Around 1987 or ’88, I was in junior high and in a funny stasis where my nerd creativity was beginning to grow out of my bookishness (I routinely wrote awful Dungeons and Dragons-type short stories) but before I collided head first into confronting issues like race, violence, and poverty that was all around my world and in my school (I had no idea that my misplacements in advanced math and ESL had to do with my race). Add this to adolescent hormones and — well, to keep it short, it was rough on many different levels.
For whatever reason, one of our shop class teachers wheeled a TV and VCR into class one day and decided to show us a movie called Warriors of the Wind. Some of my friends were absolutely crazy about it. I thought it was cool, but honestly, I didn’t get it.
Cartoons were He-Man and Thundercats, GI Joe and Transformers, or the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon I woke up extra early for. You can always tell the good guys apart from the bad guys. The closest thing to Warriors of the Wind in my life was Robotech, which I loved but which often confused me. Robotech had transforming robots though. What can I say? I was a kid who wanted my entertainment to take me far away from who and where I was, not remind me and challenge me about the real world.
Flash forward to 1999, another really rough year for me. I was depressed and nihilistic, even though my spoken word career had started to take off. By then, I was a full fledged wannabe movie buff, often going to see flicks by myself. I saw everything that even remotely interested me. Even though Asian Media Access started showing Hong Kong movies on Friday nights and introduced me to Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, and — my first crush of the HK film era, Brigitte Lin –and by then, I had been indoctrinated into the other nerd appreciation cult for that other great Japanese anime that confused me, Akira — I was hungry for any Asian or Asian American representation that existed outside that niche. Anime was apparently something that creepy white guys liked, and many people seemed to equate anime from Japan with violent, kinky porn.
Then I heard about a movie coming out called Princess Mononoke. My memory is foggy. I can’t remember if I had already seen My Neighbor Totoro and had fallen in love with Catbus, or if I went on a Miyazaki binge after I saw Mononoke. I do recall reading that the dude was rumored to hand-paint or hand-illustrate many of the panels in his films the old fashioned way. I remember being excited as I headed over to the Lagoon Cinema to see Princess Mononoke.
I saw a compelling, complicated tale spin across the screen that night, wherein the last warrior prince of an Emishi village defends it against a rampaging demon and is tainted by it in the fight. While the demon curse on his arm gives him supernatural power, he gets exiled from the village. He heads west and comes upon a town of humans who are cutting down the primordial forest to produce iron, led by Lady Eboshi, leading to a conflict between the humans and the mighty animal spirits of the forest, chiefly a human Princess raised by wolves.
The nature vs. industry conflict may at times appear too heavy handed, but what’s impressive is that neither side is portrayed as inherently evil. Lady Eboshi, set up as the villain, is actually a sympathetic character who cares for lepers when no one else will, and is looking out for her people. The forces of nature, which are admirable and which we are expected to gravitate towards, are nonetheless a little bit strange, distant, and scary. And it helps that all of this is presented with breathtaking virtuosity by Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s animation house.
I recall not being able to shut up about Princess Mononoke, blathering wide eyed to anyone who would listen about it. I’m sure I felt some vague duty to tell as many people as possible that this ambitious animated feature from Japan was, in my opinion, more compelling and vital than anything coming from the United States. I found out that Miyazaki was the same guy who made that weird movie I just didn’t understand in junior high, the real name of which was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I looked forward to seeing more from him.
Depressingly, I heard that Miyazaki was going to retire after the film was released. But I also admired his decision to leave on a high note. How could he possibly top Mononoke anyway?
The answer to that is Spirited Away. Miyazaki decided to come back from retirement to make a film, and thank all that is good that he did. If Princess Mononoke was art in service of portraying a heady conflict, Spirited Away was art for the sake of pure magic.
A little girl and her parents stumble upon an abandoned amusement park, and a strange and fantastic world is revealed to them. In a nice twist, it’s the parents who are careless and end up being confined by a strange spell, and it’s up to their young daughter to figure out this entrancing world and free them. There’s a moment where Chihiro — after being swept away into this bizarre bath house for the spirits and given a job, putting up with a nonstop barrage of strange situations and encounters — finally has a moment alone, and she starts to cry. And it’s a powerful moment because it needs no words. We realize, with her, how scary and crazy her situation is, and how it all sank in for her at that moment. It’s a profoundly human moment in a fantastic fairy tale.
The film is full of surprises — the bathhouse itself is a looming keep that seems daunting at first but ends up being full of delightful, if bizarre, inhabitants, including ducky looking things with lily pads on their heads. A creepy spider-looking guy ends up being a benevolent old man just working hard at his job. Even the film’s apparent boogeyman, No-Face (Kaonashi) is a lonely, misunderstood spirit who just wants to be liked.
At a time when many animators were striving towards photo-realism with CGI, Spirited Away’s aesthetic leaned more to the fantastic, the magical. Sticking to the old school art of hand drawing animation cells to spectacular effect. Miyazaki still draws many of the cells himself, though pragmatically, he doesn’t rule out the use of computers completely.
“We take handmade cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look,” he told Roger Ebert in 2002, “but everything starts with the human hand drawing.”
The result is a vibrancy melded into the artistic vision that I haven’t seen matched. Seeing that train carry its inhabitants across the water is still so strikingly beautiful.
There was tremendous advance buzz for Spirited Away before the Disney dubbed version was shown in theaters, so I bought a copy from Hong Kong on eBay — though it was because I was impatient, it ended up being smart because the Japanese voice acting is superb compared to the English one produced by Disney. Sorry, Keith.
I saw the English dubbed version in the theater and thought the lead English voice actress for Chihiro changed the tone of the character for the worse. In the Japanese version, Chihiro sounds remarkably self-assured and mature for her age. She’s a young woman in a difficult situation. But in the English language version, she sounds like a spoiled, bratty child. If I had seen that version first, I might have ended up with a very different opinion of this film that ranks in my top ten of all time.
You know how people say you can revisit your excitement for something you love by sharing it with someone else? I feel like having a kid is the ultimate embodiment of that. Part of this is because every day, our daughter does something that makes me pause in wonder at the world — when she eats food with a fork and spoon, I am amazed because I remember when we had to feed her. When I hear her heavy footsteps running upstairs, I am proud because I remember her first stumbling, unsure steps. I remember all of these things I never expected to, and treasure them. Now that our daughter is old enough to watch movies and television, we as her parents try very hard to suggest shows that have strong female characters in them. One of the great things about Miyazaki is the wonderful young female characters — My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and other Miyazaki films often feature them as the lead, and it’s great to have these as alternatives to the male-heavy Western animated films geared towards kids. I am even more grateful that his films exist because I remember when they didn’t.
Our daughter hasn’t seen much of Miyazaki’s stuff yet because she’s still at an age where certain things like ghosts and monsters, even benevolent ones, scare her. But I can’t wait to watch these films with her. Even if she decides she doesn’t like them, their magic and their splendor exist for her to experience if she gives Miyazaki’s films a chance, and the world is a better place for it.