Spirited Away

Watch out for the Stink God...
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Ever since Toy Story revealed the dazzling possibilities of the digital animation feature, traditional pen-and-ink work - what we used to call "cartoons", a term that now sounds bizarrely archaic - has struggled to convince us that it still has any mileage. But while one traditional animation after another, whether from Disney or DreamWorks, fails to excite, ripples are occasionally caused by work that flaunts the traditional values, that has a flavour of artisanship. Sylvain Chomet's Belleville Rendezvous, currently on release, stakes its appeal on its retro virtuosity, on a cultivated Ronald Searle-style scratchiness, as though you could actually feel the animator's nib scraping the screen. Don't get too sentimental, though: hand-crafted as it may be is, Chomet's film, like this week's Japanese release Spirited Away, contains no small amount of digital work.

Computer animation will always have the advantage when it comes to dazzling us with brazen newness, both aesthetically and technologically: Pixar's forthcoming undersea tale Finding Nemo does things with water through light that you wouldn't have imagined possible even a year ago, but narratively it's so-so. Conversely Spirited Away, while its images are boldly imagined, occasionally looks a little impersonally realised in terms of texture and polish.

Even so, what distinguishes Hayao Miyazaki's animé epic is its mythic ambition. Since the mid-Eighties, Miyazaki's company Studio Ghibli has made its name creating a distinctively inventive fantasy universe in films such as Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, an eco-adventure that felt like Tolkien storyboarded by Kurosawa. Narrative richness and wit, rather than animation dazzle, give Spirited Away its extraordinary appeal. It is not only the most successful Japanese film ever, grossing over $230m domestically, but also one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films, and the winner of a Golden Bear in Berlin and an Academy Award for best animation. Not bad for a fairy tale about a little girl trapped in a castle full of goblins.

Anyone who disapproves of adults poring over Harry Potter on the tube may fear that the success of Spirited Away represents the same syndrome. But Miyazaki's story is far weirder and more elemental than anything that has ever rolled off Rowling's production-line imagination. Ten-year-old heroine Chihiro and her parents get lost in a dark forest, where a tunnel leads them to a deserted alley of restaurants. Tucking into a feast of steaming, fat-dripping meats, the adults are transformed into pigs, while their daughter finds herself in a palatial bathhouse frequented by supernatural beings of every conceivable form: giant chicks, lumbering walruses, half-human frogs and more equivocal ectoplasmic beings trailing tendrils and fancy ribbons. The apparitions variously echo Goya, James Ensor and Tenniel: the bathhouse's proprietor Yubaba is a wizened sorceress with a huge head and a Victorian dress sense, like the Russian witch Baba Yaga with a touch of Baroness Thatcher.

Like Cinderella indentured as an apprentice in the black arts, Chihiro must make herself useful before she can save her parents. She toils in a boiler room, helping its scuttling population of soot-spiders to stoke heavy coals; placates a ravenous masked ghoul called No-Face; and in an explosive set-piece, prepares a herbal bath for a Stink God, an ambulant dollop of cloacal gloop, so noxious-smelling that food spontaneously rots in its presence.

No doubt Spirited Away will mean entirely different things to Japanese and Western audiences, to long-time Miyazaki fans and to newcomers. Some of its themes have specifically national resonances: arriving in the dream world, Chihiro's father mistakes it for an abandoned theme park, a doomed leftover from the Japanese economic boom of the Nineties. The bathhouse could be a microcosm of Japan itself, a satirical image of conspicuous consumption, while its hierarchical staffing structure conceivably mocks national corporate culture, with Yubaba's attendants anxious to accommodate even their most demanding and rebarbative clients. In one poignant sequence, a customer disgorges a mountain of scrap metal, echoing the environmental themes of Princess Mononoke.

For Western viewers, the film will be crammed with echoes of familiar myths and fairy tales: Circe turning humans into pigs; the dream-world setting in the tradition of Oz, Narnia and Wonderland; the architecture of Yubaba's palace, a Japanese Gormenghast with its dungeons, passages and perilous stairways. Chihiro's quest feels so powerfully archetypal that it probably chimes with fairy-tale structures the world over. Studio Ghibli, after all, is a major commercial force, and you suspect the film's mythic appeal is not just the result of Miyazaki's imagination: no doubt a few marketing executives were armed with Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale, to help maximise international sales. "Auteur" animation or not, there's no reason to think Spirited Away was product-developed any less ruthlessly than, say, Shrek.

At any rate, the film's worldview is at once coherent and mercurially unpredictable, thriving on non-stop metamorphosis: people into pigs, babies into mice, solid bodies into fountainously gushing mud-springs (among the terrors invoked, coprophobia is foremost, sometimes alarmingly so). The film's imagination is more expressive than its technique: though the architecture is always stunning, there's often something sketchily functional about the execution of the characters, drawn in clean lines and framed against economically painted backgrounds. Chihiro herself seems a rudimentary presence, less a character than simply the person things happen to: a grumpy gamine, she's distinguished mainly by a Simpsons-style elongated upper lip and a tendency for her hair to stand on end.

Spirited Away is being screened in two different prints, the original Japanese and an American dubbed version, released by Disney in the US. I watched the original, in which the shrieking and rasping character voices are as much part of the pleasure as the visuals; I mean, you wouldn't go and see Monsters, Inc. dubbed into Japanese, would you?