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Spirited away to another world

ONE OF the best films from the last year is finally here. I'm referring to Hayao Miyazaki's animated film, "Spirited Away," which will soon play in theatres here, and is just out on DVD. It was a tidal box office hit in Japan, toppling the record of "Titanic", and has garnered rave reviews from critics. And at this year's Oscars, it won the `best animated feature film' award.

In the last five years, I would keep hearing and reading of a stunning Japanese anime film called "Princess Mononoke" (that predictably never showed in India and so we missed it completely) made by a man called Hayao Miyazaki, considered to be Japan's master animation filmmaker. Since then, I have been trying to track it down on VCD or DVD but it is simply not to be found - not even a bootleg copy.

Miyazaki, I learnt, had retired and would not be making any more films. That's it, I thought. Now, I'll never get to see what the critics were raving about. I had become particularly curious about "Princess Mononoke" because I had become bored to death with the Disney and Pixar animated films. However sophisticated they were, however inventive and state of the art, they reeked of sameness. Japanese animation films, on the other hand, I was told, were something else. And so it was with excitement and dread that I welcomed the news that Disney had begged the master to come out of retirement to make just one film for them. Oh no, I thought, Disney is going to corrupt Japanese animation with its own overly familiar and predictable brand of anime.

Is it different from American animation? The first thing you notice is that it feels and looks wonderfully strange — is folkloric and the animation is more like something out of a comic book. It is steeped in Japanese mythology and the animation is a combination of hand painted foregrounds, and computer generated ones. The images are phantasmagoric and poetic. You feel immersed in a dream. "The towering, lost dreaminess at the heart of the film," writes film critic Elvis Mitchell, "is an unmistakable obsession of this director". Also, the action is not relentless and careening as in American animated films and the characters are a mix of good and evil. Like most children's stories, it is all about honesty and courage but it also acknowledges blood, pain, dread, and death in ways that other animated films wouldn't dare.

The heroine, eight year-old Chihiro, discovers — in Alice like fashion, through a looking glass — a parallel world inhabited by strange spirits. When, at the end, she returns to the human world, you actually feel you had been spirited away to another world. "Oh", I remember saying to myself, seeing houses, roads and cars, "we're back." I don't think even "The Matrix" had me feeling this strongly that I had been in and out of another universe.

Little Chihiro learns that the world she has accidentally stumbled into is a Bathhouse for Spirits! These spirits come here by train, and ship for a holiday to get cleaned up (in a huge, foaming tub with scented soap) to be entertained and eat good food. The establishment is run by Yubaba, a huge headed witch, half bird and half human, who steals names and memories. She oversees a large staff made up of the strangest creatures that have only one thing in common — they are all spirits. Chihiro is the only human but she soon finds a place for herself here - a job assisting at the bathhouse. Here she encounters No Face, a spirit monster who has been searching for a face, Haku, a river spirit who has been turned into a dragon by a curse and Kamaji, by far the most interesting character in any animation film I've come across.

He's the first fascinating character from the spirit world that we encounter after the little girl discovers this parallel spirit world. Peeping out of a small door, she (and we) look into a cavernous boiler room glowing orange with furnace-fire and glimpse a strange and wonderful sight: a man with four hands and four legs, his face balding and half covered by a moustache and dark glasses, peddling four wheels.

From time to time, he uses his four elastic hands to reach up — way, way up to grab something. You have to really see it to know why this scene — and the rest of the film — is so fantastically imaginative and so spectacularly other-worldly.

In the end, it's the painstaking attention to detail that makes "Spirited Away" stand way above anything we have seen in animation: the white birds that turn into paper cut outs and then turn back into birds, a train gliding on a lake, the giant baby who can talk, three gigantic heads that bob up and down muttering words only they can understand and the bubbling, mountainous pile of slime called Stink God and the giant bath Chihiro gives it.

Miyazaki's "Spirted Away" is not only the best film of its kind in the past 10 years but is one of the best films of any kind in the last decade. Not to have another film by this Japanese anime master is surely one of cinema's great losses.



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