Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spirited Away

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Oh, anime. Despite having a number of outstanding characteristics you've never really been given a fair shake by the film world. It makes sense though, in a sad way. When the average Western world citizen hears the word “anime” their mind jumps to several stereotypes, none of which are terribly positive. Americans in particular have never fully accepted anime, placing it amongst Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek, and comic books as something taboo for the ordinary person; a nerd fantasy. The irony is that Americans love cartoons which are often just as silly and nonsensical as any anime stereotype. In fact, in terms of serious achievements in visual quality and creativity there is a big rift between American cartoons and Japanese animation. Over the years anime has decidedly pushed the boundaries of what can be seen and experienced in the medium. Despite the fact that films like WALL-E, Toy Story and most of Pixar Animation Studios output have received critical acclaim, and many have pushed to have those films taken more seriously, anime cult classics such as Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away have yet to be fully interpolated into the body of truly great modern cinema.

In 2000 the Academy Awards ceremony added a new category: Best Animated Feature. This was essentially done with the best of intentions. Since Toy Story's 1995 release the genre of animated feature has surged in popularity. However, the award is mostly a cop-out: a way to reward 'good work' in animation without considering it real art. Since the inception of the award Pixar studios has won the award 3 times (for Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) and is likely (read: guaranteed) to win again this year with WALL-E. Looking over the list there is one film that stands out among the rest: the 2001 winner, Spirited Away. Looking over it's competition its easy to see why it won. Ice Age was the film's only competition, which is sad. It's sad because Spirited Away is far and away one of the best animated motion pictures of the last 10 years. It is a work of daunting creativity bordering on maddening genius. It dares to go where American animated features don't: the grotesque and the frightening.

While any Pixar film will leave you with that feel-good sensation, (you know, the kind that bolsters confidence during tough economic times) knowing that the characters in the film overcame adversity, the drama in those films is mostly catered toward children and generously accompanied by a slew of witty culturaly references that the average 10 year old won't understand but which their parents can get a good chuckle out of. Strictly speaking the tension in most Pixar films can be cut with a butter knife. This isn't a bad thing. Pixar doesn't market their films to an older demographic. They know that kids will want to see their movies and their parents will take them. Pixar also has the reputation of making clever, insightful and fun films, so chances are the 18-30 demographic will go see them as well. However, if you took your kids to see Spirited Away they'd likely have nightmares for a long time.

Hayao Miyazaki is the man behind such classic anime features as Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. His style of animation is bold and sometimes upsetting but relentlessly inventive, never seeming to draw the same character twice. Spirited Away is full of subterfuge with themes of feminism and capitalism bubbling underneath the fantastic scenario and whimsical characters. It is the animated Pan's Labyrinth, a dream world that is an accurate and painful reflection on our own. Here, magical creatures may wish to do you harm, indentured servitude is practiced and people are often cruel and unforgiving to outsiders. Given that, Spirited Away is a sweeping tribute to the enterprise of the human spirit. It is a children's story but one that shows very strongly that the good and bad characteristics which are formed in our youth often carry over into old age.

Cartoons and anime alike may never get the kind of respect they deserve. Perhaps that's a good thing. It encourages illustrators and designers to continue pushing boundaries and attracting more people to the genre. A conversation with a friend recently yielded a serious conclusion about animation: in many respects it is the final frontier of the imagination. Anything and everything is possible. If you can see it, you can draw it. 50 years ago science fiction was rising from the murk of taboo and now popular cinemas are filled to the brim with science fiction based films. The Day the Earth Stood Still recently received a (god-awful) remake; Lord of the Rings is a critically acclaimed, award winning series based entirely on a series of science fiction novels and tens of thousands of people on the Internet are wetting themselves in anticipation over this year's release of The Watchmen, an adaptation of the legendary 1980s graphic novel. It may only be a matter of time before anime and cartoons are freed from their roles as cultural kitsch. If and when that happens, it will be films like Spirited Away that people return to again and again as examples of classic animation.

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