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.
It feels somehow mean that instead of writing about the aesthetic principles of an anime film like Hayao Miyazaki‘s Princess Mononoke, I talk about the voice acting. And it’s not the Japanese voice-acting too, which apparently can only be obtained through a year’s negotiations and waiting and that would have been too expensive. Yet, here I am. Not an expert here, but there is some Noh theatricality bleeding into the Japanese style of film acting down to Kurosawa. Having new, English-language voices then means starting from scratch.
I saw this movie with a friend who told me that Bill Bob Thornton plays a monk. Otherwise I knew nothing about the cast, so throughout the movie I keep trying to figure that out. Was that Tom Cruise as Ashitaka? Angelina Jolie as Lady Eboshi? Drew Barrymore as Princess Mononoke? Julianne Moore as Moro (actually Gillian Anderson)? Is my hearing that bad?
Growing up in Manila, I’m normally greeted at home by anime cartoons, most would have the typical character interpretations, the raspy angry voices of the old and the chipper sounds of the young. Not in the English-language dubbing of this film. At the same time, it’s hard to show the flexibility of facial expressions in animation, and the main characters aren’t drawn to move with large gestures neither. For example, Billy Bob Thornton‘s Jigo is raspy too, but looking like an old fat man he sounds neither. He instead makes Jigo sound like a cynic instead of a uniformly bad person I would have imagines in the supposed evil Western lands where Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) is traveling. Jigo’s humourous even at the film’s most nerve-wracking moments. His realistic worldview makes Ashitaka realize that his quest as just gotten more complex than he might have expected.
And then there’s Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi. She yells in her first scene. Otherwise, she doesn’t need to raise her voice in front of even the male soldiers. They just have her full attention. Despite laughing at Ashitaka’s face, she spends her night with him by explaining her herself without having to prove herself. She’s like a mother to the residents of her Irontown, later attempting to show her men how to kill a god. ‘The trick is not to fear him.’ Her calm demeanor makes us confident that she knows what she’s doing throughout the film.
Driver and Thornton’s characterizations stand out because they seem for the most part the exception to the rules that I forget that there are two performances that are. And I don’t want this to come across as scorn with praise. Anyway, there’s Claire Danes‘ Princess Mononoke/San, and it makes sense for her to yell through half of the film. San is Eboshi’s enemy. She’s more confused and angry about Ashitaka’s ambivalent allegiances, because of her feelings for him. The deaths of her allies and the destruction of her world don’t help neither. The change of environment brings the worst out of her identity crisis, a human desperately wanting to fit in with her wolf family. Danes also interprets San as someone stuck in girlhood, that even her calmest line reads are filled with misanthropy and rage.
Ok, so maybe the older characters are calmer while the younger ones are more spirited. Which explains Crudup’s Ashitaka, but he comes across more as gallant yet commanding. Which doesn’t explain Jada Pinkett-Smith‘s Toki, a passionate character, loyal to Eboshi. She’s left alone with the other prostitutes to defend Irontown. She takes on herself as the character who leads the women out into safety, becoming as maternal as her role model. Pinkett-Smith as well as the other actors add a universality to this movie.
p.s. I know what I want for Christmas.