The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)  movie poster

director Mami Sunada
viewed: 04/25/2015

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a Japanese documentary about Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, producer Toshio Suzuki, and to a lesser extent director Isao Takahata as well.  Director Mami Sunada was given great access to the master animator and his studio during the process of making his film The Wind Rises (2013), which is said to be his final film as director.  At the end of production of that film, in the midst of this one, Miyazaki announces his official retirement.

To be honest, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a bit of a slog.  At nearly two hours, the film takes its gentle observational flitting about Miyazaki’s world, capturing a master in action, but proving out that the reality of daily animation production isn’t a particularly exciting one.

Sunada does observe a note that Miyazaki has posted to his associates regarding their work at Studio Ghibli, to allow him to “watch” them work.  And that is the approach employed in the film.  The film does delve into his past, his history, and his story as well, but not in a terribly compelling way.

For a hardcore Miyazaki fan, it’s certainly still worthwhile.  But for anyone less so I can’t imagine them enjoying it.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) movie poster

directory Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 01/16/2015

Oh, Kiki, I love you.  It’s been a while, but you’re great.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the last of Hayao Miyazaki’s great feature films that I have come to write about here in the film diary.  Over the years since 2002 when I started writing about every feature film that I watched in full, I’ve seen and written about each and every one of his films now except for Kiki.

It’s not that I haven’t seen Kiki.  It’s not that I don’t really love Kiki.  It’s just that somehow, over these past 12 or 13 years, I didn’t sit and watch Kiki in total.

I’m sure that I saw it in parts over that time.  I regularly showed my kids Miyazaki’s films, wandering in and out, often sitting through them all.  And Kiki, even before I had kids or wrote in the film diary, was a film that I bought on VHS for nieces and nephews and watched many, many a time.

This viewing came from a request by Clara, who noted that she hadn’t seen it in a long time, and as Miyazaki’s films are her personal favorite, she wanted to see “one of his big films” (seriously, her words).

Made on the heels of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki is another of Miyazaki’s most gentle and kid-friendly G-rated stories.  For so many filmmakers, that might easily become a pejorative but here it’s just a point of clarity.  TotoroKiki, and Ponyo (2009) are a wonderful, fantastical set of films that could be played for even the youngest of children.  Others of his films are more complex or frightening, but these three are pure loveliness at that level of parental rating.

The story of a 13 year old witch who travels to a new village with her talking cat, Jiji (Phil Hartman) is one of those things that you might have a harder time convincing an adult to watch than a small child.  Her skills yet undeveloped, she begins delivering things from a small bakery, meets a young boy enraptured by all things flight, and culminates with a dramatic rescue from a rogue dirigible.

It’s a very simple, very lovely piece of animation.  Perhaps not quite as iconic as Totoro, it’s wonderful, unique, purely Miyazaki kind of film.   Clara loved it.  But even Felix couldn’t remember it all that well from whenever he had last seen it.

I love Miyazaki’s films, and I’ve loved sharing them with my kids.  I think it’s great that they both like his movies so much.  Miyazaki is for the ages.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 06/20/2014

Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film that he directed and co-wrote, 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, is probably pretty obscure to American audiences.  This film was an adaptation of a popular manga by Monkey Punch, featuring the character of Lupin III, a bon vivant thief and heroic anti-hero.  So, though Miyazaki worked on the film as co-writer and storyboarder, this is the one major case of him directing a film of someone else’s material.  Anomalous as it is in that way, it’s still very much a Miyazaki film.

My personal relationship with the film is rather odd.  I first saw it on VHS probably in the early 1990’s, around the time perhaps that I was getting to know who Hayao Miyazaki was.  But when I sat down to watch the movie, I was suddenly sparked to realize that I had encountered it before.  In the form of a video game.

I’m no historian on video games, though I certainly came of age in their golden era.  In one arcade in my hometown, Tin Pan Alley, the video game of The Castle of Cagliostro stood out.  Like the more notable and popular Dragon’s Lair video game, it featured not low-res arcade action but actual animated clips.  You had to make the right moves at the right times, but the experience was cel animated action.

Dragon’s Lair had gotten some press because it had been done by former Disney employee Don Bluth (who would go on to a number of Disney-like features).  And while the characters were all original, it had that Disney-vibe.  And frankly, there was nothing else like it.  It was utterly unique.

Except The Castle of Cagliostro.  Which with no fanfare or knowledge that it came from a film, was a clearly Japanese animated video game of the same ilk as Dragon’s Lair.  I thought it was cool and played it a bit but I never got very good at it.  And this style of video game never really caught on but became its own obscure footnote of its time.

So, there I was, sitting at home, watching the beginning sequence of the film The Castle of Cagliostro, realizing that this was the exact same thing I had encountered a decade before.  I thought to myself, “I used to die here.  And here.  And here.  And here.”  Only you don’t see the little death scenes.  And I never made it far enough in the game to have that weird experience very far into the movie.

Well, another two decades later, I am watching the film with my kids.  And for that recollection of the video game memory, I actually felt that a lot less this time through.  It’s been 30 years since I played the game.  But some of the images still struck me.  The grenades dropped at Lupin’s car and the car veering on the cliff road and those weird long-armed henchmen.

The film is very distinctly a Miyazaki one in a few ways, though perhaps most notably in the conception of the landscape and the world of Cagliostro, which is his own fantastical vision of Europe.  The design of the women and the lead villain also are uniquely Miyazakian (if you will).  The least Miyazakian element is Lupin himself, a pronounced character with facial expressions you won’t find in any other Miyazaki film.  Not bad or anything, just not typical of Miyazaki.  That flying machine on the other hand…that is pure Miyazaki.

At the film’s best it’s excellent.   The animation is a bit rougher in some ways than any of his other films, but only by small degrees.  It’s beautifully rendered and has some remarkable sequences of action and adventure, including the car chase, Lupin’s leaping from rooftop to rooftop, chasing around in the inner workings of the clock tower.  It’s excellent stuff.  As honestly, all Miyazaki stuff is.

And the kids enjoyed it.  It’s safe to say that they like (or love) all Miyazaki films too.

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises (2013) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 02/23/2014 at Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

“The last Miyazaki film.”  That’s how this film has been come to be known and perhaps how it will best be remembered.  That is, unless it turns out to not be “the last Miyazaki film”.  At one point, Ponyo (2008) looked to be “the last Miyazaki film.”  Now it’s just Ponyo.

What “the last Miyazaki film” has come to mean is the last film that he directs.  Since Ponyo, he’s been involved with both The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), both of which came from screenplays that he collaborated on.  I would actually hazard that The Secret World of Arrietty is a pretty good Miyazaki film (directed as it was by Hiromasa Yonebayashi) whereas From Up on Poppy Hill (directed by Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki) and The Wind Rises are definitely nice but lesser efforts.

There is a lot of buzz about any Miyazaki film, particularly if this master filmmaker is indeed stepping down not to create any more wonderful movies.  But sadly, these last two have been both much more naturalistic stories, but also quite sentimental affairs.  In some ways the films are perhaps even more interested in Japan itself, depicting a more realistic world, or at least a bit more literal than the worlds of his fantasy films.

But I would argue that fantasy is what makes most animation great, and is the core of the best and most wonderful of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.  In The Wind Rises, fantasy is relegated to the dream sequences, and though there is magic here, it’s steeped in a softened, misty-eyed gaze at one of Miyazaki’s favorite things, wondrous flying machines.

The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Japanese engineer/designer Jiro Horikoshi, who among his aspirations, developed Japanese fighter aircraft for WWII.  Based on a manga by Hayao Miyazaki himself, this story has managed to brook controversy, paying homage as it does to the designer of war machines for the antagonist side of the war.  It’s easy to see what Miyazaki appreciates here, a man who is dedicated to design and engineering and flight, actually quite nationalistic in its way, a man who tried to distance himself from the uses of his developments and technologies.

The film delves into this, how he travels to Germany to gain insights from the Nazi regime in their airpower and technology.  It does sidestep the work of brokering with the devil that could inflame and infuriate people who want to find controversy here, both in its relationship with Germany and its portrayal of Japan.  There is an aspect of denial in this.

Oddly enough, I think if it was more deftly handled, this idea might have come off better.  It is possible to try to appreciate things out of context or in different contexts, but this film is more pure paean and there is a great deal of old Japan lovingly depicted here.

It’s a long film (126 minutes) with lots of quiet moments and slow development, and it feels every bit as long as it is.

The funny thing for me is that back in 2009 when we saw Ponyo thinking it was his last film, it was a feeling that he ended on a very strong note.  I haven’t re-seen the film since then, but it’s fantasy and magic bore great charm and inventiveness, wonder and character utterly unique.  And new.  Here, this feels like a much more unsatisfying ending to a great career.  Not a bad film, but missing a lot of the greatness that one comes to associate with Miyazaki.

Will it be his last in any way?  Time will tell.  And eventually, perspective will be allowed on this film, final or not.

Last comment is that we saw this film in the newly refurbished Embarcadero Theater.  Made in the model of the Kabuki across town, it has a bar and assigned seating, big pleatherish chairs, this new more comfortable and perhaps more elegant or “date night”-friendly style of cinema.  The best improvement to my mind was the layout of the theater which wound up with a much larger screen than my last visit to the Embarcadero Theater.

The kids felt much as I did.  Felix describing it as “sentimental” but neither loving nor disliking the film.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 11/23/2013 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

This viewing of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was at the Balboa Theater in the Richmond district of San Francisco as part of a birthday part for one of Clara’s good buddies.  The theater had been rented and a DVD provided and popcorn, glow-bracelets, cupcakes and pizza.  I even made Felix join us because I knew that the kids enjoyed it the last time we watched writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film from his own script.

I recollected again about having seen the release of the film in 1985 when it was released in the US as Warriors of the Wind, a heavily edited version of the film with a perplexingly unrelated poster art.

Warriors of the Wind (1985) movie poster

It was interesting to think about it because of my own odd relationship with Miyazaki’s films.  I of course had no idea who he was.  I think we opted for the film because of the novelty of seeing Japanese animated films in 1985.  I recall thinking it was “okay” but “not great”.  I would like to think that this had more to do with the chopping and reconstructing that the film went through in the version that was Warriors of the Wind because I would like to think that if I had seen the original, or even the one with the 2005 re-dubbing, which this version we saw at the Balboa was, that I would have appreciated its qualities.

Of course, this time, the most recent Miyazaki film that we had seen was Princess Mononoke (1997) and the similarities in themes and ideas struck me considerably.  The rage of nature as embodied by the forest and the giant animals reacting to the pollution and violence of humans.  Nausicaä, of course, is set in a future world, or a foreign world, and is much less a stand in for Japan.  And the creatures are not representations of traditional Japanese values and belief systems.  Miyazaki hadn’t developed that angle yet in  1984.  But his strong female leads were well in place.  It’s interesting to note that the character of Kushona, leader of the war-like and destructive Tolmekians, has a parallel in Princess Mononoke  of Lady Eboshi.  Kushona is more purely destructive, going “nuclear” with the Giant Warrior, whereas Lady Eboshi’s greed and exploitation finds some redemption in the later film.

Of all the films that I’ve watched in the last decade since keeping this diary, Miyazaki’s are the ones that I’ve seen and re-seen the most.  I do find it a tad tedious and occasionally daunting to write each time I re-see a film, but it’s also sort of the point of this diary, to explore each viewing for what it’s worth.

Definitely, the idea of renting the Balboa Theater for a movie-watching birthday party is really pretty damn cool.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/28/2013

Last week, Clara and I watched From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), which was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, from a screenplay co-written by the elder master who is soon heading into retirement, if he has not already.  It was in discussing the newer film and the coming retirement that recollected to me that I had never watched Miyazaki’s great Princess Mononoke with the kids.  

It’s his most “adult” film, most graphically violent with decapitations, dismemberments, and blood.  It’s still not all that gory, but I had held out when Clara was younger.  Felix in the meantime had seen it elsewhere.  But it had been ages for me and I thought it a good time to go for it.

It’s a funny thing but a few years back it played theatrically and I was going to go see it but it didn’t work out for whatever reason and a couple of my friends who had never seen it did go and thought it was stupid.  I was kind of surprised to hear that.  It’s pretty generally well-appreciated.  But in going back to watch it, I kept that dissonance in mind.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Princess Mononoke is critically emblematic of Miyazaki’s themes, particularly in looking with it along side My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).  These are the films that focus significantly on traditional Japanese mythologies, relating to magical spirits that inhabit all natural elements, and quite specifically the threat to those powerful, ancient beings through the destruction of the natural environment and disdain and disregard that humans have for those entities.

In Princess Mononoke, it is ruthless industrialization, the destruction of a forest and habitats, for greed, war, and the desire for eternal life that stokes those that seek to conquer the gods and spirits.  But it is also the human, Ashitaka, who realizes the need for humans to live in balance with nature and the old gods, and the human princess San, adopted by a wolf god mother, who ultimately help restore that balance and hopefully change the mentality of those who would destroy all.

The film is violent for Miyazaki, and I think that is significant in the statement at the film’s core.  The battle to live in harmony with the natural world, to respect those traditional spirits and beliefs, is a brutal one.  It’s a rather stark image, the first one of San, the “spirit princess” as she sucks blood from her wolf mother’s wound and wipes a bloody hand across her face, smearing it.  She is fierce and strong and bloody.

I think as well, this film really ties together Miyazaki’s “environmental” themes to his spiritual traditional ones.  Ancient beliefs in the magical life of nature bind the protection of the natural world and the respect and observation of older belief systems and uniquely Japanese culture.  Ultimately, alongside his strong female protagonists, these are some of the most compelling ideas in his films.

It’s interesting that though Princess Mononoke is the film’s title and iconic image, the real protagonist is Ashitaka, the boy.  San is strong and powerful, but she is a smaller character in the film, albeit a pivotal one.  The film also features the character Eboshi, the lady industrialist who has built “Iron Town” as a town largely run by women, ex-prostitutes, who she has empowered in hard physical labor and independence.  The women of Iron Town are free, empowered, and strong.  Again, this echoes consistent themes throughout Miyazaki’s work, though here, in some ways, it’s made more explicit.

I’ve said before that I think Miyazaki’s female protagonists are so remarkable because they are characters, people first.  They aren’t “girls”.  They happen to be female and that is a big part of each character’s uniqueness and spirit and world view, but in a way is so matter of fact that the use of female protagonists is a tacit statement.  It’s also why his protagonists don’t feel contrived as so many animated feature films do.  It’s certainly a remarkable quality of Miyazaki’s world and work.

It’s interesting to note that working on the English translation of Princess Mononoke was no less the great Neil Gaiman, one of the best fantasy writers of this generation.  This film was the commercial breakthrough for Miyazaki in the United States.  It was after this film that Disney bought up all of his titles and began distributing and promoting the films in America, which I think is simply a great and wonderful thing.  The fact that more children, more people all over, have Miyazaki’s films as readily as all the dreck that American animation houses pump out is simply wonderful.  These films are so fantastic and quite accessible to American audiences, this is actually one of those rare times that commercial, corporate promotion and exposure really pays off for everyone.

Miyazaki is for everyone and it’s wonderful that it’s so widely available.

So, to my two friends who didn’t care for the film?  Whatevs.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Up on Poppy Hill (2011) movie poster

director Gorō Miyazaki
viewed: 09/21/2013

The era of Hayao Miyazaki is winding down and we are left with the last couple of films that he is saying that he will work on.  His final film as director (and perhaps at all) is The Wind Rises (2013), which opened in Japan this past summer and will come to the states eventually.  In the mean time, we’ve have From Up on Poppy Hill, which Miyazaki co-wrote, adapted from a Japanese comic, and directed by Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, who had previously directed Tales from Earthsea (2006).

The last Miyazaki film to hit the States was The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), which was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but was co-written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa.  Niwa also shared a co-screenwriting credit here.

Arrietty felt like a pretty good Miyazaki film, featuring elements of fantasy within the world of the small “borrowers” (It was adapted from the children’s book  The Borrowers by Mary Norton).  From Up on Poppy Hill diverges from most of Miyazki’s work in that it cleaves much closer, if not entirely, to naturalism, with no elements of fantasy at all.  Maybe it shares more with the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, which was written but not directed by Miyazaki (which I’ve only seen once on an untranslated DVD), which as I recall featured no magical beings or events either.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in 1963 in Yokohama, centering around a girl, Umi, who works and lives in her grandmother’s boarding house (on “Poppy Hill”) and gets caught up in the attempts to save an old building that has been used by high school boys as their “clubhouse”, a huge, derelict home to all school clubs.  Her romantic interest in one of the boys, Shun, draws her in and sets in motion the other main narrative component, a secret of their somewhat connected childhoods.

The world of the film is mostly but not entirely naturalistic (as I understand).  Yokohama isn’t recreated as it was but in a more fantastic way.  But the era of 1960’s Japan, prepping for the coming Olympics, concerned with its perception as a “modern” democracy challenges some of the older qualities of Japanese culture and identity.  It’s less WWII than the Korean War that looms over the lives of the characters here.  Both Umi and Shun have lost their fathers in the War.  It is a wistful, romantacised portrait of an innocent, peaceful time, of first loves, and coming of age.  It’s very gentle and not particularly dramatic.

Lacking the magic of Miyazaki’s other films, literally, effects the magic of the film itself.  It’s beautifully rendered as most Studio Ghibli films are, has its strong female protagonist, its  interest in more traditional Japanese culture.  And it’s enjoyable.

I watched it with Clara (Felix had something else going on), and we both enjoyed it.  But Clara was quick to say that My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is still her favorite.

We will look forward to The Wind Rises.  At the time, we had thought that Ponyo (2008) was to be Miyazaki’s last film.  A fine film with which to punctuate his amazing career.  So, we are lucky to have more.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) movie poster

directed by Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/08/2012 at the Bridge Theater, SF, CA

The opportunity to see Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful My Neighbor Totoro on the big screen, that was what this was all about.  The Bridge Theater in San Francisco was (and still is through this week) running a series of Studio Ghibli films, and schedules permitted only Saturday for us, and luckily Totoro was the film of the day.  It showed in both the English dub and alternately in original Japanese with subtitles.  Our timing had the dubbed version showing.

If you’ve never seen, My Neighbor Totoro, you should.  It’s a beautiful, low-key, wonder of a film, one of Miyazaki’s signature creations.  I would even posit that the image of Totoro, standing in the rain at the bus stop next to the young girl Satsuki, with the leaf on his head, accepting her umbrella, is as classic and iconic a moment as Gene Kelley, “Singin’ in the Rain” in Stanley Donen’s thus named film.  There is a magic to the film, plain and simple, a transcendent beauty as inspired and powerful as any in cinema.

It’s a film that I’ve seen many times, in whole and in parts, and Clara has seen it many times as well.  Though never on the big screen.  The crowd in the theater were largely families with young ones, obviously those “in the know” because as much as I read and follow up on what’s happening locally in the cinema, this event came a bit out of nowhere, with little promotion or notability.

Totoro is a simple story, about two young girls who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother convalesces at a nearby hospital from an unnamed illness. What they find in the country is nature itself, the people who work the land, and the spirits of traditional Japanese belief still living within the world in all corners.  They first encounter dust mite spirits, and then eventually are led down (or up) a rabbit hole of sorts to the King Totoro, the spirit of a massive camphor tree at the top of a tall hill nearby.  These spirits befriend the girls, giving literal flight to their dreams, encouraging them to plant more trees, and helping Satsuki find Mei when she gets lost.  It’s a spiritual encounter with nature and tradition, a grounding to culture and the natural world that embodies ethics and kindness as well.

It’s such a quiet and simple film that when I first saw it, I certainly considered that it might be slow or quiet for some.  Watching it again this time, the themes of spiritual embodiment, along with ecology, magic and traditional Japanese culture, things all deeply embedded in his later film Spirited Away (2001) are all deeply imparted here as well.  There is a great beauty beyond the charm here.  It could be critiqued for its yearning to a simpler, more pastoral time (the story is set in an indeterminate past, sometime in the 20th century), which is perhaps more wistful.  But there is magic to it.  There is a transcendence within this little story, these brief moments of fantasy and the beyond.  Most lovely.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 05/05/2012

It’s funny looking back at my prior entry in the film diary about Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which I last watched about six years ago.  My kids would have been 4 and almost 2 at the time and they probably weren’t quite ready for the film, but I noted as I often have about how Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest feature animation director of all time, how I hope that he keeps making films forever, and how I want to raise my kids on his movies.  Miyazaki may now have stopped directing films but I have indeed raised Felix and Clara on his movies, though in an oversight of mine, we managed to miss out on a couple.  So, after watching Spirited Away (2001) the prior week, they were eager to see another of his films that they hadn’t seen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miyazkai’s films cluster among Felix and Clara’s all-time favorites.  In fact, we need to add Nausicaä to that list now, as well.

The great thing about Disney releasing all of his films on DVD has been that this is not such an obscure passion as it could have been.  I am sure that there are kids all over America, all over the world (not just in Japan), who are also reared with these films.  I know many friends who also have shared these films with their children and have become favorites as well.

Nausicaä was the first of Miyazaki’s own creations that he wound up directing.  The style definitely feels older, which are part of the charm of the film.  Much of his themes and ideas are already present.  Strong female protagonists, not the modern “girls who kick butt”, but rather characters who organically are the heart of the story, well developed, and integral.  The threat of nature despoiled is the core of Nausicaä, as it is key to a number of his stories, a magical ancient world either destroyed or long-forgotten, re-connected with by the film’s heroes.  And his fascination with flying machines.

His Studio Ghibli, the company that he formed after the release of Nausicaä, has released a number of fine films outside of his own.  But Miyazaki’s films are in a class unto themselves, something impossible (or at least very difficult) to replicate.

The kids both really liked Nausicaä, both placing it along with Spirited Away at the top of their favorites lists.  It’s something in which we can all share.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/27/2012

After watching Coraline (2009) with Clara a couple of weeks ago, I realized that yet another of my favorite films, Spirited Away, was something that the kids didn’t seem to have recalled watching.  I was strangely struck by this because it is indeed one of my favorite films and the thought of how I could have missed watching this with them was strange to absorb.  But I guess that when it came out it was probably too scary for them for a while and as time rolled on, I had kind of forgotten that they hadn’t actually seen it.

What was an oversight on my part became a grand opportunity to share with them this fantastic film from Hayao Miyazaki.  I think from its very initial release that many of us recognized it as a true masterpiece.   Time is usually the true judge of quality, and I can honestly say that this amazing, remarkable fantasy film is as strange and vivid as ever, deeper and more interesting, and thoroughly and utterly enjoyable.

Spirited Away is the adventure of Chihiro, a ten year old girl, moving to a new city with her family, winds up in another world, a spirit world, where her parents are turned into pigs and she winds up working for a witch at a bathhouse for spirits.  The spirits are of traditional Japanese beliefs, beings embodied in all things: rivers, rocks, trees, animals.  They come to the bathhouse to wash away the filth of pollution and abuse, but they also deal with having fallen out of memory and knowledge of people.  Haku, a boy that Chihiro meets at the bathhouse, is really a river dragon whose name has been forgotten.  The spirits and traditions are not only physically destroyed by human expansion but are becoming spiritually disconnected (as are humans).

Chihiro’s journey is a classic type of fantastic adventure, growing to appreciate this hidden world, to become respectful, kind, and heroic.  The plethora of strange beings in the spirit world are endlessly visual treats.

Miyazaki may have several films that could be considered masterpieces.  My Neighbor Totoro (1988) has a simplicity yet such sublime magic to it, playing with similar themes of nature inhabited by spiritual creatures, a less complex and quieter narrative, no less moving and fantastic in contrast.  But Spirited Away is something much grander, much more strange, and so utterly original, it’s a tremendous and still utterly fun adventure.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Rather unsurprisingly, I suppose.  Neither of them recalled seeing it at all before and were able to enjoy it completely fresh and without expectations or foreknowledge.  I am curious to query them on it a little further down the way to see how sustained their feelings are for the film.  For me, a decade on since my first viewing of it, I am even more enamored of it than before.   It is indeed among my favorite films.