Day 23 – 30 Day Movie Challenge

Favorite Animated Film

Being a dad, it seems like I watch more animated movies than any other type. And since I am a film snob, I can’t stand to endlessly re-watch sub-par movies the way that I see so many parents do. Just because Cars is my kids’ favorite Pixar movie, that doesn’t mean that I am going to put it on every time they ask to watch a movie. Although they would be happy with that, I would go insane. And even if it was a good movie, it would lose some of its magic after seeing it twice a week for 3 years. I am constantly looking for good animated films to share with my family. That passion, along with my general love for film, led me to the breathtaking and impressive canon of Japanese hand-drawn animation director Hayao Miyazaki.

Now 70 years old, he is often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney. He has directed ten feature length animated films as well as several shorts and Japanese television shows and personally hand drawn tens of thousands of frames. I know that most Americans don’t think to highly of “Japanimation,” as it has been called. I can’t say that I blame them. Run of the mill “Japanimation” is irritating, overly violent, raunchy, indulgent, and devoid of good storytelling. But that description could be used to describe most modern American fare.

But Miyazaki is a glowing exception. His animation has an attention to detail that rivals the exacting standards of a company like Pixar. His intense yet delicate shading of colors would make his works of art more at home in a fine art gallery than in the Sunday comics. Miyazaki also has a great sense of humor, a gift for poetic storytelling, and a taste for adventure. His beautiful children’s movie, My Neighbor Totoro, is a charming and deeply affecting look at how a child’s imagination helps her endure a time of private fear and sadness. His most recent work, Ponyo, is a beautiful story of the transforming power of love. Princess Mononoke, is a powerful, sprawling epic about the need for humankind to respect and live in harmony with the environment. And that is a message that people of all faiths should proclaim.

I almost chose Princess Mononoke, but decided to go with what is widely considered to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Spirited Away combines the weighty mythologizing of Mononoke with the playful spirit of My Neighbor Totoro, but then goes in new directions as well. It is funny to me that Walt Disney Studios has helped bring Miyazaki’s features to American cinemas, because Miyazaki’s work tends to reveal that most Disney films are simplistic and predictable.

Spirited Away is a coming of age story of a little girl named Chihiro, who gets lost in a wonderland of spirits and witches, and her quest to find a way to break the curse that has transformed her parents so they can return home. Her only friend in this world is a mysterious boy named Haku who helps her to survive. Eventually we come to hope that Chihiro, her parents, and Haku will all eventually break away from the harsh tyranny of the powerful and dictatorial witch Yubaba.

The secret to their freedom lies in discovering their true identities. Yubaba gains her power and control over her subjects by stealing their identities, much like Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Yubaba can hold her own with the most memorable wicked witches of all time. She’s wider than she is tall, her head makes up half her body, she has snake-like shoots of white hair bound up in a bun, and her massive nose bulges out before her like a weapon. She snarls and cackles her way through the film. One of the things I love about Miyazaki is that he never sets up a simplistic face-off between good and evil. He knows we all have good and evil within us, and thus his “villains” have moments of kindness, and his heroes do things they regret.

If the film sounds complicated, it’s because it is. This film runs just over two hours, but with its fast pace and a plethora of subplots Spirited Away feels like Miyazaki decided to challenge George Lucas at his own game of exotic adventure and whimsy. There are enough bizarre creatures here to make the cantina in Star Wars look boring. The depth and fertility of Miyazaki’s imagination leaves me stunned at every turn.

Some will say that this film is too complex for children, and too scary. For small children, possibly. They could get lost in the intricate plot, and the monsters might scare them. I personally showed it to my kids starting at age 5 and up. But I think kids should be challenged to think through what they’re watching, and this is a story that provides great opportunities for discussion with grownups. Spirited Away is at times frightening, but it emphasizes the importance of an individual’s virtue, and affirms that the smallest of characters can make a big difference. It offers powerful displays of sacrificial love. And it, as I mentioned before, portrays “villains” who are redeemable and can be transformed by compassion and kindness.

Many Christians will probably berate me for my love of this film calling it occultic. But Miyazaki comes from a culture that is steeped in Shinto mythology and beliefs about the spirits of nature and of the dead. So of course, his story reflects such traditions and beliefs. But he is not “preaching” these ideas any more than Jiminy Cricket is preaching astrology when he croons about wishing upon a star. He is treating them as myth, as fantasy, and using them to illustrate lessons and morals that open-minded Christians will find quite similar to their own. The film makes no mention of “God” or any benevolent force which rules the world, but it does affirm the importance of personal virtues like: selflessness, sacrificial love, humility, friendship, compassion, and courage. People of any faith can read these characters as symbolic, and the story reflects powerful truths.

One spirit in particular, No Face, appears at first to be gentle and friendly. But he becomes more and more mysterious, shifting between gentleness and violent destructive behavior. Eventually, we come to understand that he is a lonely spirit who seeks approval. When he is around greed and evil, he responds with greed and evil. But when he is offered friendship and unconditional love, he seems to try a better path. Chihiro has patience with him and her kindness reminds me of how Christ patiently endures with me in my own tendency to become self-absorbed. He waits patiently, always offering love, forgiveness, and direction to a better way. No Face is amazed at Chihiro’s virtue. And I came to hope that he would abandon his violence and follow Chihiro to a better life. This is just one of many such parables within a vast tapestry of interconnected stories.

All in all, this is an absolute must-see. And the bigger the screen the better. The colors are incredible, from shots of a magical train that skims across the sea, to fantastical gardens and intricately painted murals. Well, I’ve said my piece. What is your favorite Animated movie? Do you love Miyazaki’s work as much as I do, or do you have another opinion. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Day 23 – 30 Day Movie Challenge”

  1. Spirited Away is the only Miyazaki I’ve seen, and I really like your discussion of it. I did love it, but found it not the most accessible movie. The sheer in-your-face weirdness of some of the happenings and creatures, the anime tendency to go over-the-top with grotesqueness, put me off, even as I understand it’s may be mostly a cultural style. Some of this — not all, by any means — felt like weirdness for weirdness’ sake. But overall, the movie is beautiful and magical (just like the music). I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to see his other films.

    1. Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo have less strange creatures than Spirited Away. I just love that you get so lost in the film at one point that I had forgotten all about her parents. She could have stayed there forever, she worked hard and adapted instead of whining and pouting like she did at the opening.

      With your Medieval sensibilities you may like a film like Princess Mononoke. It is filled with all sorts of spirits and creatures working to save their world. It is the largest in scope of anything the Miyazaki ever made, and it is at times bloody and disgusting and at other times is mysterious and beautiful. Worth a watch to anyone who is interested in Miyazaki’s work.

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