Despite the raft of plaudits and awards trailing in its wake, there was little about Spirited Away that made me think, "Must see." Yes, it was co-winner of this year's Golden Bear at Berlin, carried off an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, surpassed Titanic as the most successful film in Japanese history, and opened in the US having already made $200m. All well and good, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a cartoon; and, recalling disappointment with the last Japanese animation to create such a stir, Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, I was sceptical of being seduced, let alone spirited away, by Hayao Miyazaki's latest "masterpiece".
And, knock me down with a feather, it turns out to be terrific; maybe not a masterpiece, but certainly aglitter with invention, excitement and a mysterious kind of wit. Already compared to Alice in Wonderland, it's also bristling with references to Kafka, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz, to say nothing (because I know nothing) of Japanese mythology. Yet for all that, it remains distinctively Miyazaki's own, a fairy-tale quest story that carries the hallucinatory charge of a dream. Every time you think you have a handle on the narrative, it switches course again, refusing all but its own skewed logic.
It begins, misleadingly, in a realistic key, with sulky 10-year-old Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) moaning in the back of her parents' car about the move to a new home. A short cut through woods leads them to an abandoned theme park, where Chihiro's mother and father start chowing down at an all-you-can-eat buffet and are promptly turned into pigs. (A parable about gluttony? An advert for the Atkins diet? Neither, as it transpires). The film then swan-dives from the high board of realism into a bizarre spirit world in which Chihiro suddenly finds herself apprenticed as skivvy at a peculiar higgledy-piggledy bathhouse. Her boss is a large-headed sorceress named Yubaba - imagine a Toby jug cast from the face of Barbara Cartland - who forces a new name on her, Sen, and insists that her parents "got what they deserved".
Curiouser and curiouser - and that's just the first half-hour. We're certainly not in Kansas anymore, or indeed any place we could imagine. The feeling that we are gravitating through a dream intensifies as Chihiro is offered help by a boy named Haku (Jason Marsden), who explains the rules of survival. They make no sense, but, as in a dream, one is borne along on the premise that no other rules have become apparent. Yet Miyazaki's preoccupation with shape-shifting isn't irksome in the way of most magic realism; it's beguiling, and the anthropomorphic detailing never becomes too cute. The crone Yubaba nightly changes into a bird of prey, Haku into a winged dragon, Okutaresama - a monster resembling a huge dripping turd - into a water spirit. Outlandish invention proliferates through this parallel world: take the boilerman Kamajii (David Ogden Stiers), half-man, half-octopus, and his legion of sootballs that scurry about bearing lumps of coal to the furnace. Or the swarm of paper jets that take off of their own accord. Or the three green potato-heads that pay court to Yubaba - a possible allusion to Mr Potato Head of Toy Story, whose creator John Lasseter dubbed this film into English and campaigned for its release in the West.
Whether Spirited Away is an adult's film for children or a child's film for adults, it's hard to tell. Chihiro isn't a kid with magical powers, such as Harry Potter, but she does have to learn responsibility; beginning the movie as a whiny, annoying brat, she is gradually taught the value of courtesy, diligence and companionship, the bonding agents of adulthood. But if adults are so great, why are her parents turned into swine? And why is the most grotesque of all the film's creatures the gigantic baby whom Yubaba keeps beneath a mound of scatter cushions? Is this a subtext about being tyrannised by children? There may be darker tones to the movie than first meet the eye. It has been suggested, for example, that the bathhouse is a barely disguised allegory of the Japanese sex industry: women workers required to wash and pamper "dirty" male clients, which would make 10-year-old Chihiro's employment there rather more disturbing.
This interpretation will fly over the heads of younger audiences, as will the plot complications of the final quarter when Chihiro tries to redeem her dragon friend Haku. Come to think of it, the denouement flew right over my head, too (something about the return of a stolen trinket to Yubaba's identical sister), though it is of less importance than the visual bravura of Chihiro's boarding a train that runs through the sea, an image that could have been plucked from Dali or Magritte. Once again, the dream logic of Miyazaki's narrative holds sway. Why not take a train where the tracks shimmer just below the water's surface? Our own rail network could learn something about operating a service in unusual conditions.
Spirited Away thrives on just that sort of juxtaposition. The clear lines, realistic detail and superlative colour of the draughtsmanship are a testament to the painstaking Miyazaki and his team of animators. An Oscar is the least they deserve. Pair this with the recent French fancy Belleville Rendez-Vous and you have one of the great animation double-bills of the year. Don't miss them.
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