The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Once again blown away by Spirited Away

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spirited away1

I owe it to my oldest daughter that I watched Spirited Away on a big screen when it first came out in Sweden.

11 years old she was the undisputable family expert on everything drawn originating from Japan. For years she had had been watching the TV series Sailor Moon and spent her entire monthly allowance on buying new parts in never-ending manga book series.

Trying to be a modern mother, keeping up with the changing scene of animation, I had dipped my toes into manga and anime. But regardless how I tried, I had issues embracing it. There was something about it that I couldn’t wrap my head around.

In the case of the books, I had issues with the storytelling and the pacing. It felt backwards in more than one way. And the animated films didn’t look like the cartoons I was brought up with. The figures didn’t move smoothly over the screen. They were barely more movable than drawings in an illustrated story book and they reminded me of what the low budget children programmes used to look like back in the 70s.

But my daughter didn’t listen to any of those objections. She just grabbed me firmly by the hand and pulled me to the theatre and this strange new world. As we left two hours later, I was stunned by the experience and could barely articulate what I just had experienced. If the phrase “blew me away” ever was appropriate to use, it was for this movie.

spirited4Things that I love about Spirited Away
There a couple of things that made Spirited Away stand out above other movies:

The unpredictability
Most movies follow a formula that has been around since the days of the old Greeks, if not longer. There’s a hero, a villain, a conflict and a predictable curve of ups and downs until a resolution is reached and balance restored. Spirited Away doesn’t give crap about those given patterns. A tiny side character – who normally would get cut to keep the movie slender and fit – can suddenly become important and before you know it the movie has taken a new direction.

The gallery of creatures
It exceeded anything I’d ever seen in an animated movie in terms of imagination.  I knew when I saw the girl’s parents getting turned into pigs that I would be in for some ride, and got wilder and crazier over time. The garbage god, the tiny charcoal creatures, the giant baby that got turned into a little… whatever – rat?…, the man who has been crossed with a spider, the mask carrier who devours people – there was no end to it. Whatever pill the creators had consumed to release this lash of creativity, it must have been a potent one.

The view on good and bad
We tend to see the world in a digital way: black or white, evil or good, on or off and nothing in between, especially in movies. Spirited Away sees the world in a more flexible, interchangeable way. What you perceive as a threat turns out to be a neutral or a possible allied. The friend you thought you had turns out to be a threat and there’s no one particular to blame for it. It’s a magical world, as Calvin would have put it. And there’s no point in cursing and accusing darkness for being dark; it’s in its nature. So you embrace life as it is, taking the day as it comes, trusting yourself, your instincts and the good powers at work, hoping things will sort out in the end. There’s something soothing about this approach to difficulties.

Spirited Away once again
Fast forward ten years. Last week it was time for me to revisit Spirited Away as my local film club screened as a part of a Ghibli series.

The question was: would it keep up? Spirited Away was the first full-length Japanese animated movie I watched, but I had watched several more since then. Perhaps some of the novelty in the experience, the shock value, would have worn off at this point? And could I enjoy it as much when I didn’t have an 11 year old enthusiast and guide by my side?

The answer was “yes”, loud and clear. “Yes!” again and again. Actually I think it was even a little bit more enjoyable the second time around, since I was more familiar with the story and the style and didn’t feel that I had to “keep up” to follow what was going on. This left more room to pay attention to all the little details, small scenes playing up at the outskirt of the screen while something else was going on in the middle.

Two times have I thrown myself into the realm of Spirited Away and I have no doubt that there will be more visits with or without my future grandchildren. I don’t normally toss expressions like “best” around lightly, preferring to speak in terms such as “the one I love most”. But Spirited Away may be the exception to the rule.

Do animated movies get better than this? Can anyone come up with something that outshines Spirited Away? I for sure can’t.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, Hayao Miyazaki  JA 2001) My rating: 5/5

 spiritedaway3

Written by Jessica

May 29, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Posted in Spirited Away

9 Responses

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  1. Great piece Jessica. I watched my first Studio Ghibli film the other day – My Neighbour Totoro – and I thought it was great. I think this is going to be next on the agenda, heard only positive things about it. And it has spot sprites too! 🙂

    • Or soot sprites, rather.

    • Oh, you have a lot of good films to look forward too! I love Totoro as well, but holds this a little higher since it contains more of everything. Totoro is a bit slow and eventless in comparison (still a wonderful movie though, mind you!). You definitely have quite something to look forward to in this pic. And again: once is not enough!

      Jessica

      May 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm

  2. Wonderful Jessica! Just wonderful! I have seen Spirited Away three times now and I believe it gets better with every viewing. It’s on that I’d love to review but refuse to do so until I’ve seen it again to give it its full respect. As it stands, 5/5 is spot on! I can’t wait to revise this again one day and formulate my feelings into some writing structure. I doubt i’ll ever do it justice but I’d like to try.

    Mark Walker

    May 30, 2013 at 3:05 am

    • I’m all with you Mark. I found it daunting to write about it. My words are so pale and stiff compared to what they’re trying to describe. Very lacking. Yet I decided I needed to give it a go. With the current frequency, it would be another 10 years before I watched it again and that feels like a long time to wait to write something about it.

      Jessica

      May 30, 2013 at 7:32 am

  3. It’s hard to find movie that would outshine this one.
    But I consider half of Ghibli movies ‘as good’
    And those small details… they are a must for a good movie, they let you watch movie over and over again.
    Even if you watch it 10 times, there is still chance you would notice something new.

    doaken

    May 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    • Indeed, several of the other movies are close up there with this one. It might be that I’ve been able to see it twice on a big screen that makes me rank it a little higher. As you say, the details are important. I’m pretty sure I could see this movie ten times and still enjoy it, which is very rare.

      Jessica

      May 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm

  4. I honestly just re-watched this this weekend. I remember it being one of the last movies I watched on VHS, and I was mind-blown then. Four years later, I’m even more mind-blown. Nice post.

    The Cinemaniac

    June 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm


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