Miyazaki Retrospective: “Spirited Away”

So here we are. The last film of the Miyazaki retrospective, at least up until Miyazaki’s next film comes out. And this movie was saved for last for a reason.

In some ways, it’s pointless to debate Miyazaki’s best film. The man is such a chameleon, who can work in so many varied styles, and is so consistently brilliant, that when you talk about the top of the pile you’re talking about little more than personal preference. I have seen – seriously – “Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “The Wind Rises”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” ALL ranked at number one on some list or another.

With that said – I think it is safe to say that “Spirited Away”, the only Miyazaki film ever to win an Oscar, is the film most commonly cited as Miyazaki’s masterpiece – and not without reason. “Spirited Away” is an astonishing film, absolutely packed with imagination, incredible visuals, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. There’s scene after indelible scene, all underpinned with a metaphysical and philosophical depth that the average director can only dream of, and an attention to detail that’s nothing short of astonishing.

I’ll start off by talking about the dub, something I generally ignore but that is worth being commented upon in this case. All of the Disney dubs are good, and some are even great, but “Spirited Away” is absolutely perfect, easily the best dub job I’ve ever heard. The real coup here is the casting of Daveigh Chase, best known as the voice of Lilo from “Lilo and Stitch”, as Chihiro. Chihiro is a difficult and demanding role, and without an excellent voice actor the character could easily come off as bland, but Daveigh Chase is simply perfect. She nails every aspect of the character, and if not for her brilliant performance the movie would never have worked as well as it did in English.

The opening to “Spirited Away” is one of my favorite scenes of all time. After arriving at a mysteriously empty amusement park, Chihiro’s parents, against Chihiro’s advice, eat piles of food sitting in an abandoned restaurant stall. While they eat Chihiro wanders the park, discovers a magnificent Japanese bathhouse, and encounters a boy named Haku, who warns her to cross the river separating the amusement park from the outside world before sunset. Chihiro tries to leave, but the river is flooded and too deep to cross; worse yet, her parents, having greedily eaten food that didn’t belong to them, have transformed into literal pigs (and in this case, particularly hideous ones), a take on the mythological theme of avoiding the food of the fairies – for a classic example read the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for more modern examples take a look at Ruff the dog in John C. Wright’s “Moth and Cobweb” series, or even Edmund eating Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

The scene where night falls on the park, and the spirits come out for the first time, is a truly stunning sequence, a wonderfully animated setpiece bursting with fantastic imagery. There’s so much to love about this scene – the detailed animation, the fantastic creatures, the score, the way Miyazaki somehow creates a believable fairy world that also comes across as alien and otherworldly, the creepiness of the whole thing, the way he puts us effectively in Chihiro’s shoes and helps us identify with her terror…all of it is simply amazing. And this is the first scene!

This is the hardest of Miyazaki’s movies to work through simply because of sheer originality. If I went through every single reason the movie worked so well, I’d be up all night writing this article. The spirits and fairy tale creatures are fantastic (fans of “Totoro” may recognize the soot spirits used by the wonderful  spider-like character of Komaji), the setting of the bathouse is extraordinarily detailed, the animation is astoundingly well-executed, and the movie simply bursts with ingenuity; everywhere you turn there’s some new feast for the eyes and mind.

Once again, with his handling of Chihiro Miyazaki puts all modern handling of female characters in western animation to shame. Chihiro is brave and admirable, but not in a ball-busting tough as nails feminist way. She is admirable because she never loses hope, never gives up, is kind to those that others shun and revile, and refuses to be deterred from her goals.

An excellent example of this sort of admirable but quiet courage comes early in the film. Haku tells Chihiro to ask the boiler-maker Komaji to help her get a job; no matter what Komaji says or does, she is not to leave until he helps her.

Chihiro goes to the boiler-maker and begs him for help. He ignores her. She begs him again. She ignores her. She takes the time to help his soot spirits bring coal to the boiler, which finally impresses Komaji enough to send her to Yubaba, the witch who rules the Bathhouse. Chihiro doesn’t get mad at Komaji. She doesn’t run away when she sees his frankly terrifying spider-like body. She doesn’t leave when Komaji refuses her. She simply refuses to give up.

Similarly, when she is told to ask the witch Yubaba for a job, the western feminist answer to Yubaba’s refusal and threats would be to challenge her back, or maybe get insulted and try and find some way around her prohibitions. But Chihiro doesn’t do that! Once again, she quietly persists, refusing to leave until she is granted her job, no matter how afraid she gets and how much Yubaba threatens her. Chihiro knows this is her best chance of getting out alive and rescuing her parents, and doesn’t ruin it by acting like a Rey brat.

Later in the movie, when forced to work as, essentially, a slave in the Bathhouse, Chihiro again doesn’t complain about her lot but does the work asked of her to the best of her ability, however unreasonable, and even takes the time to show kindness to spirits and beings that others ignore or hate. Her motivations remain pure; she just wants to rescue her parents. When the spirit No-Face offers her gifts, Chihiro refuses, and in fact she is the only person who is able to use things No-Face gives her without being negatively affected because she is the only one who doesn’t *ask* for his help and doesn’t accept it  for selfish and materialistic reasons.

Two scenes in the movie have become famous in their own right. First is the sad and creepy “ghost train” sequence, where Chihiro rides without speaking on a train to the afterlife surrounded by the silent spirits of the dead. The scene is sad and beautiful, and, as always with Miyazaki, it’s the subtle details that make it; you may find yourself getting bored until your heart skips a beat when you realize that one pair of spirits is clearly a father sitting with his young child, and suddenly a whole history of unanswered questions floods through your mind. The fog outside of the trail, slowly gliding across the surface of the water, is so haunting and gorgeous that your heart practically bursts.

The second famous sequence is the “Dragon Haku” sequence; where the Ghost Train ride represented loss and acceptance, the scene where the dragon form of Haku bringss Chihiro back to the Bathouse represents life and the reviving power of love and kindness; Haku literally carries Chihiro back to the world of the living, something only possible because Chihiro was willing to risk her life and make sacrifices in order to save him. The animation here is – again! – absolutely gorgeous, brimming with energy and dynamism.

There is so much more to say about this film; I’ve barely scratched the surface, really. It is, without question, an absolute masterpiece.

Now, all of that said, do *I* think it’s Miyazaki’s best film?

Actually…no. After a lot of thought, and after changing my mind, I think I still have to give it to “Princess Mononoke”. “Spirited Away” was original and marvelous and beautiful, but “Princess Mononoke” took the varied and conflicting motivations of a changing world – significantly, not unlike the atmosphere of “A Game of Thrones” – and instead of making it either nihilistic sludge or some sort of epic tragedy, made it superversive, and somehow did it in a way that felt in no way like a betrayal of the sort of story he was telling. Miyazaki had a huge cast of characters with their own understandable agendas and motivations that changed throughout the course of the movie, an extremely complex political landscape to navigate through, and some of the best dialogue of any of his films (Lady Eboshi again…”Watch closely, everyone. This is how you kill a god. The trick is not to fear it.”). It’s a marvel he made any sense of it at all.

Epic in scope and ambition, brilliantly executed, and a setting tailormade for tragedy somehow turned superversive…well, when I put all of that together, it’s hard for me to rank it below *any* movie, really, even the great “Spirited Away”.

Does this take away from “Spirited Away”? Not in the slightest. It is a brilliant, amazing, almost perfect film. It is an achievement that no artist but Miyazaki could accomplish. It has earned every single accolade it’s received. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing more than missing out on one of Miyazaki’s best films. You’re missing out on one of the greatest films, animated or otherwise, anime or otherwise, ever made.

Watch it, and if you haven’t gotten it already perhaps you’ll understand why Miyazaki is not just great. He stands on his own – a giant in the field, matched by nobody, perhaps ever.

Watch this movie, and understand how lucky we are to be able to witness his genius.

A Beethoven Retrospective

(This is a months old reprint of an article on my private blog, which is, shocking as it may sound, much more cynical and polemical than how I write here most of the time. I thought it made a lot of sense here, and I thought of it again after reading Mr. John C. Wright’s article on beauty. As it so happens, I’m still teaching myself the piano. And, alas, still bounce off of classical music hard.)

Currently I’m teaching myself the piano; I’ve owned one for a long time now (paid for by me and transport paid for by my parents as a gift), but never learned it. I’m attempting now to stubbornly turn a new leaf and start improving myself, and learning piano is a good start to that; it’s also a good way to correct problems with procrastination. Dedication is needed. My school year looks to be packed and extremely difficult, so I’ve decided I will cut out all recreational pursuits except for piano, which is really only recreational in the sense that it’s not school related. Either way, this will ensure everything I do during the school year will be productive in some way or another.

In light of this, I’ve decided to try to take another shot at listening to classical music. I’d taken a couple of cracks at it in the past, but much as with classical novels, I’d always bounced off. But, not this time! I’ve decided to start with Beethoven, who of the few I’d tried to listen to I was always fondest of. He combined technical precision with pure emotion beautifully.

“Might as well go big or go home,” I thought, and started right in on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; I imagine if I’d asked I would have been told not to start with something so ambitious.

I’m still glad I did. “Reviewing” the ninth symphony is sort of like reviewing “The Iliad” or “Paradise Lost”; what can you really say? It surely has to be the pinnacle of western music. I’ve listened also to his Moonlight Sonata, his fifth symphony, and Fur Elise, and the third symphony (Eroica, one of the most influential pieces of music ever, apparently) is on in the background right now. But nothing has quite matched up to the brilliance of the ninth. I don’t connect well with classical music, as I’d said, and this was no exception – but the sheer ambition and brilliance of the work is undeniable. How somebody conceived something like this, and actually had the technical skill to write it down and coordinate it into a cohesive whole, is utterly mind-boggling. I can’t even imagine it. And he wrote it when he was completely deaf! How is that even possible?

Beethoven is a fascinating guy, though of course by now most people probably know that. He really is inspiring, though. I always found it very moving and telling that the final great piece that Beethoven, a man who at one time considered suicide due to his declining hearing*, wrote was the Ode to Joy…and the final piece that Mozart, by all accounts a much happier and buoyant man, wrote was a Requiem.

This is a bit unfair, as Beethoven did write other things after the symphony, and the Requiem Mozart wrote was commissioned by somebody else. Nevertheless, the fact that the ninth symphony was written by a deaf man who once considered suicide is, as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of a miracle.

*I found his Heiligenstadt Testament very moving and inspiring.

New Kickstarter Card Game: Hero’s Journey!

Nathan McClellan, a delightful fellow and Superversive Fan, is involved in a Kickstarter for a really cool card game called Hero’s Journey. I showed the Kickstarter video to my youngest and he cried out in awe, “How can I get that!” So, I asked Nathan and his partner-in-crime, James Wright (no relation), if they would concent to be interviewed.

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Can Odysseus survive the Flying Monkeys? 

Willl the the starving Greeks be forced to eat Toto?

1) What led you to embark on the Hero’s Journey, so to speak?

Well, there was an old game both of us loved to play a lot during our college years which has since gone the way of the dinosaur.  Several other games from that period were starting to make a comeback so we asked ourselves, “Why not this one?

Then we asked, “If we did bring it back, what would we want most?

And almost simultaneously said, “More crossovers.

So we set about expanding the game’s original engine to accommodate beyond its original, narrow focus.

2) Tell us about yourselves. Who are the folks who are making the Hero’s Journey happen?

Just a couple of nerds that like games and books.

We had an older friend, Brad, who died in his thirties who also loved this game.  We like to imagine he would have been on board for this and enjoyed it too so the whole thing is dedicated to him and giving his boys one more legacy to remember their dad by.

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Who will kill you first, Paris or the Wicked Witch?

3) There are many types of games out there. We might play Life if we want an group game, or Uno if we want something fast and easy or Chinese Checkers, if we are looking for a bit of strategy. What kind of experience might a person be looking for that would prompt them to reach for Hero’s Journey.

This is more for the harder gaming crowd as the game has at least 2 layers of strategy to it.  First is the planning where you take the cards we’ve given you and build a deck with.  Second is when you play that deck against an opponent who has constructed their own deck.  But we’ve included at least 2 simple deck lists to help beginners get started and are planning to posts decklists as players invent them or if you want to do quick start plays or themed style evenings.  We’ve tried to keep the game pretty flexible.

4) How did you come to pick Oz and the Iliad?

Since we’re just getting started we decided the best bet was to start with public domain books.  That way we could take a property and develop parts of the game to simulate moments and characters from that property without having to worry about licensing fees or having the game tied up in legal battles.

Then since the game naturally simulates trying to get from point A to B with constant challenges along the way, we thought “What’s something in the public domain that everyone recognizes which has a hero & their companions get from a start to a finish?”  Oz (get home) and the Iliad (get to Troy) seemed the most obvious choices.

5) The art looks really good. Who is/are the artist and how did you get them involved.

A mix of asking for artists on the web and asking people we know for recommendations.  Since we’re just getting started with the game (and know how frustrating it can be to look for that “big break”) we especially looked for artists that are building their resumes.  If this launch is successful, I hope to keep it going by always looking for new talent whenever we start a new set of cards relating to a book.  As for who they are, we’ve done a week long focus on our artists along with examples here: https://epicusliterati.wordpress.com/category/artist-focus/

6) Is this a game about storytelling? Or is storytelling actually required to play the game?

No, it’s a game first.  Though we won’t complain if players want to combine it with a trivia night (i.e. “Name the pair of animals that attacked Dorothy & co while crossing a log.”).  We also like to invent our own stories of how things might happen in a game (like the time Dorothy got to beat up on an old Trojan priest).

7) Do you have plans for additional expansions? Might there be other stories joining the Hero’s Journey, should things go well? If so, do you have any in mind that you’d like to see?

Yes, we’ve got at least 2 more small sets rough-drafted and currently testing off and on.  And definitely yes as to more books.  If this game proves successful enough and we can move out of the public domain, we have a wishlist of stuff we’d love to license. (Though we’ve found more in the public domain than initially thought, we might do a whole series on “forgotten classics.”)  We also aim to allow the players to help us pick and choose which books are adapted next.

8) How does this game differ from something like Smash-Up?

Well, Smash-Up (a game I usually enjoy – if you ban spies & geeks) is a much faster, pick-up & play, while our game will require a bit of prep before anybody comes to the table.  Smash-Up also has a very loose rules system to try and make it as flexible as possible, but that gets messy when players interact.

Our rules are a bit more complex and structured to allow things like ranged & melee combat as well as multiple players to gang up on one (as that’s what’s happening to you every turn).  This also means that while Smash-Up isn’t too bad for new players to grab & play, Heroes’ Journey may take 1 play through before players really “get” it.

 

9) What age range to you foresee enjoying the Hero’s Journey? Can ten year olds set out on this journey, as they might on a Pokemon journey, or does this require more

On average I’d say maybe 13 and up.

Some cards and their resulting decks are much simpler then others, so might be a better fit for some players.  For example, “Wild Monkey Beatdown” (as we nickname it) is pretty easy and basic, while “Monkey Swarm” is much trickier to pull off.

Though if a person can play, we say: Let them play.

Can art be mad?

Dr. Leonard Peikoff has an interesting lecture where he compares the most abstract of modern art and schizophrenia: http://www.peikoff.com/2015/04/06/is-there-a-connection-between-schizophrenia-the-low-point-of-the-human-mind-and-culture-the-height-of-human-achievement/

 

What do you think?