Saturday, January 20, 2007

Spirited Away

Man, I don't post here for three months and stuff changes. I mean, honestly.

Right. Since these seems to have become something of a movie review blog, I thought I'd go the whole hog and do a bunch of 500-word reviews for my all-time favourite movies. And we start off with my very favourite of all:

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hîragi/Daveigh Chase, Miyu Irino/Jason Marsden, Mari Natsuki/ Suzanne Pleshette, Yumi Tamai/Susan Egan (voices)
Country: Japan
Year: 2001

The first time I saw Spirited Away my mouth hung slightly open in astonishment the entire time. Spoilt ten-year-old Chihiro’s (Hîragi/Chase) rite-of-passage in a fantasy land that plays out like Alice in Wonderland with the Mad Hatter and company replaced by Shinto gods and the Queen of Hearts’ castle by a vast bathhouse that serves these gods is so, so brilliant – epic and intimate, dramatic and calm, funny and scary, alien and universal. It deals just as well with big set-pieces (Chihiro defending a dragon from a swarm of enchanted origami birds) as with low-key character moments (a tired, hungry, bewildered Chihiro sitting in a flower field, wolfing down breakfast as tears pour down her face). This balancing act continues through the characterisation – as is typical of most of Miyazaki’s screenplays, no-one is exclusively good or evil (Yubaba dearly loves her baby son Boh, even if she doesn’t always express it well; Haku, her reluctant apprentice who helps Chihiro, abandons her completely early in the movie when he has to feign ignorance of her, rather than acting cold when necessary and reassuring her when safely away from prying eyes), which makes the baffling spirit world sometimes seem very realistic.
You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve credited two people to a role – my rule for watching foreign animated movies is that if I like the English dub enough I tend to go with that and save my eyes from constantly flicking down the screen. As such, Chase, whilst shrill (I challenge you to watch that first pigpen scene without wincing) is excellent, charting Chihiro’s progress from whiny brat to polite, thoughtful, resourceful girl deftly. Pleshette clearly relishes the roles of twin witches Yubaba and Zeniba (although I fear for her throat) and Egan, arguably the best of the lot, finds the precise midpoint between cynicism and concern for bathhouse worker Lin, Chihiro’s confidante. Marsden, though, is a little bland as Haku, but it’s by no means a bad performance – just a little plain.
It’s a Studio Ghibli movie, so of course it’s so utterly gorgeous you could take any frame from it and sell it as a painting. It has to be said that as wonderfully designed and animated as the characters are (and they really are: it’s incredible how much personality is poured into the tiny figure of Boh after his transformation into a mouse) the real visual stars are the backgrounds; exquisite, highly detailed watercolours that look like you could step right into them. And so beautiful that you wish you could. And backing it up is an astonishing score from Miyazaki’s go-to musical man, Joe Hisaishi. His score, ranging from bombastic to delicate and filled with childish curiosity and regal poise, is arguably his best ever, and that is saying something considering his work on previous Ghibli titles like My Neighbour Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I remember walking home on an October night in 2003 slightly amazed. Spirited Away had had a profound effect on me and continues to do so every time I see it. It’s remarkable.