Features and Columns

Austin Cinematic Limits: Spirited Away With Totoro and Friends

By  · Published on February 7th, 2012

Co-founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, Japan’s Studio Ghibli is famous for its masterfully crafted animated films. A retrospective series of newly struck, 35mm (subtitled) prints of Studio Ghibli’s films is coming to Austin thanks to Alamo Drafthouse. Each film will screen for one week at the Alamo South Lamar, beginning with Spirited Away on February 10th. The touring retrospective is intended to build anticipation for the famed Japanese animation studio’s latest U.S. theatrical release, The Secret World of Arrietty (the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, co-written by Hayao Miyazaki).

If you were to ask me whom I believed to be the three greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time, my first two responses ‐ Akira Kurosawa and Yasujir? Ozu ‐ are all but indisputable; the question is whether or not a director of animated films, namely Miyazaki (who is by far the most prolific director on the Studio Ghibli roster), could be considered in the same high regard as Kurosawa and Ozu. To accept Miyazaki as a legitimate filmmaker, one might need to overcome the opinion that animated films are merely for kids. For example, even though Spirited Away is ranked among the top ten on BFI’s list of 50 films you should see by age 14, the film is more than just a “kids’ movie.” The narrative is light-years more mature, intricate, complex and thoughtful than most modern Hollywood dramas ‐ and the same can be said for any of Miyazaki’s films.

Following are brief critical analyses of the four Miyazaki that are scheduled to screen at the Alamo Drafthouse. (Rumor has it that more Studio Ghibli films will be added soon to the Alamo Drafthouse calendar!)

2/10 to 2/16 ‐ Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) tells the story of Chihiro, a sulky ten-year-old girl who finds herself trapped inside a strange spirit world; she must escape this existential limbo and return to reality. This serves as a metaphor for Chihiro’s transition into adulthood. The seizure of Chihiro’s name symbolically cuts her off from childhood. Without her childhood identity, she cannot turn back; Chihiro can only progress towards adulthood. Most importantly, Chihiro must remember her childhood identity ‐ her history ‐ in order to become an adult.

Spirited Away functions as a critical commentary on modern Japanese society’s disregard for history. Frustrated by modern-day generational conflicts and the disintegration of traditional customs, Miyazaki waxes nostalgic for the values and ideologies of postwar era Japan. Miyazaki’s nostalgia, however, only goes so far. While the spirit world ‐ specifically the bathhouse ‐ is filled with Japanese traditions and fables, this representation of Japan’s past is far from societal perfection. For example, many of the inhabitants of this world are rude and discriminating; this place is also rife with corruption, excess and greed.

Spirited Away also regurgitates Miyazaki’s environmental concerns regarding pollution and over-development. The pollution inside the bathhouse is directly associated with poor ecological decisions made by Japanese society. Similar to the process Chihiro must undergo to return the real world, Miyazaki suggests that Japan’s cultural recovery requires a renewed comprehension of history, a more coherent identity, deep spiritual cleansing and ‐ above all ‐ sacrifice.

Spirited Away could easily be interpreted as anti-Capitalist; though it is much more likely that Miyazaki intends for it to serve as a cautionary tale, not a condemnation. The abandoned fairground represents the recent failure of the “bubble economy” that was perpetuated by Japan’s over-anxious approach to Capitalism; just as the credit card crazed gluttony of Chihiro’s parents literally transforms them into [Capitalist] pigs. It is worth noting that Miyazaki is not just talking out of his ass, he holds degrees in political science and economics from Gakushuin University.

2/17 to 2/23 ‐ Castle in the Sky

Within the backstory of Castle in the Sky (1986), we learn that human civilizations once built flying cities which were subsequently ruined and the survivors have since been relegated to live on the ground again. One city, Laputa (not to be confused with the Spanish phrase “la puta”), clandestinely remains in the sky. (Laputa is a non-discreet reference to the flying island in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.) This is as good of a time as any to note that Miyazaki’s father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, which built rudders for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s Zero fighter aircrafts during World War II. Growing up around airplanes had a profound influence on Miyazaki ‐ flight technology is a recurring theme in his films.

Sheeta is a young, orphan girl who has been inexplicably arrested by the government. The government airship on which she is being transported is attacked by sky pirates. She escapes through a window but falls; miraculously, a pendant that she recently came into possession of allows her to float in the air. A young, orphan boy named Pazu witnesses Sheeta floating; he catches her, and takes her back to his home where he is constructing a flying machine in the hopes of finding Laputa.

Laputa is a very complex place, one that at first appears idyllic but is revealed to have a menacing underbelly. Miyazaki associates Laputa’s history with Biblical events and the epic Hindu text Ramayana, and stresses the significance of history and ancestry in understanding ourselves.

The first film created and released by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky was made shortly after Miyazaki witnessed a mining strike in Wales during a research excursion. This explains Miyazaki’s sympathetic portrayal of the poor, working-class community in Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki also reveals his skepticism about science and technology when utilized as tools of progress ‐ because there is often a direct correlation to escalating levels of violence and injustice. Miyazaki is not against technological innovation, he just does not approve of technology being used to only serve corporate interests (for example, to increase productivity and profits).

2/24 to 3/1 — My Neighbor Totoro

Serving as Miyazaki’s homage to the Western European authors whose narratives Miyazaki studied fervently, My Neighbor Totoro’s most obvious references point to Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis. Mei’s fall down the hole in the camphor tree is an unmistakable nod to Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; just as Satsuki and Mei’s ride in the Catbus alludes to Susan and Lucy’s ride on the back of Aslan in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Considering Miyazaki’s deep respect for Lewis, it is interesting to observe the role that religion plays in My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki carefully utilizes iconography ‐ deities ‐ from traditional Japanese religion to provide the audience with narrative clues; all the while, he makes it overwhelmingly clear that religion is a human construct not a natural one. The protection of the religious statues and rituals does not apply to “nature spirits” (such as the Totoros or the Catbus); nature wishes to co-exist peacefully with humans, so there is no need for protection from it.

The idyllic pastoral innocence of My Neighbor Totoro reveals Miyazaki’s yearnings for the peace and simplicity of the pre-industrialized world. My Neighbor Totoro takes place at a point in history when humans still respected nature. There is no malice to be found within the natural elements of My Neighbor Totoro, and humans have no reasons to destroy it. Despite My Neighbor Totoro’s unwavering optimism, we of course know that this balance and tranquility will not last forever; soon Tokyo will grow, and as a direct result the surrounding landscape will change drastically.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) was as my initial introduction to Miyazaki, and to this day it is still my favorite. (Note: Akira Kurosawa and I both list My Neighbor Totoro as one of the 100 best films of all time.) It is Miyazaki’s most personal film ‐ Miyazaki was around the same age as Mei when his mother was hospitalized with spinal tuberculosis; yet despite the hospitalized mother, My Neighbor Totoro showcases a happy family unit in which both parents are alive (a rarity in children’s fantasy narratives) though temporarily apart.

3/2 to 3/8 — Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Miyazaki was 17-years old when he saw the first Japanese color animated feature, Taiji Yabushita’s Legend of the White Serpent. Yabushita’s film made a tremendous impression on Miyazaki, especially the film’s heroine with whom he admittedly fell in love. It is obvious that Miyazaki sought to shape Nausicaä ‐ the heroine of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind ‐ into a character with whom the audience would fall in love. Named after the princess who rescues Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Nausicaä is also loosely based upon the princess in the Japanese folktale, The Princess Who Loved Insects.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is Miyazaki’s second film ‐ his first as writer and director. The film was made before Studio Ghibli was founded, but it is considered to be the beginning of the studio (thus explaining its presence in this retrospective). Adapted from Miyazaki’s manga series of the same title, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind introduces several of the themes that reappear in Miyazaki’s later work: ecological awareness and the human impact on the environment; a fascination with flight; pacifism; feminism; and morally ambiguous villains.

One thousand years after an apocalyptic war nearly destroyed human civilization and Earth’s ecosystem, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind reveals that surviving human settlements are scattered throughout the Toxic Jungle (named because everything about it is lethal to humans), an ominous forest swarming with giant insects. Nausicaä is a motherless princess who travels long distances via a glider; she is a skillful fighter but also peace-loving. Nausicaä discovers that the Tolmekians intend to use an ancient weapon to annihilate the giant insects of the Toxic Jungle. All the while, Nausicaä uncovers what made the Toxic Jungle so toxic (poisons created by humans) as well as how to restore the balance between man and nature (diligent study, thorough understanding and open communication).

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind serves as a treatise on ecological action, pacifism and feminism. The apocalyptic war alludes to World War II, specifically the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the catastrophic mistakes made by humans, Miyazaki is hopeful that nature will continue to adapt and flourish. The giant insects are extremely intelligent and have developed an advanced social system; they can communicate over far distances and dedicate a lot of time towards the care of their offspring (very similar to whales). The jungle absorbs the human poisons and adapts to it; so even if humans bring about their own extinction, Miyazaki is hopeful that nature will continue to exist.

Cinematic Things To Do in Austin This Week:

2/7 ‐ Alamo South Lamar — While living and working in Mexico, Buñuel created this entrancing portrait of a poor barrio in mid-century Mexico City, mixing Italian neo-realism with hints of surrealism. (More info)

2/8 ‐ Alamo South Lamar — Stars and directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim will be in attendance for a preview screening of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. It promises to be an awesome show! (More info)

2/10 ‐ Blue Starlite Urban Drive-In — A John Cusack double-feature of Say Anything and Grosse Pointe Blank at the Blue Starlite Urban Drive-In! (More info)

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