Back in March, on Oscar Night, when Hayao Miyazaki’s animated oddity “Spirited Away” was awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Film—beating out Disney’s popular Lilo & Stitch and the 20th Century Fox mega-hit Ice Age—the majority of Oscar-watching Americans sat back and said, “’Spirited Away’? I’ve never even heard of ‘Spirited Away’!” Till that moment, most Americans hadn’t heard of it, in spite of the fact that the film had already racked up worldwide grosses of over $250,000 dollars. To date, only about $8,000 of that was earned by the dubbed version released in the states, promptly rereleased in theaters immediately after the Academy Awards, and now newly-arrived in videostores as of April 15th.
One American who had heard of “Spirited Away” was Mark Crilley, of Detroit, Michigan, who’d seen Miyazaki’s film in the original Japanese—titled “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” or “The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro”—and who ranks himself as a major fan of the man behind such films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”
“Hayao Miyazaki is huge in Japan!” enthuses Crilley. “He’s like the Beatles, the guy we’re all waiting for to see what brilliant thing he comes out with next. In Japan, he’s a kind of national monument!”
Crilley, it should be said, rates as his own kind of national monument here in America—if you happen to be among the many fans of a certain loopy comic book series about a super-smart Japanese girl who hangs with people from the planet Smoo. Crilley is the creator of the insanely popular Akiko comic series—which just published its 50th issue—as well as the author of several best-selling spin-off novels, the latest of which is Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000 (2003, Delacorte, $9.95). Crilley has even landed on Entertainment Weekly’s coveted It List, as one of the entertainment world’s “most creative people.”
I bumped into him at a book signing in California, where I promptly invited him to see the rereleased version of “Spirited,” on the big screen. Though he prefers the Japanese-language version, Crilley was dazzled by the film all over again.
“I love the image of the subway train gliding across the surface of the water,” he says, recalling one of many memorable moments from the film. “The little flying pieces of paper—that can stalk you or cut you or just float around in air—there was such a magical quality to them.” In the eerie and dreamlike film, a young girl named Chihiro is drawn into a magical realm of gods and spirits, where she is forced to work in a vast, spirit-world bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been turned into pigs. “One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie,” says Crilley, “was when she gets to the guy with all those arms, operating the boiler that runs the bath house. I thought that scene was so interesting because at first, when you see him, you think, ‘Woah, this guy looks kinda like a spider. He’s pretty scary.’ The scene taps into that universal sense of being an outsider, when you’re the new person in a school or a working environment. Chihiro is the new girl in this weird world and she doesn’t know the rules yet. I think we all feel like that some times, and though it was a bit dark and creepy and fearful.”
“There’s a sense of fear and creepiness that’s woven all through this story,” I suggest, “the way that wonder and adventure are woven into most mainstream fantasy movies.”
“I agree with that,” Crilley says. “I think Miyazaki’s early films—’My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’—have more of that traditional sense of wonder. He’s gotten fairly dark in recent films. Clearly when Miyazaki made this one, he set out to fill it, at least 50 percent, with a sense of fear and foreboding. He did not shy away from the disturbing elements.”
“That balance of fear and wonder is interesting, philosophically,” I allow.
“Very interesting,” he replies. “The film is filled with philosophical ideas, and even some environmental ideas. I don’t know if you remember the Stink Spirit that turns out to be a River God that’s been polluted. Chihiro pulls out the thorn in his side, and it turns out to be a bicycle handle attached to all these piles of muddy junk. I took that to be hinting at an environmental message. We’ve polluted our world, and the nature gods are growing sick because of it.”
Allowing that the film’s creepier aspects might be a turn off to some viewers, Crilley says, “To anyone who sees this film and thinks, ‘Oh boy, this is not to my liking,’ I hope they won’t let this be the last Miyazaki film they see. If I had to pick one movie that I feel has been unjustly ignored, it would be ‘My Neighbor Totoro.’ It is available on videotape, but the packaging suggests that it’s just another Japanese kids’ movie, so it’s never gotten the treatment that ‘Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ have gotten. I hope that people, and critics, will seek it out and reevaluate it, because I think it’s a flawless film on every level. I’ve watched it half a dozen times and I never tire of it.”
Which brings Crilley to mention the one Miyazaki film he’d most like to see in the future.
“I’d love to see Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Akiko: the Movie’,” he laughs. “If anyone can do my little stories right, he can.”
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
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