I recently saw the Japanese animation feature Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. I was struck by the extraordinary sophistication and complexity of the film — and of the richness of Asian animation feature films —as compared to Hollywood animation features. Let me come clean — I was actually showing the film to my class — I teach Film and Design at the Indian School of Design and Innovation-Parsons Mumbai, which is affiliated to Parsons the New School for Design, New York. I was doubly pleased when many of the students said that the film was far richer and more nuanced than the average Disney or Hollywood animation film.
A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away
Many of us are familiar with the great animation feature films from studios in the West. These include Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo), Disney-Pixar (Ratatouille, Wall-E, The Incredibles), Walt Disney Studios (Beauty and the Beast, the Lion King and Jungle Book), Dreamworks (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar), and Aardman (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit, UK). However, there are also remarkably beautiful and distinctive Eastern/Asian animation styles, including in films like Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (Japan), Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, Arnab Chaudhuri’s Arjun: the Warrior Prince, Ramayana: the Legend of Prince Rama, by Yugo Sako and Ram Mohan. And Gitanjali Rao’s short, Printed Rainbow.
Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature 2003, the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and is acclaimed as one of the greatest animation features of all time. It is about Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who gets trapped in a world of monsters, witches and dragons, and quickly learns to take responsibility for others. Persepolis is a French production of an animation feature based in Iran, of a woman growing up during the Islamic Revolution. The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007, and got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Contemporary, political, feminist and feisty, it spoke the salty language of globalisation: When Marjane wears a Michael Jackson T-shirt in Tehran, Iranian women in looming black chadors shriek, “Qu’est-ce que c’est? What’s that? Michael Jackson!” (The film was in French, with English subtitles). Arnab Chaudhuri’s magnificent Arjun: the Warrior Prince (India, produced by UTV, 2012), raised the bar for original Indian imagination, and elegantly absorbed Asian aesthetic influences. Ramayana: the Legend of Prince Rama, by Yugo Sako and Ram Mohan, was a 1992 Indo-Japanese collaboration, with a very anime Ram, his sideburns blowing in slo-mo; clouds with blazing eyes, underwater dragons, and a dragon plane that hurls firebombs. Printed Rainbow was an exquisite, contemporary, feminist tale of a granny who ‘enters’ the world of matchbox labels.
But Spirited Away is sui generis — in a jaw-dropping class by itself. As Chihiro’s family is moving house to a small Japanese town, her father takes a wrong turn to a tunnel, and they find themselves in an abandoned amusement park. The witch Yubaba turns her parents into pigs, and Chihiro is trapped in the theme park — a parallel universe inhabited by demons, spirits and shape-shifting creatures. She eventually finds a way to free herself and her parents, and return to the human world. Miyazaki’s remarkable imagination is revealed in the dizzying range of eccentric characters and the meticulous, life-like detailing of every scene. Above all, Chihiro is neither cute nor beautiful — the furthest from a Disney heroine, no tumbling locks, nor ‘ping’ in her eyes. Yet, her fears, courage, indomitable spirit, sacrifice and loyalty quietly burrow into our hearts. She is more mature than most adults: she is unafraid of monsters, recognising that they are people in disguise; she is non-judgemental of revolting creatures. Miyazaki’s films often have children as his protagonists, even as they powerfully resonate with adults. As he once put it, “I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world, that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that, I would die happy.”
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.