Thursday, October 6, 2011

Another World

Film: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

My podcasting partner Nick Jobe reacted with a certain amount of amusement when I told him that I wasn’t a big fan of anime. His reason for this is that anime isn’t so much a genre of film as it is a method of presentation. Anime doesn’t mean girls dressed in sailor outfits, demons, and giant robots. It’s just that a lot of anime films include elements like that. It’s sort of like saying you don’t like foreign films—“foreign” isn’t a genre, no matter what NetFlix, Blockbuster, and the Academy Awards may have told us. So Nick recommended I watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) (Spirited Away). As it is on The List, I couldn’t really say no.

One of the biggest problems I tend to have with anime as a style is an almost total lack of exposition. Frequently in anime films, we’re tossed into a world laden with spirits or machinery or demons or magic or a combination of these things, and none of it is explained. Characters have bizarre powers just because they do. There’s no context for much of what happens, and I just get confused. And so I give up.

I’d like to say that this is a problem with this film, but it really isn’t, and the reason it’s not is a slice of brilliance. A young girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Case, and from this point on, the actors mentioned will be from the dubbed version) is moving to a new area with her parents (Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis). They get a little lost and wander into an area that appears to be an abandoned amusement park. Hungry, her parents find cooking food and consume all of it. But it’s food for the spirits, and consuming it turns her parents into pigs.

To rescue them, Chihiro is helped by another spirit named Haku (Jason Marsden), who tells her to go ask for a job in the spirit bathhouse. She will need to be wary of the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) who runs the place, but Yubaba has sworn an oath to give a job to anyone who asks for one. Now, while working at the bathhouse, Chihiro (now called Sen—Yubaba gains power over people by stealing their names) must find a way to help her parents.

Along the way, Sen/Chihiro gets assistance from Yubaba’s identical twin sister (also Suzanne Pleshette) and a demon called No-Face that truly has no face and wears a mask above his giant, toothy maw. The adventure takes her through a number of places in the giant bathhouse and on a mysterious train ride.

And it is a magical adventure, and a disturbing one in places. The creatures that appear in this other world are sometimes terrible and dangerous, and it seems that Chihiro/Sen is in some very disturbing trouble at times. Of course, all kids movies have something of that sort of danger in them—without the danger, there’s not much of a movie. But here, some of these things seem a little beyond the pale for the very young. No-Face, for instance, has a nasty habit of eating living creatures that work at the bathhouse, and then speaking in their voice. Later, after he has eaten a huge amount of food (and three creatures), he vomits everything up in a huge flood of black sputum. It’s pretty nasty, and while older kids won’t have a real issue with it, I can certainly see little kids being a bit traumatized.

Additionally, and this is quite significant, I think I would have been much better served by watching this film with the original Japanese voicework instead of the English dubbing. Typically, I watch foreign films with subtitling and not dubbed versions whenever possible, but dubbing bothers me far less with animation than it does with live actors. However, in this case, Sen’s voice in the English version is an incredibly annoying, high-pitched little girl voice that raises the hair on the back of my neck. Having completed the movie in English, I watched a bit of the original Japanese, and it was far better.

Am I an anime fan? I still can’t say I am. There’s something about the style of the artwork that tweaks me. But that’s the sort of thing that can’t really be helped, can it?

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi is unique in its look and is a completely unique story in many ways, at least in my experience. It follows a tried and true pattern though of a young child having a magical adventure in a mysterious, beautiful, and dangerous land. Like many similar films, a great deal of what happens is the young child attempting to get home and save someone, in this case, her parents. But with that said, the vision of this film is extraordinary. I may not understand this world I’ve been thrust into for a few hours, but there is real enjoyment in looking at it.

But in this, the film still fails in a significant regard. Not being completely familiar with Japanese culture leaves me a bit on the outside looking in here. I think this spirit world might make more sense to me were I more steeped in Japanese traditions and lore. But I’m not, and this world is never explained, and so a part of me is always at least a little confused.

Why to watch Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi: The story is weird and marvelous.
Why not to watch: Little ones might have a real issue with giant vomiting ghost monsters.


  1. I'm not one of those salivating anime fans. "Graveyard Of The Fireflies" is what your need. Anime as medium, without the anime characters and anime storylines

  2. I know and have seen so very little of serious animation. Apparently this is one worth checking out.

  3. Spirited Away is wildly creative and I agree with the comment above on Grave of the Fireflies.

  4. Wow. You get it spot on regarding the lack of exposition, Steve. I really enjoyed Spirited Away (and Princess Mononoke too), but Im not a big fan of anime either. Howl's Moving Castle was a particularly tough one. I struggled there.

  5. @Duke--yeah, it is worth watching. I enjoyed it, although probably not as much as the hype. The version I watched was introduced by John Lassiter from Pixar, who called it Miyazaki's masterpiece. I don't know that it lives up to that, but it's still very much worth seeing.

    @Ken and Chris--I'm both dreading and looking forward to that one, mainly because it's been partially spoiled for me.

    @Andy--My kids love Howl's Moving Castle. I've seen bits and pieces, and I struggle to get into it. I really do keep thinking that if I was fully immersed in Japanese culture and tradition, I might not need the exposition...but I'm not, so I miss it.

  6. Embrace the mystery! I find this is the problem in trying to explain anime to people who don't seem to understand it. Why is it so important that you understand the parameters of the world? Isn't there something wonderful and magical about not knowing everything?

    I think Spirited Away captures this spirit the best and it's why it is one of my favorite films of all time.

    This desire for exposition among film buffs kills me. Knowing the why doesn't automatically make the film better, sometimes not knowing make a film far more intriguing, powerful and engaging.

    May as well fault Pulp Fiction for not telling us what's in the suitcase. It's doesn't matter. It's not what the film is about.

  7. I don't need to know everything. I just want some context, and the majority of anime has almost none. And in my own defense, I did say that was far less of a problem with this film, since Chihiro has very little context as well--we're in the same boat she is.

    But, if I'm thrown into a world with (for example) giant mech suits, vampires, spirits and large-boobed high school girls with super powers, I want at least something to give me some background so I get the way the world functions. It seems sloppy without it.

    I'll use Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example. The world, after a few episodes of that show, started to make good sense. Not everything was explained, but I got a sense of how the world functioned, and thus the things that happened in that world made sense. I'm looking for something like internal consistency, and I don't feel I get that with a lot of anime.

    So, I tend to avoid it.

  8. I finally saw this a few months back, and must admit I don't *totally* get the appeal, especially when it comes to folks like James that count it amongst their faves. It's a beautiful film with many wondrous and creative elements, but I could say that about any number of kid flicks, anime or not.

    James, you mentioned "It's not what the film is about." Well, help a brother out - what is it about, aside from the obvious "growing up" and "learning that your parents aren't always right," with perhaps a sprinkling of "trust in your friends?" Because the rest is mumbo jumbo to me.

    I'd rather just watch Alice in Wonderland again.

  9. As for me, I'd rather watch The Incredibles. Now there's a film to rekindle my child-like wonder!

  10. The first mistake that almost everybody here is making is assuming that "animated" equals "for children". It doesn't. That's only an American bias. It's not Alice in Wonderland that Spirited Away should be compared to, but rather movies like Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. I wouldn't remotely show Grave of the Fireflies to children; it would traumatize them for years. It still depresses me now and then when I think of it.

    The second mistake is using the examples of big robots, schoolgirls in short skirts, etc. as a reason to avoid anime movies. Those are the equivalent to Saturday Morning cartoons and ARE for children. Would you avoid all TV shows because you are sick of the ones your kids watch? No. The key is finding the good ones and enjoying them.

  11. True--it is an American bias, and it's a pretty natural one for me. Certainly there is animated film for adults, but it takes effort to find, and I generally don't put in that effort.

    As for robots and schoolgirls...that's perhaps not the majority of anime, but it's the majority that is presented to a non-anime-friendly audience most of the time.