Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Spirited Away

Given how many Japanese movies I have watched (103, to be precise, as of 18th Oct 2014), I haven’t really written too many posts about them. So, I’ve decided every now and then to share some thoughts about the most memorable ones. Since several of my favourite Japanese movies have won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy, that’s a convenient theme under which I can cluster my future series of posts. It could just as easily have been ‘Favourite Anime films’ or ‘My top samurai films’…

Today, I’ll write about Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi).

In 1997, when James Cameron’s Titanic was barreling around the world creating a global phenomenon, I read that it had become the highest grossing film in Japan by overtaking a Japanese animation film called Princess Mononoke which had been released a few months earlier. This was my first introduction to the name Hayao Miyazaki. Living in Chennai, India at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the movie, but I remembered the article about Japan’s living legend of animation. This was in the days before regular access to the internet, so it’s not like I could just go online and read up about him.

Soon after, I watched my first ever Japanese film (it was either Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or Rashomon) and the love affair began. Miyazaki’s name came up again when his next film Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Film in early 2003. It had already won Best Picture in Japan a year earlier. By then, I had moved to Bangalore and my local DVD library on Church Street (named Habitat) soon got a copy.

Spirited Away was a revelation for me, brought up as I was on Disney’s version of animated storytelling. This is the story of a 10-year-old girl traveling with her parents to their new home. They take a wrong turn and soon end up in a magical world, filled with spirits, witches and other strange creatures. Her parents are turned into pigs and it’s up to little Chihiro to use her courage and her wits to save them. I was initially repulsed by the grotesque characters in the film, especially the ugly witch Yubaba, but was eventually drawn into the fascinating world and its myriad denizens – the young boy Haku who turns into a white dragon, the frightening No-Face and Kamaji, the strange ‘spider-man’ who runs the boiler room in the bath-house.

Watching it was an incredible, magical, scary experience. I vicariously lived through Chihiro’s fear so intensely that I still feel a sense of apprehension when I think about watching the film again! Since then, I have watched all the Studio Ghibli films, and to be honest I much prefer Miyazaki’s lighter fare like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and even Howl’s Moving Castle, which can be considered as dark as Spirited Away.

We watched his bittersweet farewell film The Wind Rises earlier this year and also visited the Ghibli museum in Japan in April. How fortunate I am to have seen the works of this great man and what a great injustice that his films have not been seen by more people around the world.

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