The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“Oh, that’s a wonderful place to start! Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.”
A few years ago, Toy Story 3 became the first animated movie that seemed like it had an actual chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar. As I write this, it looks like Inside Out might have a shot at the title this year. But generally, animated movies still struggle to be taken seriously and compete with live action when it comes to prestige and awards. But the shift is happening, slowly but surely. So slowly, that the first time I remember an animated movie getting talked about and gushed over by snooty critics, was 15 years ago, with Spirited Away.
Surly, 10 year old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is travelling with her parents to their new home in a new town. When her father takes a wrong turn they stumble across what he thinks is an old, abandoned amusement park. While her parents excitedly explore and find a restaurant empty of people yet inexplicably full of fresh, delicious food, Chihiro wanders off on her own, where she meets a young boy named Haku (Miyu Irino). He warns her that she must leave before sunset, or else something terrible will happen.
When she returns to her parents, something terrible has already happened. They’ve been transformed into pigs. It turns out, what they thought was an abandoned amusement park is actually the gateway to some sort of spirit realm. A spirit realm where a human like Chihiro is not welcome. But with Haku’s help, she learns what she must do to save herself and her parents.
With a spider like old men, a boy who also sometimes takes the form of a dragon, a 10 foot baby, and twin little old ladies with giant heads who may or may not be evil, Spirited Away is as bat shit insane as I like my Japanese animation to be. But nothing can be this bonkers, and get critical praise, without offering something a little more substantial than just crazy for crazy’s sake.
What Spirited Away has to offer is an incredible amount of heart and genuine emotion to counter balance all of the insanity. It’s Chihiro’s journey from bratty kid to slightly more mature adolescent who realises that everything’s not always just about her. Haku gets his own arc as a boy lost who rediscovers his past and happiness. It even makes a grotesque giant baby tragic and sad instead of just a freak.
I’ve known pretty much since it came out to all that praise in 2001 that I needed to see Spirited Away eventually. I’ve even owned it on DVD for at least five years, but for whatever reason, I was always a little intimidated by the idea of it. What if I didn’t get it? Would that make me a dumb person and terrible movie nerd? Well, I bit the bullet, I watched Spirited Away and I got it. There’s a reason why this movie marked a shift in critical respect for animation. It figured out how to mix fantastical flights of fancy, with actual heart, drama and stakes.