Now that Director Hayao Miyazaki’s most widely acclaimed masterpiece Spirited Away is finally on Blu-ray, I thought I would take a moment to talk about the larger idea of the man behind the movie.
Miyazaki’s fans feel that they have an intense personal connection to the man. Being that type of filmmaker must be daunting – but mythologizing the man who has made some of the the most widely celebrated animated films of all time makes some sense. Though if you’ve ever watched him work or heard stories of him, you know he’s simply a workman – or at least that’s how he likes to think of himself. He’s strict, regimented, and a creature of intense habit. He serves as both writer and director for his films, and used to personally approve every frame (even drawing many).
So naturally, it might be hard for some fans to reconcile someone who treats filmmaking as any other craft, like woodworking, with the films that come out of Miyazaki’s studio. Spirited Away, taken at face value, is an insane film. It rapid-fire throws never before seen ideas and characters at you, and needs you to quickly come to terms with its world building. The workman and the fantastical output seem disparate – how did Spirited Away come from this man?
It’s because creativity is not effortless, though at its best it can seem that way. Some viewers don’t understand that the empathy you feel for Spirited Away’s lead, Chihiro, isn’t just inherently present within the story of the film. You grow to feel that way for her because Miyazaki took the time and attention to make her feel real – when she puts on her shoes, the back of the shoe bends because her foot doesn’t immediately fit, and she taps the toes to settle her feet in. This was all obsessively deliberate.
He’s so particular and precise at creating each and every frame of film that the end product turns out genuine and appears imprecise. Characters, when asleep, aren’t carefully or neatly across their mats – they’re settled in and splayed in a way you only see when walking in on a sleeping loved one or a stranger caught napping in public. These animated characters all live in this world, and no matter how outrageous the world becomes it feels honest and sincere.
That’s where Spirited Away lies, between this fantastical imagination and a grounded empathy.
The imagination is second to none. Within animation, Miyazaki is able to create instant icons in his characters and locations. The rise of CGI-heavy cinema has brought some of that freedom to live action (but, arguably, for the worse, since it removes all restrictions with enough money). But animation provides enough restrictions with that freedom.
After seeing them, the locations in his movies settle into your mind as immediately familiar. The bath house is ingrained in your mind after one viewing – I instantly was familiar with the geography and sense of place. With his characters, he transforms the familiar (a talking frog), re-contextualizes historic figures (dragons and water-gods), and creates new icons from scratch (No Face).
Animation can sound like an unbearable challenge, but the restrictions of the art form are transformed under Miyazaki’s direction into flexibility – instead of having to work with a child actor, the ability to animate every expression and gesture to a precise form gives him freedom to explore performance in a way live action directors can’t. Chihiro exemplifies this.
I’ve seen Spirited Away a few times with the original Japanese-language track and subtitles, but for the Blu-ray review I watched with English-language dubbing. The issue with the dubbing isn’t the talent behind the microphone – because Miyazaki insists no changes at all are made to the original film, the English-language dialogue is forcibly written to match with the characters’ original Japanese-language lip movements. This frequently makes the English dialogue feel artificial and hollow.
As for the beauty of the film finally on Blu-ray, Miyazaki storyboards as he writes his films, leading to a much grander sense of visual storytelling than many movies accomplish – animated or not. Some of that was lost on the DVD: the richness of color and level of detail in the hand-drawn frames are preserved here. I was lucky enough to see the 35mm restoration of Spirited Away several years ago, and although Blu-ray can’t totally complete, this is a near-perfect way to watch.
The special features are disappointingly weak. I feel like every Ghibli Blu-ray should include a copy of the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a wonderfully frank look at Hayao Miyazaki’s life and Studio Ghibli. Alas, nothing even 1/10th as interesting inhabits this disc, which includes: an Introduction by John Lasseter (quick and harmless), The Art of Spirited Away (beautiful, but I’d rather watch the film), Behind The Microphone (a straightforward look at the English dub, with brief points of mild interest), Original Japanese Storyboards, a Nippon Television Special (maybe the best piece), Original Japanese Trailers and TV Spots.
None of that ends up mattering much when you have a nearly perfect movie in amazing quality. It’s a must-buy for that alone.