I never seem to write up about my favourite films, do I? It’s enough of a mission just to keep up with all the new films and music coming out. I find myself rarely watching DVDs, and almost never buying new ones. But my Studio Ghibli collection is still going strong, and I hope to add to it soon when “From up on Poppy Hill” comes out, after Cineworld shafted me by not showing it. Hmph. It was in their “Summer of Cinema” trailer too!
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s a good or bad idea to start with one of Ghibli’s most well-known films, or at least their breakthrough feature in terms of worldwide attention. “Spirited Away”, directed by legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki, at the time became Japan’s biggest grossing film, and even walked away with an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
It open the gates further for anime to enter the mainstream, and established Studio Ghibli as a big player on the international scene. I can’t quite remember if this was the first Ghibli movie I ever saw. Certainly it was the first anime I ever saw at a cinema. I did end up with a fairly dodgy VCD collection of all of Ghibli’s movies – I think up to “Spirited away” – all in Japanese with subtitles. I was totally blown away, and I’m quite sad that I don’t think I’ll ever have that joy of discovering something quite so special again.
“Spirited Away” is the tale of a bratty kid, Chihiro, who is moving to a new town. After getting lost, she and her family explore what looks like an abandoned town. On finding a load of delicious food, her parents stop for a snack. But it quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary town, and her parents turn into pigs. Chihiro is in the world of spirits, with no obvious means of escape.
Taking refuge in a huge bath-house with the help of a mysterious boy Haku and the boiler operator Kamaji, she keeps a low profile and works in the bath-house, trying to find a way to save her parents and escape this world. She tries to keep out of the way of monstrous bath-house proprietress Yubaba, but ends up getting tangled up in spirit-world politics and embarks on a journey with an unlikely entourage of strange characters.
If you’ve never watched an anime, this is a good a place as any to start. Some of the cultural points might seem a little odd, such as the Japanese inclination to see spirits in everything, but if you allow yourself to be charmed by the beautiful visuals and gentle but engrossing story, you’ll have a good time. The English voice actors are solid, though as is often the case, the young female lead is a bit shrill and whiney.
If you don’t want to listen to a Japanophile like me, look at the critic acclaim this film has gathered. It’s always making “Best film ever” lists, and is still one of the highest-rated traditional animations on the aggregate review sites. For once – speaking as someone who never seems to like critic’s choices as much as they do – it lives up to the hype.
Take a chance on this. If you like it, there are SO many more you can watch. Even just sticking with Ghibli there are so many great experiences. For younger viewers and the young at heart, I recommend the iconic “My neighbour Totoro” & “Ponyo”. For fans of the quirky, check out “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “The Cat Returns”, and for more serious fare (but not as impenetrable as “Akira”), try “Nausicaa”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Grave of the Fireflies”. But I could carry on with that list … Ghibli – for me at least – only rarely make a mis-step.