“Spirited Away” and the Spirit of Studio Ghibli
Good things come to artists, and audiences, who refuse to compromise.
When now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein demanded numerous changes to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke for the film’s US release, as was his wont with many of the movies whose fates he determined, he was sent a samurai sword along with a simple, two-word message: “No cuts.” It’s an apocryphal story now cemented into legend.
That the blade was actually sent from Miyazaki’s longtime producer Toshio Suzuki matters little. The (sharp) point of the story is that Studio Ghibli and its resolute founders weren’t going to let a notorious bully intimidate them into compromising their art. The films of Studio Ghibli (which are box-office blockbusters in Japan) are recognizable and thrilling adventures, full of action, humor, romance, and offbeat, adorable, and charming characters for the whole family. Yet they remained distinctive enough from so much English-language animation in approach, tone, and ideas that someone as savvy as Weinstein could sense their “otherness”...and feel the need to mute it for a more mass appeal.
That it has proven wholly unnecessary, that Ghibli, with Spirited Away as its mascot, has broken through into the global mainstream without changing or cutting one frame of their unique style, says more about their talent and tenacity than a samurai sword ever could. Spirited Away is — if you’re judging it by traditional, i.e. Western, three-act-structure and other standards — determinedly, defiantly odd. But so many of the film’s delights are found by meeting it on its own terms and widening one’s frame of reference for animation, storytelling, and fantasy. It’s the type of call to diversity that should be entirely unproblematic, even apolitical, to embrace.