A lot has happened since the last time I wrote about watching a celebrated Japanese movie, Akiro Kurosawa’s enthralling white-collar-crime drama The Bad Sleep Well. For one thing, I taught myself to juggle. Also, there’s been a catastrophic global pandemic and lockdown.
Among the high-profile consequences of the Covid crisis has been the postponement of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics to what will most likely be (if it goes ahead at all) a much-reduced and therefore economically disastrous 2021 edition; apparently the hit to the Japanese finances will be in billions. On the far side of Covid the whole world will be in a fiscal pickle, Japan even more so.
Rather than leave the good people of Japan just kicking their heels for vaccine rollouts and financial bailouts, I have a more immediate plan, with guaranteed results: write about classic Japanese cinema again, thereby reversing the spell and undoing the ensuing calamity of last time. Basically, like the ending of Big. Alternatively, I could try deleting that previous post, but it’s good stuff, y’know? People need that sort of joy in their lives right now.
And the lucky film, the inspiration for this magical thinking? Spirited Away, the Oscar-winning feature-length fantasy anime written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The selection process was pretty much the accumulation in my brain of enough rapturous mentions of it to know it was a film worth watching. My local public library is strong on world cinema DVDs in general, with a dedicated Japanese animation section in particular. So, last time the library was open, I borrowed it. On which point, a big sorry to anyone else in my community also looking to borrow Spirited Away in the last three months; lockdown means the library has been shut ever since and it’s still on my living room table. No, you can’t call around to watch it.
Lockdown has also meant I’m now, for the first time ever, working from home. One of my previous workplaces was a large multinational corporation halfway up a glassy skyscraper in the La Défense business district in Paris, where I gave English classes to its employees. Between classes, while drinking machine-made coffee and watching CNN in the excellent staff canteen, I often noticed an employee, not one of my students, whose business attire was the bright pink schoolgirlish ensemble of classic Japanese manga characters. Her colleagues in my classes, spotting my discomforted attempts to look and not look, told me she was a big manga fan. That, and glimpses of Pokémon on TV and on passing children’s accessories, made up my only previous awareness of the blossoming orchards of Japanese animation. This needed fixing; no better time for same than a lockdown.
You’ve probably seen Spirited Away already so you know this is a gorgeous, thrilling, genuinely moving film. A plot summary feels redundant — in broad strokes, it’s the tale of a strong-willed young girl who must make her way through a fantastical ghostly community of oddballs, grotesques and other magic creatures. In truth, pretty soon I had forgotten earthly conceits like plot and stakes, finding myself instead swept along in its dreamy visuals and vivid imagination. Again, no better time to watch something like this, and you can come to it from anywhere along the Anime Awareness Spectrum from ‘is Pokémon the name of the boy?’ to ‘workplace cosplaying French business executive manga fan’.
The official US trailer for Spirited Away, distributed by Disney Studios, is a horribly forced Hollywood thing. Instead, dip your toe in the original Japanese trailer: