In this compact study, author Andrew Osmond conducts a detailed textual analysis of one of Miyazaki’s most remarkable animation works, Spirited Away. Exploring in depth, he uncovers the conception of the story and the production of the animation, a process requiring seamless cooperation, which is not always without tension. Furthermore, he devotes considerable length to numerous anecdotes lifted from interviews and documentaries about Miyazaki’s upbringing and the early stage of his career, as well as the predecessors and peers whose work had a profound influence on him. In doing so, Osmond weaves out the concrete background to assist (presumably) Anglo readers in reaching a better understanding of the “beautiful and bewildering” film.
In a similar light, the author doesn’t miss any opportunity to compare Miyazaki and Japanese animation in general with Disney and his legacy. It might be unavoidable considering the general audience has little knowledge about Japanese history and culture yet remains eager to connect with the eye-catching animation. And it is true that Miyazaki and Takahata’s generation was indeed deeply attracted to European and American animation and cartoons. However, the approach that closely juxtaposes the former and the latter runs the risk of limiting itself to an Orientalist point of view that appreciates the exotic spectacle while unable to measure it without relying on a Western canon. In the case of animation, this includes, to list a few items, skillful depiction of movements and expressions, intact logic and integrated storyline, as well as spectacular visual design that keep up with the latest technology. Spirited Away‘s performance is not immediately concerned with some of these categories, which is precisely a reminder that there are other types of animation that locate meticulous drawing above computer technology, boundless imagination above logical plots. There is animation that will not refer to itself as ‘cartoon’ or ‘anime’. The author did make some efforts to bring in Japanese traditions as references. But without systematically looking at the film within a framework of Japanese aesthetics, it remains something out there, far away. Had this been the case, pointing to the number of diversions and anticlimactic plots would have faded away, as they are common fare in Japanese mythology and literature, from the classic Tale of Genji to Natsume Soseki’s Ten Nights’ Dreams.
The author points out that the protagonist in Spirited Away is a languid kid, neither ‘saccharine or adorable like a Disney youngster, nor especially deep or complex’. She becomes purposeful and brave in the adventure and achieves a series of tasks through determination and teamwork, showing an individualistic sense of accomplishment. Then the author asks, ‘Why use a girl to illustrate such themes?’ Well, why not.