Film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
I had seen Kiki’s Delivery Service, but nothing quite prepares you for Spirited Away, arguably the best animation film ever made. That is an awfully hubristic statement to make and I would happily entertain other nominees. Think about it though. The Walt Disney Company, Studio Ghibli, or Pixar probably created anything that you can name. If you include The Triplets of Belleville, then you have probably covered all the possibilities that had wide cinematic release as well as wide appeal.
Critics had already widely praised Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli had a distribution deal with Disney, so Spirited Away did not exactly come out of nowhere. Mononoke told a powerful story using evocative images. The seeming post-apocalyptic setting placed the story in fantasy and science fiction territory. Readers of manga or watchers of Mad Max might have felt at home.
A film so firmly rooted in the here and now was unexpected from the creator of Mononoke, Spirited Away. (This probably surprised no one already aware of My Neighbor Totoro.) From the opening with a family driving their car and ending up lost, the film asked for your emotional investment whether you identified with the parents or the child in the back seat. From there, the story leapt into the mystical. Granted, it is so strange and inventive and perfectly tuned that it becomes nothing less than universal. Dangers present themselves, but not nearly as often as joy. In the end, the movie looks like a coming of age story. Even so, it is cloaked in lessons as much for parents and society as any child approaching maturity.
Animation is a weird art formas it has evolved up until now. Lotte Reiniger has occasionally been credited with making The Adventures of Prince Achmed by herself. The reality had her working with others. Walt Disney had his name above the titles, but no one really thought he was doing all that work himself. Even so, we have a driving need to identify a guiding light- you can see it in our “Great Man” approach to history. Taking nothing away from Napoleon or Julius Caesar, but they had a lot of other people with remarkable talents who accomplished the tasks laid before them, yet we always say so-and-so conquered this place or that. Kings, Emperors, Dictators, and Presidents rely on others to accomplish their great works and their heinous acts.
Large groups form for long periods of time to produce animated works of art. They are prone to in-jokes and story-telling by committee. As viewers, we are subjected to a lot of humor and tales that seem like they might have been a good idea when first proposed. The danger becomes the assembly line approach to art because assembly lines are nothing but automated formulas. In our art, we appreciate a formula that gives us a recognizable structure. Yet, we inevitably grow bored with repetition, redundancy, and repetition. Animation is the art form where craft and quality and creativity intersect across the widest assortment of artists. The fact that we end up with anything fantastic says more about humanity’s capabilities than those few individual accomplishments that Kings, Emperors, Dictators, or Presidents can point to.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 219 more to go.
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