The British Film Institute (BFI) and its publishing partner Bloomsbury have relaunched this year their noted BFI Film Classics series.
Z. looks at Andrew Osmond’s study of Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away while S. revisits Mizoguchi Kenji’s masterpiece Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh.
The delight at encountering the updated version of this study rests in how clearly its celebrated authors have such different means of analyzing this title that was, as the pair reminds us, instrumental in the international breakthrough of Japanese cinema. One would argue however that time has served Ms. Cavanaugh more auspiciously; her knowledge of Japanese history, here the Heian period, combined with the use of Stanley Cavell allows for a bolder approach. Cavell expressed a view that the European edifice of philosophy was absent in American movies as it was in those of Japan which ‘relied on European critics for that initial recognition: Mizoguchi ‘was discovered by the French’.
The discussion of how philosophy is encountered as it crosses borders and is used as prism for other cultures has since become part of a history that is not addressed here. Ms. Cavanaugh in her new foreword attempts to connect the cruelty fate has wrought on the children in the Mizoguchi film (who come from nobility) to the 21st century horror of those separated from their parents by ICE agents and detained in internment camps within the US. Here again, defining what constitutes a border would merit additional remarks.
By contrast, Dudley Andrew does not steer away from Mizoguchi’s legendary formalism and unsurprisingly looks back to how Cahiers du Cinéma championed the director over Kurosawa Akira, quoting ‘critic’ Jacques Rivette remark ‘that the only language cinema needs to speak is mise-en-scène’ . Nonetheless, in a desire to challenge the legend, Dudley Andrew attempts inroads into Japanese nationalist history and the film as the director’s means of challenging post-war US directives in avoiding an overt presence of Japanese history in its film industry. Again we encounter a line that has become frail and fragile when assigning intent based on a history of occupation.
This study points to the timeless splendor of Sansho Dayu and to the promise of distinct encounters ahead.
 Which I had pleasure of discussing with professor Andrew when I gave a lecture at Yale University, at the invitation of professor Aaron Gerow, on France and Japanese cinema in 2016.
Why is not the right question
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.