|'a discordant joy, full of scenes and monsters that don't belong together and that consistently balk at expectation'|
The last of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films to make it onto Blu-ray in the UK, Spirited Away's stand alone release arrives in advance of the director's box set, which hits UK shores on 8th December and will be reviewed on these very pages in the near future. Far from pointless, this stand alone release in advance of that set actually feels like a moment of common sense from all involved. The box set is currently on pre-order at a slightly staggering £180 on Amazon, so if you're only a film away from finishing it anyway, your chance is now here.
The Animated Oscar winner of 2003, you wonder how a film with quite this level of luscious visual has managed to hide away from HD for so long. Perhaps Miyazaki's main strength is to take somewhat familiar stories (Alice In Wonderland is mentioned here, as are a range of Japanese folk stories) and reinvent them in unfamiliar landscapes. The spirit world of Spirited Away is a discordant joy, full of scenes and monsters that don't belong together and that consistently balk at expectation. The iconic No-Face is a prime example. With a ghostly visage not dissimilar to a Scream mask he should be a villain, where in actual fact his role is much more complex.
Unlike other Ghibli films (My Neighbour Totoro springs to mind) the way Miyazaki deploys his almost trademark patience here feels developed to a greater degree, ultimately to the film's benefit. There's no hiding of the characters or the world they inhabit, for example, as there is in Totoro. In fact, there's hardly an introduction at all and barely 15 minutes have passed before heroine Chihiro is standing in front of Spidergrandfather Kamajî, asking him for a job so that she can maintain her place in the world and attempt to rescue her parents.
If the opening is close to breathless it is the other moments in Spirited Away where Miyazaki takes care and allows us to take a moment to view his artwork. How many other animated films, for instance, pause to contemplate their heroine's face, whilst she stares out of a train window, taking her to an uncertain future? Miyazaki makes animated films as if they are grown-up epics, which of course they are. If only more creators thought the same way.
With an introduction by John Lasseter, you could argue that Miyazaki's only contemporary comparison is Pixar but only their heights (Wall.E) approach narrative in the same way as Ghibli does in all of their films I have seen so far. The idea here is not simply to entertain children, it is to take them to a world where they are forced to live and work and moralise along with the heroine, who must negotiate the dual looks and identities of the characters here and find trust and meaning and direction. Oh, and it also entertains. Incredibly heady film-making.
Spirited Away is released on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 24th November 2014.