Spirited Away – Blu-ray Review

Spirited Away

Today is a notable day for fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as it brings forth the beloved Japanese animation Spirited Away on Blu-ray in the UK. I was lucky enough to give the disc a spin in advance and what follows are words written by me after watching said disc.

Film
You don’t need me to tell you that Spirited Away is a charming and beautiful masterpiece but if you do…

Spirited Away is a charming and beautiful masterpiece with a wild imagination capable of bringing delight to all ages and plenty of lessons for impressionable young minds to benefit from. The hero of the story is a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who stumbles into the spirit world while travelling to a new home with her parents. Alone in a reality populated by witches, monsters, and ghosts Chihiro must find the strength within herself to move forward and forge her own identity. The plot is littered with metaphors touching on environmental, political, and psychological issues but rest assured if you aren’t willing to look too deep everything looks pretty too.

The film is internationally recognised as Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film, Studio Ghibli’s greatest film, the greatest film of its decade, and the greatest animated film of all time. In summary; it’s pretty great.

The transfer to Blu-ray looks great stunning with lovely legible subtitles, vibrant colours, and crisp lines. The disc comes with the option of Japanese or American dialogue and while everyone has their opinion on what is the better option I do not have the energy to argue the case either way. Thankfully both English subtitles and audio have been assembled with care so you can’t go wrong. And if you speak Japanese then you needn’t trouble yourself with all this petty squabbling.

In short; Spirited Away is the greatest and looks sexy in high-definition.

Spirited Away 1

Extras
I hit Play All on the extras so as to be able to give you a comprehensive review then immediately skipped past the first feature on offer. The Blu-ray allows you to watch the entire film with the original storyboards overlayed in the top right hand corner for comparison. This is interesting to see, I am sure you will agree, but perhaps a feature to dip into rather than watch for the full running time. I smiled appreciatively and then skipped away.

What I watched next makes up the bulk of the extras on the disc and is a documentary made for Japanese television about the production of Spirited Away. The image quality is less than high-definition, stark contrast to the film itself, but what this extra lacks in pixels it makes up for in behind the scenes insight. The documentary introduces the story of the film and how Miyazaki was inspired to write it by a friend’s 10-year-old daughter who became the template for Chihiro. We get to see Miyazaki himself hard at work briefing and inspiring his animators; often seen poring over drawings with a cigarette in hand.

It is fascinating to see inside the animation studio as it resembles any regular office filled with cluttered desks and overworked employees. Pixar may be filled with individual animators’ offices decorated in wacky fun ways but Studio Ghibli is much more basic. What comes across between the animators is a sense of community and a desire to work hard to get the film, which was running behind schedule, finished on time. We are also shown what happens in the recording of the dialogue, background noises, and musical elements. The dialogue recording in particular makes working on a Ghibli film seem like lots of fun and surprisingly low-tech. At the end I got the feeling that Spirited Away was affectionately handmade; metaphorically and literally. Not often that features make you love a film all the more.

I will admit to skipping the next set of special features as they consisted of the original Japanese trailers for the film and there were eight of them. I cannot only indulge you guys so far I am afraid.

The remaining three features surround John Lasseter. A big wig over at Disney and Pixar Lasseter provides an introduction to the film and later introduces us to Miyazaki. Neither of these feel necessary or sincere. Of more interest is a mini-feature on the American re-dubbing of the film as we see actors having to deliver dialogue at the right pace to match the speaking pattern of a totally different language. What was most interesting about this feature was how polished and false the cast and crew came across when interviewed compared to the unguarded authentic feeling their Japanese counterparts had given earlier on.

There are plenty of extras here but I would advise that you only really need to give your time over to the full Making Of; the rest is mostly filler.

Spirited Away is on Blu-ray & DVD in the UK right now.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #3

Kikis Delivery Service

Next up, for those of you who are watching these films in order, is Kiki and her black magic delivery service. In some ways this is the most ‘Western’ of the Miyazaki films so far, in that it is a story about witches and talking cats instead of tree spirits and planetary energy.

We are first introduced to Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) who is a young witch living with her family in a rural house. It is nearing her 13th birthday and she is excited about spending the traditional year away from home that witches undertake as a rite-of-passage. She hasn’t found her special skill yet but is eager to learn so leaves with her talking cat (an amazing Phil Hartman) to find herself in the local city, as is tradition.

Kikis Delivery Service 1

When she gets arrives she finds it hard to fit in and ends up making friends only through delivering something as a favour. This leads to her living with the pregnant baker Osono who allows her to set up a delivery service, which allows her to perfect her special witchcraft skill: flying a broom. She meets a young boy who is obsessed with flying and therefore finds her fascinating and develops a crush on her. She also meets a free-spirit painter named Ursula (Janeane Garofalo) who teaches her about painting and allows her to stay.

One night Kiki is delivering something to a rich spoilt girl and has to fly through the rain, which makes her ill. She then begins to lose her witch powers – referred to as “artist’s block” by Ursula. The rest of the film is about how she gets her powers back. The narrative is a classic teenage-girl coming-of-age story with plenty of puberty / teen angst / menstruation metaphors thrown in. The film also has some nice feminist-y moments, mostly involving Janeane Garofalo.

Kikis Delivery Service 2

The animation is amazing throughout the film (as usual) and although there are no bizarre creatures to marvel, Jiji the talking cat fulfills the Miyazaki obligatory cute thing quota. What I really like about this film though is the insight it gives into Japanese relations between generations. All of the Ghibli films have a lovely elderly character in, but this film seems to show the naturalness that Japanese people have in speaking across generations. I know that this is only a cartoon – but try to imagine the same story happening in a British or American narrative and it simply wouldn’t work.

My Neighbour Totoro
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #2

My Neighbour Totoro

The second in the series of Miyazaki films is the strange and wonderful Totoro, which has incidentally just had a major cinema re-release. I have to admit upfront that this is one of my favourite of his films and one that I have seen before a few times – but it was good to revisit it with a more ‘critical’ eye. Although it has a slow start, it slowly captures you in and dazzles with its strange characters and ideas before ending with a poignant and warming ending. It is even in the top 250 of IMDB.

The plot begins with a family moving from the city into the countryside and exploring their new house and surrounding garden. The family is made up of the father Tatsuo, who is a professor, and the mother Yasuko, who is in hospital with tuberculosis – they have two girls named Satsuki and Mei. As the two girls explore the house they find that it is infested with dust creatures/spirits called susuwatari and later they find that the garden is host to King Totoro, a large fluffy cross between a rabbit and a sloth (I think anyway).

Totoro

The girls begin to get excited as they learn their mother is coming home, until one day they receive a phone call in which the hospital reveals that she has caught a cold and so must stay longer. The younger daughter Mei then decides to visit her in hospital and gets lost, which means that Satsuki must summon the help of Totoro in order to find her before she is lost in the dark. The final half hour of the film is actually quite tense, as any narrative is when a child goes missing, and even though it is obvious that there will be a happy ending it still mildly haunts me until it resolves.

The magic of this film (and the beginning of Ghibli’s worldwide success) is in the surrealism of the forest spirit characters. Totoro and his tiny cute friends are adorable (and usefully lend perfectly to fluffy merchandise) and the ‘cat bus’ is a genius invention. The film begins by aligning the audience with the curious imagination of the children as they explore the house, so that by the time we are introduced to the forest spirits they are just as exciting to the viewer as to the little girls. I utterly love this film and it has become my stress release film to cure a bad day. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not fall in love with Totoro and want to travel by the cat bus. Regardless of age or maturity level.

Catbus

Favourite scene? One word: umbrella. You’ll know what I mean when you get there…

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #1

Laputa Castle in the Sky

Studio Ghibli has managed to carve a solid niche within a certain demographic of the young UK film audience. The films are clearly aimed at children and young teenagers but due to the beautiful animation, the surreal storylines and the general Japanese Orientalism, the films also have a huge following with half-baked uni students and baby boomer hippies.

Castle in the Sky, the first feature film from the company, has aged remarkably well considering it was released in 1986. The story begins with a mysterious girl named Sheeta being transported on a blimp by an unknown military group. The blimp is attacked by pirates so she jumps to earth and is caught by Pazu, a young boy in a mining town. It turns out that everyone is after her for her mysterious necklace, which legend has it leads the way to an enigmatic castle in the sky called Laputa.

The narrative contains elements and themes that foreshadow later films, such as the steam punk pirates (Howl’s Moving Castle) and the mysterious girl who needs saving by a local boy (Ponyo). The other important message of the film is the battle between nature and technology – this continues throughout the work of Miyazaki, and is evident in the fight between the great gardens of Laputa and the crystal technology used by the bad guy Muska.

Laputa

Japanimation has always confused me in a way as the drawings of people always look so western – they are always six-foot tall and blonde, yet produced and consumed in a country with a shorter population with dark hair. It is the surreal and inhuman characters that are the most memorable in Ghibli films. In Castle in the Sky it is the anthropomorphic robots that inhabit Laputa that are the most beautiful characters – I have to admit that I was really rooting for the mute, gigantic robots…

The final thing to say about the respect held for Ghibli films is the desperation by Hollywood stars to voice the US/UK dub versions. Laputa features Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill and Andy Dick – a ramshackle cast if ever there was one…

Hayao Miyazaki – Body of Work

Hayao Miyazaki

I must admit it; I’m a big fan of cartoons. As most people born in the ‘80s did, I went through many animated phases: Count Duckula / The Simpsons / Doug / Beavis & Butthead / Daria / Ren & Stimpy / Rocko’s Modern Life / Dexter’s Laboratory / Recess / South Park / Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends / Family Guy… We were all there. The only problem was that these never translated well onto the big screen. Only South Park Bigger, Longer & Uncut succeeded. The only good drawn-cartoon films were Disney classics from 70 odd years ago and watching them now is just a litany of racism, homophobia, and worryingly casual misogyny. So for interesting animations now we need to head abroad…

Hayao Miyazaki is the more internationally successful of the directors / writers / animators from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (fan site). The films he makes are undeniably ‘auteur’ films in the truest sense of the word as they all have recurring themes / recognisable aesthetics and are suitably bonkers. In order to enjoy them as a whole I am going to watch them chronologically and give some thoughts along the way. I may then go back and fill in the gaps from his associates, especially Isao Takahata.

I hope you enjoy the beauty and oddness of these films as much as I do…
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