April 29, 2003

Spirited Away, by Miyazaki Hayao

In his lesser known story Smith of Wooton Major, J.R.R. Tolkien has much to say about the land of Faerie, much that's been mostly forgotten by modern purveyors of fantasy. Faerie is, of course, the land of the Fair Folk, the Fairies, a dangerous breed about as unlike Tinkerbelle as it is possible to be. Faerie lies "beyond the fields we know" as Lord Dunsany said in The King of Elfland's Daughter; a man might wander all his days the wild world over and never enter its halls, or he might find it in the forest over the hill.

The essence of Faerie is that it is not for mortal men, though mortals might stray there. It is a perilous realm, where man or woman might meet their death, or find their heart's desire never to find it again. It has its rules, but they are not for mortals to know; and often they change capriciously from place to place and from person to person. It is a place where almost anything can happen and in which few things can be explained--a place of high fantasy.

Ironically, few fantasy authors have spent much time there. This is largely Tolkien's own fault; he was a painstaking systematizer, and The Lord of the Rings consequently has little of Faerie in it. (The Blessed Realm of Valinor, the land of the Valar, has a stronger flavor of Faerie, in that mortals are forbidden to enter it, but even Valinor is too well mapped and understood to be truly a part of the Perilous Realm.) Tolkien's followers have written many books ostensibly set in Faerie and featuring such luminaries as Oberon and Titania and the Puck, but even this is no guarantee of success. Faerie has best been captured, in my reading, by George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany. H.P. Lovecraft knew something of its darker corners, and Neil Gaiman might well be a changeling.

I've often written about my notions of the Big Story and the Small Story. It's the nature of Faerie that stories about that realm are necessarily Small Stories, concerned with the fate of individuals rather than the fate of worlds. And this is a good thing, for individuals are as varied as snowflakes, whereas systematized fantasy worlds are driven by the demands of narrative causality into a dreadful sameness.

Over at Banana Oil, Ian Hamet has recently begun a series of essays about his favorite film makers--the ones he considers to be absolutely top-tier. And the first essay in the series concerns Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao (or Hayao Miyazaki, as he more usually called here in the West). Now, I know about as much about Japanese animation as you can fit in a thimble without removing your finger; I figure reading Ian's essay just about doubled my knowledge of the subject. But I was intrigued: here's a maker of cartoons, for goodness sake, and Ian ranks him as one of the greatest film makers in history. I can't even dismiss Ian as an anime bigot, because (IIRC) Miyazaki is the only animator on the list.

It so happens that Miyazaki's latest film, Spirited Away, just won an Academy Award over Lilo and Stitch (a movie I love); that Spirited Away was seen in this country largely due to the efforts of John Lasseter, the genius behind Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. and a man whom I greatly respect as a storyteller; and that Spirited Away has just been released on DVD.

As I say, I was intrigued; and so last week I went out and got a copy. And last night, after the kids were in bed, I slipped it into the DVD player, and pressed "play", and...stepped into Faerie.

It's a Japanese-flavored Faerie, mind you, with Japanese names and Japanese architecture, and Japanese spirits, but Faerie nonetheless. And it's a stunningly beautiful place.

The story is, in one sense, an old one. A young woman's beloved is captured by the Queen of Faerie; she steals him back at great risk to herself, defeating the Queen of Faerie in the process. In Miyazaki's vision this tale is transformed. The young woman becomes a spoiled, petulant young girl; the beloved becomes the girl's parents; and the Queen of Faerie is a witch who runs a bathhouse where the gods of Japan come to be refreshed. The girl enters Faerie in the usual way: by accident. She and her parents are driving to their new home--

I must digress for a moment. The movie is set in Japan. The food is Japanese; the signs are in Japanese; the cars drive on the left side of the road. How come the girl and her parents look caucasian? But anyway--

She and her parents are driving to their new home, and take a wrong turn down a dirt road. They come to a high wall pierced by a long dark tunnel; the tunnel entrance is guarded by a stone idol. Despite the girl's misgivings, they walk through the tunnel and into another place, and therein hangs the tale. I could go on, but it wouldn't avail me anything--much of the allure and the delight of the film lie in details that are wholly unexplained.

To say that I'm impressed by Spirited Away would be an understatement. Most animated features (including Pixar's excellent films) are children's stories; by comparison, Spirited Away has the stuff of a full-fledged novel; it's kid stuff only in that the main character is a young girl, and the movie contains no sex to speak of. Oh, and it's about courage, fortitude, love, and personal integrity, instead of the more "adult" themes of cynicism, disillusionment, and despair.

I really can't do this film justice. I'm no film buff, nor am I a student of Japanese animation; and any attempt I'd make to describe the beauty of the background paintings would be doomed to failure. You'd have to watch it for yourself.

So go find a copy and watch it. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, and I dearly wish I'd seen it in the theater. And I'll definitely be looking for other Miyazaki titles.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 29, 2003 09:57 PM

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