dir. Miyazaki Hayao

Then again the film should be more accurately called Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta in at least one transliteration, but anyway: Miyazaki is turning into one of those pleasureable ‘catch-up’ experiences for me where I don’t regret not having watched sooner in that I get the joy of seeing them all for the first time, never something to be knocked. In this case a friend had the recent release on DVD in the States — her young kids were already fans and she all but insisted I watch it, which is only fair since I was razzing her for not having yet seen Spirited Away in turn. So after a fine meal with friends the other night we sat down and watched it, with good friend Stripey and I particularly interested — Stripey was from the first extremely deeply moved by Spirited Away in ways that the more cynical might dismiss as soppy emotionalism. But that’s their loss.

I admit I was feeling a bit bothered by the fact that we’d be watching the English dub — so I’m a purist, but I actually want to hear the characters with the voices that were intended, not with something that, even if it is a good approximation, is still just that. However, as mentioned, the kids were very young and asking them to pay attention to the subtitles would be most unfair, and so the dub it was. It’s part of the Pixar-overseen effort to get a reasonably good voice cast together for the Ghibli releases, though, and while I’m no Pixar cultist I’m sure grateful John Lasseter is a Ghibli cultist, because he did a good job in voice selection and direction. And I never thought I’d say that about a production where the lead male role went to James van der Beek. (Mark Hamill as the bad guy was spot on as well, his voiceover work in the past standing him in good stead throughout.)

That all said — well, yeah, it’s pretty easy to see why Miyazaki and company were so revered for years, considering this came out in 1986, and why what must have seemed so enjoyably new and different to many in the wake of Spirited Away was already well established with films like this — Joe Hisaishi’s music (it’s really something how he almost could be bathetic but instead is *just* right, it’s a marriage of musical and directing talents as good as any example you might care to name), the sense of how sudden awe and wonder can be delicately conveyed in the looks of the characters, the strong sense of morals that for the most part steers clear of moralizing (one or two speeches towards the end are a bit clunky but otherwise no complaints).

I would say, though, that if Spirited Away‘s true heart was in that sense of emotional tension, loss and then joy, then here it is less that (though still present) than grandeur. And I don’t mean that lightly — it’s a lovely move that the story as filmed (the original manga might have a different structure) opens in medias res, where it’s taken for granted that there are airships in a post-Victorian alternate future but not so many automobiles anymore, and from the start the sky is the setting and stage for much that follows. And what set pieces they are! The whirring of the military ship Goliath as it proceeds towards its destination, the kite flying high above the pirate ship, the mass clouds of a hurricane that loom ever more dangerously closer, and certainly above all the castle in the sky itself, something between an Escheresque maze and a Maxfield Parrish fantasy in Western terms, perhaps.

A good time had by all. But the younger daughter really wanted to see Totoro again after that but we were all terribly tired. Another time.