As a rule, my favourite films and my sister’s favourite films completely fail to align. She is a relatively normal 17 year old girl who doesn’t share my pretensions. Suffice to say, were this website Zoe-Spencer.co.uk, few of my choices would make the list.
There are two exceptions. Pixar films, and Spirited Away. As far as I can tell, the young Miss Spencer has some insatiable appetite for animated films. This means she ends up going to see sub-Dreamworks rubbish like Gnomeo & Juliet. But it’s also introduced her to things I suspect she’d otherwise consider too weird.
…Spirited Away is, rather undeniably, a weird film. It relentlessly throws images and ideas at you, one after another. Here’s a trio of bouncing heads. A train skimming across the surface of the sea. What if someone could turn into a bird by pulling their coat round them so they look like they have wings? The film is a streamlined Alice in Wonderland, pure inventive design and unexpected discoveries. The story just exists to serve these up to you. I’m not sure I could tell you Spirited Away‘s plot, at least not in any way that made sense and sounded at all appealing. I’m not sure I’ve even seen the entire film. None of that stuff really matters.
Were it not an animated film, I’m not sure this would be allowed to stand. But somehow we have been trained as a society to accept something a little different in the safe confines of animation. Maybe it’s a recent development, and Pixar are responsible. But then it isn’t difficult to think back to Fantasia, or even early Bugs Bunny cartoons. Fourth-wall breaking and surrealist touches are just accepted parts of cartoons.
And so, Spirited Away, in spite of its many oddities, is the great anime crossover hit. It introduced an entire sustainable Western audience to Studio Ghibli, and can be found clutched close to people’s chest in a lot of similar lists. It gets away with just being a looker.
Which it undeniably is. The characters are sharply animated, but the painted backgrounds are something else entirely. As a whole Spirited Away is by turns stunningly beautiful and deliberately ugly. Sometimes cute, sometimes scary. But not a single frame is anything less than visually arresting.
The term ‘videogame’ is often thrown around as a criticism of films with little plot which focus on quick, cheap thrills and visual spectacle. Spirited Away is the most videogame piece of cinema I can think of, and the medium could learn a lot from its example. Mario Galaxy approaches the same level of inventive spectacle. But imagine a GTA-style open-world game with crannies as unexpectedly, surrealistically gorgeous as these.
…All of which is important and me being clever. But none of it is the reason Spirited Away made it onto this list. It’s here because of the memories attached to it – sleepy Christmas day-viewing with the family – and the connection it represents between me and my only, otherwise very different sibling. It’s hardly all we have in common: we share a certain amount of music taste, and we religiously see every Pixar film together, about which she generally has whip-smart comments (my Toy Story 3 review was basically ripped off from her reaction coming out of the cinema), and she drinks in the fish-like manner which are her inheritance.
But everybody likes Pixar, and Robyn, and vodka. Meanwhile Spirited Away, widely loved as it is, retains a feeling of being personal, private, secret even. It is the single strongest link between Alex-Spencer.co.uk and Zoe-Spencer.co.uk, the website that exists only in the alternative universe which it feel like it was created in. And for that, I treasure it.