It’s difficult for my mind to stray while watching Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, especially the bombastic sound work in Tenko no Shiro Laputa (the English title is Castle in the Sky. Laputa is an unfortunate title if you know a bit of Spanish but we’ll use it for brevity’s sake). I’ll never forget the dimensional feeling of the air crafts. But as the characters started to sink in I realized that I grew up with anime, especially ones that portrayed ‘Western’ narratives. This cross-cultural storytelling is interesting in the visual sense. I know the young arms catching Sheeta from the air, starting their puppy love – are just plain slabs of white meat between penciled borders but somehow I felt the characters’ sinewy qualities on-screen. I also like its accuracy, capturing how the European build is more muscular, dense and square shaped although that’s probably just my ignorance talking.
Also, older women such as Mama are booby but not in a sexual way. Speaking of which, the sexuality in Laputa is a bit disturbing, as Mama’s crew are metres away from preying on Sheeta although they do blurt out the subtext that the innocent-looking Sheeta might grow up to be a good witch like Mama. But it’s not just about the human characters, the robots and the plot also showing how Miyazaki influences Brad Bird and Chris Miller. Puss in Boots also has the same plot and imaginative spirit but the latter tucks in and lets out. Think about it.
Spirited Away begins with a family uneventfully moving into the smaller suburbs, makes a detour to what looks like an abandoned amusement park and turns into a ‘introduction to work and adulthood and its pitfalls’ metaphor. It also shows more slender Asian bodies in Chihiro and the other cynical bath house servants she joins. It’s a more Japanese narrative but that doesn’t mean that European visual tropes are completely absent. Chichiro’s father has the same stocky European build before he and his wife eat the amusement park food – where are the guests? – and magically turn themselves into pigs. The Mama lookalike of a matriarch, Yubaba, and her overgrown baby almost turn the exception into the rule, as well as the visitors of Yubaba’s resort for the gods, spirits and monsters, most of them looking like characters from Where the Wild Things Are. I’m not saying that Miyazaki relies too heavily on Western influences as he also includes river dragon gods into the mix and actually makes these characters, whatever they look like, into his own.
I’m also probably in the minority that likes the simple structure and the complex characters in Laputa although I do admire the consistent menace of Spirited Away‘s matriarch. I also like Laputa‘s three different visual textures while depicting the landscapes. Spirited Away, however, also marks a digitized aesthetic, especially in depicting objects and characters moving through vegetation. What does make the latter film special, in an Berlin Film Festival and Academy-award winning way, is its unrelenting and inexhaustible imagination, introducing more fantastical creatures and mises-en-scene like the hand lamp greeting them after a trip on a train that crosses an ocean, coming just after me thinking that Miyazaki must have run out of them.
Spirited Away has two screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, on April 1st at 7:00 PM and April 7th at 1:00 PM. You can also catch Laputa one last time on April 7th at 6:30 PM.