Spirited Away: the films of Hayao Miyazaki

The wondrous films of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki are like a deluxe platter of sushi; a colorful explosion of varied tastes and textures. Celebrated and beloved by children and adults around the world, he is the Japanese version of Walt Disney. His traditionally animated films are of such remarkable quality and beauty, that they are admired by animators and audiences worldwide as the clear gold standard in not only animation, but also storytelling.

The deeply personal, naturalistic and carefully crafted realism of Miyazaki’s films are made with such loving attention to detail, they actually feel more like live-action movies and you forget that you’re watching animation. Some of the most popular and well-known in his oeuvre of works include Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2009).

One of his most acclaimed films and considered by many to be his best, is the award winning Spirited Away (2002), the only animated film to win the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a touching coming of age tale about a young girl in Japan, who starts out as a lazy, spoiled brat when her family moves to a new house in the country. After losing her parents in an abandoned theme park, she must work hard to get them back, and through the extraordinary events that follow, she is forced to grow up quickly, becoming responsible and hard working.

The life lessons she learns take place while working in a spiritual bath house frequented by an assortment of Japanese nature spirits, who go there at night to be renewed and rejuvenated. After securing a job as a cleaner she is given the most difficult and dirtiest tasks and has to deal with a number of creatures that represent vices and virtues in the real world.

The movie is like a dream; full of whimsical and fantastical creatures and characters that all have a symbolic meaning in the real world and is based on actual people and experiences the director has known.  All Miyazaki’s films are full of recurring themes that relate to our connections with nature and our past, and the loss of those connections.

The strange adult world is often seen through the eyes of an innocent playful child, who must come to terms with the harsh working world of adults while learning to stay in touch with and preserving nature. Themes surrounding work ethics and discipline are a familiar feature in his films, but he shows us that when we stop and look closely and carefully in the right places, we can still discover the wonders and mysteries of nature that our ancestors before us enjoyed.

You clearly see these themes running through all his films including the recent film The Secret World of Arrietty (2012), which was written and produced by Miyazaki. This movie is a beautifully told tale of our distant connections with the world of our parents and our ancestors and the important role nature plays in our lives.

A retrospective of Miyazaki’s films is currently showing at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre but many of these films are already available on Disney DVD and Blu-ray.



Vivian Pitschlitz said...

What I enjoy about your blog, John is that you always talk about unusual movies. I am very fond of anima and I am definitely going to watch "Spirited Away" soon.

Laura Sherman said...

I rarely get to see a film these days, but your review made me want to see these films. Spirited Away sounds charming!

Krystyna Hunt said...

Always glad to meet someone else who's been caught up by the magic of Miyazaki.