2001; written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki; 125 mins
My first Miyazaki film* and only my second anime film after seeing Makoto Shinkai’s wonderful Your Name earlier this year and – like finally seeing Die Hard at the age of 25 – I think to myself… What the Hell have you been doing all this time?!
A little girl named Chihiro is moving with her parents to a new home, on the way, they take a wrong turn and come across a tunnel. Assuming it will take them in the right direction, it is in fact a passage to another realm where the parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro is made to serve in a bathhouse, run by an erratic witch named Yubaba, which caters to 8 million gods… “and then what happened was…”**
What ensues is an initially discombobulating barrage of talking frogs, Grim-Reaper-looking tapeworm types, river gods and more! The perpetual succession of magic widgets and characters revealing their otherworldly capabilities could just make the film seem like a bad video game with the audience getting snowed under with endless bouts of exposition. Crucially, however, what Miyazaki does is make Chihiro’s character arc front-and-centre of the narrative, makes the magic tricks revealing of character rather than plot convenience and what he doesn’t do is explain every little thing straight away (if at all). So, the first half hour is baffling and slightly scary because that’s Chihiro’s experience and then as she finds her feet, so too do we become accustomed to this weird world… to a point at which, in part, it takes on that wistful quality of so many jumbled memories.
The set-up of having Chihiro being reluctant to move away is key to the film aswell. The film is about children forced out of their comfort zones (I relate a lot) and in doing so, finding out new things about themselves that they might otherwise not have known. Chihiro finds the strength within herself through having everything she knew and loved taken away from her and given no choice but to navigate the jigsaw nature of this topsy-turvy world. You could easily see the Bathhouse as a new school, the temperamental witch as a teacher and the No Face as a pathetic bully. It’s about her learning from her mistakes and her successes so as to appreciate change – be it geographical, emotional, spiritual, whatever…
The world that has been constructed is one that has the overall feel of a dream whilst everything within it reminds you, in some way or another, of real, everyday things from numerous cultures (Pacific Island statues sticking out of the ground to an English cottage for a witch). This mix of textures is supported by some beautiful, painterly 2D animation being augmented by digital technology. It’s truly universal filmmaking – not just in theme but in design, in influence and in outreach. There are sequences which could be straight out of anything from Greek myth to Hogarth to Star Trek. All this and it was made for 10 year-old girls! Just goes to show, dunnit?
*I hate that American trailer by the way so here’s a longer but lower grade Japanese Trailer…
**Simon Munnery as The League Against Tedium