When I was younger, I would have said that there was no difference between watching a DVD and going to the cinema. You would have still watched a film at the end, so why bother. I got a little older and I realised that nothing compares to watching the year’s blockbusters on a big screen. You get a whole different experience watching the epic grandeur of other worldly vistas, spectacular battles and larger than life characters. But I would still say that there is no difference watching a drama on the telly or at the cinema. They are quieter films, and they don’t need whatever surround sound or HD projection to sell themselves. I am now a bit older still and I regret my opinions. While it may sound hyperbolic to say I have had a life changing experience watching a movie I have already seen multiple times, the local Picture House, Cinema City, in Norwich is currently doing a Studio Ghibli retrospective, and no Ghibli retrospective would be complete without Spirited Away so myself and a few friends went to see it and it changed my life, again.
Many will already know the plot of Spirited Away, (though the plot, in my opinion is not the reason to watch the film) but for those who don’t, a brief summary. Chihiro is moving to a new town with her parents, and like any elementary school student she is not happy about leaving her friends and old home. Driving to the new house, her dad gets lost and the family comes across what they assume to be an abandoned theme park. Chihiro’s mum and dad decide to explore with a reluctant Chihiro following behind. However mysteriously they discover that some of the restaurants are still setting out food, which as Chihiro’s parents find out is delicious. As the sun sets Chihiro starts to notice strange figures appearing in the theme park. Scared she tries to get her parents to leave but, shock horror they have turned into pigs and she is disappearing as a human cannot exist in the spirit world. With the help of a strange boy, who knows her name, called Haku, Chihiro manages to get a job at the spirit spa run by the dictatorial witch Yubaba. Over the course of her quest to save her parents, retain her name and return to the human world Chiriro will meet colourful characters, including a spider man who stokes the boilers named Kamaji, a giant baby, and a radish spirit.
Similarly, many already know how good Spirited Away is, however this is not a conventional revue rather it is more a documentation of my experience watching Spirited Away for I think the 5th time now, the only difference being I went to see it at the big screen. If you were like me, who was about 9 when the film was released, we most likely didn’t get to see it in theatres, rather we experienced our first, or at least it was my first anime as far as I am aware. While I had seen Pokemon and Digimon I did not know I was watching Anime, until I saw Spirited Away and my love for Animation in general and Japanese Animation specifically began in earnest.
Seeing the film on the big screen really brought home the beauty of each frame. Each empty shot of the wind blowing across the grass, the sun moving across the hills, the train gliding across an endless sea, draws you into this rich painting and makes it so inviting and comfortable you never want to leave. My absolute favourite sequence of the film is the silent train ride from Yubaba’s spas to Zeniba’s cottage. Just watching the scenery slip by as the sun sets is magical. It speaks volumes for the journey that Chihiro has been on, where she has come from, and where she is going. And it does that with something as simple as her determined expression facing forward, reflected in the train’s window. The bravery to break the pacing of the film with something that would have been cut out by more impatient film makers works wonders for the film. It builds the world even more, and silently develops the characters of Choir, No-Face, Bo and Bird. It allows the audience to take a breath and enjoy the visual poetry of a simple every day thing like scenery flowing past a train window. I could go on for ever about how much I love this sequence and the art, but that would get boring and repetitive so I shall move on.
The plot is never the reason to watch a Ghibli film. This may sound hypercritical to people who know me and my dislike of Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty. It is the characters and the feeling that you get when you watch it. A feeling of returning home, a hug from someone you love, something so small, so simple, but the most important thing you ever experience. There is a subtlety to Spirited Away, a gentleness. While some films may have played up the terror Chihiro feels when stumbling through darkened alleys as the streets fill with shapeless shadows and strange creatures parade toward the resort, Spirited Away instead instills wonder and curiosity into the audience. We want to see more, more strange spirits and more of their world. But what we do see is charming, inventive and most importantly alive with individual characters. Chihiro feels like a real person. She starts out as a spoilt child and ends the film, still a child but she has grown up through her experiences at the bath house. Yubaba is both terrifying and maternal at the same time. But both pale in comparison to No-Face who through simple gestures, tiny facial changes and small sounds conveys entire speeches worth of emotion. They all feel like old friends because I have watched the film so many times, but I was learning something new about them because the screen revealed details that were hidden due to the size restriction of my television or laptop screen. Watching the film is like being in one of the baths in Yubaba’s resort; I was pampered and refreshed while I watched my favourite characters go on their Alice In Wonderland like adventure.
I left the theatre on the verge of tears, a bittersweet feeling in my gut. I had been on a marvellous adventure with unique and remarkable characters, watched watercolour scenery drift by, pulled the bike out of a polluted water spirit, was chased by a ravenous No-Face, saved a dragon from paper planes, and saved the parents of a small child who I watched grow up. However as the end credits were rolling and I saw the settings that where once inhabited by the people I had got to know, I knew that I had to leave, not look back and go on my way. It was a transcendent experience. The only thing that spoilt was a couple who were talking through the final moments, breaking the intricate, charming spell that Hayao Miyazaki had most expertly crafted earlier than I wanted.