubaba, and cannot find his way back home. However, eventually Chihiro discovers that his name is actually the Spirit of the Kohaku River. The reason why he could not figure out his name was partially due to the fact that his river was destroyed by humans to make room for apartments. Perhaps this is partially why Chihiro is initially met with hostility as she is a human.

Fig 3. Helping the River Spirit
It is unquestionable that Spirited Away is something special, as indicated by becoming the highest grossing film in Japan in history, becoming the most successful Japanese film worldwide, and being given several awards. Miyazaki made something more than a long anime film, he added complexity and depth that was not needed but is admired and appreciated. He showed the world that even if the Japanese culture is very different to western cultures, we all have similar values and can enjoy the same things. Spirited Away provided an intricate, involved story that related to various cultures, societies, and age groups while delivering genuine messages about respect, dedication, compassion, generosity, and kindness.

Bradshaw, P. (2003) Spirited Away At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017
Ebert, R. (2012) Spirited Away At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017
Mitchell, E. (2002) Film Review; Conjuring Up Atmosphere Only Anime Can Deliver At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017
Peters, P. (2014) Spirited Away Review At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Spirited Away [Poster] At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017
Figure 2. Crowd of Familiar Faces Wave Chihiro Goodbye [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 28/1/2917
Figure 3. Helping the River Spirit [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 28/1/2017

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