Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mangaphobia 04: Spirited Away and Totoro

Studio Ghibli are Japan's premier animation house. Under the stewardship of Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli have produced almost all of Japan's best-known and best-loved animated movies. They're anime's answer to Disney, essentially.
There are two films in particular that get mentioned the most when people talk about Ghibli: Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. Princess Mononoke gets brought up a lot, too, but Totoro and Spirited Away are the only two that have really reached beyond film and anime fans and entered the popular culture.

It's interesting that it should be these two in particular that made that jump because, despite being incredibly different in tone and content, they share one major similarity. Neither of these films has a story.

That sounds dismissive and maybe insulting, but I don't necessarily mean it that way. What I mean is that there's no clear narrative to the events. Things happen to and around our characters, but they're just random occurrences that don't connect to one another. Stories should be a chain of cause and effect - A [causes] B [but] C [therefore] D - but these films are just a bunch of unrelated things happening - A [and then] B [and then] C [and then] D.
That still sounds negative, so let's give some other examples. Forrest Gump is a great film that works this way. Sticking with animation, it's true of Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Jungle Book and, to a lesser extent, Finding Nemo. Also pretty much anything by Terry Gilliam or the Coen brothers. Films (or books or whatever) can still work without a story, but it's a risky prospect - you're only one step away from the likes of X-Men 3, Transformers 2, Sucker Punch, Sharkboy and Lavagirl or (here it comes) Prometheus.

So the question is whether or not these two Ghibli films pull it off. Can they make their lack of story work?
Well, yes and no.

Of the two, My Neighbour Totoro is definitely the most successful. This is an unashamed kids' movie, so the "and then" storytelling feels appropriate - that's exactly how young children tell stories, and it's how most stories for them are written. It's the same kind of non-story as Where the Wild Things Are (the book, not the film) and that's fine, because it's aiming for the same age-group (Totoro even kind of looks like a Wild Thing).

The minimal plot, around which all the random, irrelevant, but fun things happen, is that two young girls and their father move to a new rural home to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital for intentionally vague reasons. On hearing that mum has taken a turn for the worse one of the girls runs off to see her and gets lost, then the other one finds her and it turns out mum is ok. That's pretty much it - and that's fine! Impressively, the movie actually wrings quite a lot of emotion out of this story, even though it only amounts to maybe fifteen minutes screentime (see again: Bambi).
The rest of the runtime is made up of adventures with the titular Totoro - a giant pokémon of some kind who is the spirit of the forest or of nature or something. There's a bit where he makes their garden grow by means of a weird (and weirdly animated) dance; there's a bit where he boards the world's creepiest bus; there's a bit where he takes the girls flying for some reason. Also there's dust-creatures. None of that has anything to do with anything, really, but it's creative and entertaining and that's all it needs to be.

My one issue with the film is that, when the plot does kick in and the younger sister goes missing, its impossible not to wonder why the older sister spends all day searching by herself before going to Totoro. I could understand it if she didn't believe in him or something (which wouldn't be unreasonable since the plants he helped to grow are gone the next morning, and his home vanishes at one point), but she never has any doubts, so it seems really weird when she doesn't go straight there. The movie feels like it's treading water and, worse, feels kind of at odds with itself - like it suddenly wants to be a film that doesn't have a giant fuzzy spirit-beast in it.

Ultimately, though, My Neighbour Totoro knows what it is - a cute, fun fairytale for kids - and it fills that role perfectly. Anything on top of that is just a bonus, so the fact that it manages to squeeze in an affecting and emotional story about family is to the film's credit, even if that clashes somewhat with the otherwise featherlight tone.
I enjoyed it, though I can't say I got anything out of it other than some fun escapism - it's a snack, not a meal. But it's a very fine snack.

Spirited Away isn't a meal either; but, unlike Totoro, it seems to think it is.
This is probably the most widely known and widely loved anime movie in the West. When we talk about Miyazaki and Ghibli, this is the film most people are thinking of. It is almost universally regarded as a masterpiece and, like so much anime, I just don't get it.

I will happily admit that this is, without a doubt, the best Japanese animation I have ever seen in my life. The framerate still drops off occasionally, but it's less frequent and less obvious than usual, and most of the time it's actually gorgeous. There's a subtlety to some of it that I didn't think anime even knew how to do. In this respect the comparisons to Disney are entirely fair.
Kudos, too, for having a unique-looking main character. So many anime characters (and Ghibli heroines in particular) have that same generic anime face copy-pasted into a different haircut. Arrietty looks like Sophie looks like Mononoke; the girl in Totoro has different eyes but she, in turn, looks just like Kiki; cut their hair and they'd all be clones. Yet Sen, the lead in Spirited Away, has a round face with a high nose, low mouth, and beady little eyes. She'd easily stand out in a bald lineup - she's striking and unusual and I really connected to her because of it.
The film threw all this back in my face, of course, by giving the male lead the most generic face imaginable, but still.

The problem is that Sen, this interesting-looking character, doesn't have an interesting story to back her up. This film has, if anything, even less of a plot than Totoro. Sen and her parents are also moving house but, on the way, they find a strange abandoned village in the woods. The parents get magically turned into pigs, it turns out they've stumbled into the spirit-world, a bunch of crazily imaginative but unrelated stuff happens to Sen, then her parents get turned back and they all leave, weeks (possibly months) later.
Now, as with Totoro, this could absolutely work if the point was just to have fun with some crazy magical events - but it isn't. The tone is much darker and threatening and I swear it's trying to make some kind of point. I just have no idea what that point is.

I think this may be due to lack of setup. When Sen's parents are turned to pigs and she's left all alone in a crazy world, which all happens in the first few minutes, we feel nothing. We've not had long enough to learn who these people are or what they mean to each other, so it doesn't matter to us. It's almost implied that they deserve this fate but, because we've only just met them, we don't know why.
Similarly, I think Sen is supposed to slowly become a more confident and forceful character, and maybe learn the value of hard work, as the film progresses. Certainly, early on, everyone keeps calling her lazy and spoilt and weak, but there's never any evidence of this - right at the beginning she demands a job and refuses to leave until her demands are met. Twice. She seems more than forceful and confidant enough already, so there's no growth or triumph when she succeeds later on.
Maybe it's a progression towards making her own choices rather than being pushed around all the time, but even that doesn't really work since the only time she makes a real choice it turns out to have been unnecessary and doesn't achieve anything, and she's almost immediately back to being told what to do by other people.

The person who tells her what to do the most is probably Haku, the generic-looking boy from earlier, and, for me, he's the film's biggest problem.
We're clearly meant to empathise with Haku, but we know absolutely nothing about him. He tells Sen that he is a captive and a slave, but we never actually feel it - he looks down on everyone around him and just seems to do whatever he wants. Everyone else, incidentally, warns Sen that he's a nasty piece of work and she should stay away from him. He's alternately incredibly nice and then dismissive and horrible to her and, in both cases, he does nothing but give her instructions and warnings. Then we find out that he's actually a dragon for some reason.
If this is sounding familiar - a mythological creature in the guise of a teenage boy who treats the heroine in a bipolar way and is always very controlling of her - it's because this is a perfect description of Twilight's Edward Cullen. He even watches her sleep at one point. As with Edward Cullen, the main character is apparently head-over-heels in love with him despite only ever speaking to him twice, knowing nothing about him, and not being treated very well by him. And, as with Edward Cullen, it doesn't work at all.

The rest of the movie, outside of Sen and Haku's shallow romance, deals with Sen's employment at the spirit-world's bath-house. And, honestly, nothing that happens there matters in any real way. There's some incredible imagery here, though, with weird and crazy spirits of all shapes and sizes, all very inventive and unique. There's a witch with a humongous head; there's an enormous baby; there's a man with six massive spidery arms who works all the machinery; there's a river-spirit who's polluted with rusted bicycles and trolleys; there's a flock of paper-cutouts that move like birds; there's a group of men with potatoes for heads, covered in ears; there's a lantern with a hand on the end that does gymnastics; there's three disembodied heads that hop and roll around and say "oi"; and there's No-Face.
No-Face is easily the most famous and most popular spirit from the film - a ghostly figure in a black robe with a mask for a face - and he serves literally no plot purpose at all. He's a perfect example of the way this film is just disconnected ideas and events that just randomly happen. Sen lets him into the bath-house because it's raining. He seems quite harmless and gentle and then he starts eating people. This all happens in the background while Sen's doing something else. He gets huge and fat and goes on a destructive rampage through the building, until Sen leads him outside. It's not like this drives anything in the plot, though, because Sen was already leaving anyway for reasons we'll get to in a moment. Once outside, No-Face vomits up the people he ate and returns to his ghostly form. It seems the bath-house itself turned him into a monster, though the film never bothers to explore why. Then he tags along with Sen for a while, doesn't do anything important, and leaves. No-Face probably gets over half-an-hour's screentime devoted to him, yet he doesn't influence the plot even once.

As for Sen's reason for leaving the bath-house, that's another half-hour tangent that doesn't lead anywhere. Throughout the film we keep seeing a train-line that runs along the surface of a lake. It's a beautiful image and, from the wistful way characters look at it, it seems to be the only escape from this bath-house. When Sen finally boards this train she does so to seek a cure for Haku, who she believes is dying. She (and No-Face) ride the train all day, and then trek in the dark until they reach a cottage where they hope to find help. The giant-headed witch who lives there - the identical twin sister of the one who runs the bath-house, for absolutely no reason so far as I can tell - takes them in, feeds them, and tells them that Haku is fine. And, sure enough, Haku turns up a few minutes later, right as rain. Then he flies Sen home as a dragon.
By drawing so much attention to the train early on, the film sets up an expectation that it will be important later. The same with No-Face. By forshadowing and revisiting ideas like these, it sets itself apart from the throwaway randomness of Totoro and implies that it has more of a story to tell. But it doesn't. Instead, the train journey typifies the entire film - very pretty and imaginative, but completely and utterly pointless.

I did not like Spirited Away very much. I can see why people love it - visually speaking, it's an incredible display of imagination and creativity - but in terms of story, themes and meaning, there is nothing going on beneath the eye-catching exterior.
My Neighbour Totoro gets away with this because all it wants to do is enjoy itself and revel in some fun ideas - but Spirited Away forgoes this fun and seems to be aiming for something deeper. The result is a disjointed collection of inventive thoughts and stunning imagery that never actually leads anywhere.

It's interesting that, of all Ghibli's movies, it should be these two that are so well known in the West. I've spoken before about the strangeness of anime storytelling, and how it can be alienating to the uninitiated like me. Princess Mononoke is the Ghibli film I've actually seen the most - three or four times now - and I still find it utterly incomprehensible. The only other one that I've seen, Howl's Moving Castle, is my favourite so far because the story is clear and propulsive and emotionally engaging (even if Howl does suffer from much the same problems as Haku). Yet there's no denying that even that one's told strangely - the stuff about the war, in particular, is handled in obscure and confusing ways.
Spirited Away and Totoro, on the other hand, suffer from no such problems. The storytelling is not confusing because there is barely any story to tell. Stuff just happens, and that's universally accessible - there's no right or wrong way to explain or understand it, because there's nothing to explain or understand. Maybe that's why these two films have struck such a chord - because there's nothing to lose in translation.

And with that, we come to the end of our fourth episode. Sorry about all that, Ghibli fans - I do still love you and, with the big two out of the way, I'd love some more advice on which of their films to try next.
In the meantime, based on a great many recommendations, I've started watching Fullmetal Alchemist and, shockingly, I think I rather like it. That will be the next topic for Mangaphobia, and it may actually have to be the next post on the blog as a whole - there's no films catching my eye right now and I've sadly missed the chance to catch Pain & Gain. Either way, thanks for reading and see you soon!