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Spirited Away: Fun, fantasy and fear

HAYAO MIYAZAKI'S animated work, ``Spirited Away,'' from Japan stole the show at the recent Berlin International Film Festival.

It won the top Golden Bear award, though this honour was shared with the British entry, Paul Greengrass's ``Bloody Sunday.''Long before Berlin, Japan's respected movie historian, Donald Richie, told me that ``Spirited Away'' had changed his entire perception about animation. ``I was never fond of this genre, but Miyazaki's latest creation has completely bowled me over.'' ``Spirited Away'' is, indeed, very different from the kind of animated fare this writer grew up with: mostly Walt Disney.

With a feel of ``Alice in Wonderland,'' the Miyazaki picture takes us on a roller-coaster ride of fun, fantasy and fear. Little Chihiro finds herself in a strange land of goblins and monsters where her parents turn into pigs as a punishment for eating the food meant for gods. The story twists and turns, races and rests before the girl finds her feet firmly on the ground.

Miyazaki spices his tale with a couple of morals: borrowing from the rich Japanese folklore and tradition, he underlines the power of names (does it ring a bell for all those Indians hung up on numerology?) and the classic notion of good over bad. He says evil is an integral part of our existence, and to vanquish it will be an impossible absurdity.

``Spirited Away'' may seem a little juvenile, but Miyazaki's thematic richness certainly elevates it above a Disney film or a children's cartoon. What is more, Miyazaki is a crowd-pleasing story-teller: over 22 million people have seen ``Spirited Away'' in Japan alone since it opened last July. He uses animation in a wonderfully direct and intuitive way, personally drawing 70 per cent of the individual frames.

The distinctly hand-created images may not have the gloss and glamour of computer graphics, but they are uniquely Japanese in flavour, form and texture.

And, yes, he manages to convince us that his locales are real, that they actually -- or ``virtually'' -- exist. Little wonder, then, that Miyazaki is revered in Japan as a magical optimist whose dots and lines have for long entertained the young and the old in a nation where cartoons and caricatures are a way of life.

Called ``manga,'' such drawings find a place not just in printed texts but also on bill-boards, mobile telephone instrument panels and so on. The Japanese just love ``comics,'' and Miyazaki's movies naturally hold a hard-to-resist appeal.

In fact, he blossomed into an auteur after a detour into the world of ``manga'', where too he is said to have created mesmerising figures.

Born in Tokyo in 1941, Miyazaki always felt a certain sense of guilt, because as the son of an engineer he lived a fairly comfortable life during the war. Miyazaki's partner at Studio Ghibli -- which produces his pictures -- Isao Takahata, had, for instance, grimmer experiences during those critical times. So did hundreds of others of Miyazaki's generation.

Trained as an economist, he first worked as an ``in-betweener'' on kids' shows such as ``Heidi'' and ``Puss in Boots''. Promoted as a writer and, later, as an animator, his features such as ``Gulliver's Space Travels'' and ``Prince of the Sun'' held out an early promise of a great career.

An emblematic Japanese movie of the 1960s, ``Prince of the Sun'' was shaped by Miyazaki's youthful Marxist ideology. The tale celebrated ``unity among people'' and was produced ``democratically'' with many team members chipping in with ideas. It was in 1978 that Miyazaki became a full-fledged animator: his ``Future Boy Conan'' for television was followed by ``Lupin III -- Castle of Cagliostro'' in 1979 for the big screen.

His early works were original only to a point. They were done with the help of other members of his group, which often created the characters. Miyazaki merely developed them. The man's real break, the real big break, came in 1980, when the Japanese magazine, Animage invited him to do a ``manga'' series. Called ``Nausicad of the Valley of Wind,'' Miyazaki adapted it for cinema in 1984.

A critic avers that it was a wholly original film in more ways than one. ``Fans who were following Japanese animation in the 1980s, the decade of laser-blasting transformer robots and super-dimensional space fortresses, will recall how refreshingly out of step Nausicad looked at the time, before Miyazaki was established as a one-man sub-genre.''

His second feature, ``Laputa: The Castle in the Sky'' (also 1984) is also memorable for its exhilarating flying scenes supported by a cast of purely enjoyable air pirates. His 1991 ``Porco Rosso'' -- which follows a jaunty pig -- reportedly has the most glorious aerial sequences in the history of Japanese animation.

In fact, Miyazaki believes in entertainment. He does not even pretend to educate, and says that he first thought of animation when his children were ready for the cinema but found little to amuse them. ``I wanted to do something to remind them of the sweetness of everyday life. I wanted to tell them that life can be beautiful and luminous.'' Miyazaki does these precisely with his own brand of icons: his creations invariably have pigs, invariably have girls in lead roles.

Ask him why, the answers are not clear. But Miyazaki's brand of motion and movement has a remarkable allure which draws hundreds of people day in and day out. Will Miyazaki eclipse Disney outside Japan ? Only time will tell.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 1 2002)

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