Every art form is begging for a Spirited Away. Something born from it that is so spectacular that it becomes something so much more than the place it came from. I really think the Anime community can take for granted sometimes the impact of the film and just how hard it was to make it as great as it is.
Chris from Peach’s Almanac recently had a fantastic post focusing on Spirited Away and if you’re yet to read it I implore you to do so but it once again got me thinking about why Spirited Away is my favorite movie of all time. Not just in Anime but my favorite movie period.
Chris explains Spirited Away’s appeal (and that of Ghibli as a studio) pretty well though so what am I left to say about it? I could talk about it as a metaphor for Japan’s prostitution problem but I don’t know enough about it’s real life basis to be able to offer in depth analysis of that.
I could talk about how great it’s soundtrack or art or directing are but those aren’t really my areas of expertise. I can tell you that all of those things are great but I can’t give you a proper answer as to why.
So instead I’m going to talk about an intangible element of Spirited Away’s, it’s transcendence.
Transcendent Art In General
Not every art from has a transcendent piece. This is of course normal, not every art form has the ability to create transcendent works and even when it does so many factors are required to be in play at the same time that the chances of creating one are incredibly slim.
So before we even get into how difficult it is to make a transcendent Anime let’s first talk about what makes art bigger than it’s beginnings.
So what does it mean for a piece of art to be transcendent. Well I have my own metric for this of course but I don’t think many would disagree with me:
- It needs to transcend it’s genre and art form (duh). If it’s a movie, people who don’t watch many movies need to like it, if it’s a book then non-readers, you get the idea. And then even within that it needs to appeal to a large majority of people who do follow the art form. If it’s a Jazz song then even the average Rock fan should be able to recognize it’s greatness for it to be transcendent.
- It needs lasting popularity. The test of time must be withstood. It doesn’t matter how much everyone may have enjoyed Gangnam Style when it was released, who gives a shit about it now?
- General critical acclaim. If the people who consume art for a living don’t love it then it isn’t truly transcendent. This doesn’t mean they have to love it right way but if they don’t come around eventually then it’s not transcendent.
So with those rules in place let’s move on.
What Makes Music More Predisposed To Making Transcendent Art?
Well it’s quite simple really. It comes down to two things. Firstly nearly everyone listens to music. I’d even be pressed to say everyone bar the deaf listen to music. So you have a huge potential audience to get the popularity aspect down.
Secondly it’s because of the few people required to craft it. Transcendent art requires everyone that’s working on it to be ultra talented and to be on top of their game at the same time. In music this could realistically be one person and easily between 2 and 4. Here let me list a few songs I believe meet my criteria off the top of my head:
- The Sound Of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel
- Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
- Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
I would be very surprised if anyone disagreed with me on these choices. As a good example take Smells Like Teen Spirit. I really don’t like Kurt Cobain’s vocal delivery in general but I do like that song. It’s just so good that I enjoy it in spite of it’s genre trappings.
All of these songs were made largely by at most 4 people and only 2 in the case of The Sound of Silence. You “only” need a few talented people to be clicking at once to get songs like these.
Which of course leads us back to Spirited Away.
An Uphill Struggle
So how many people worked on Spirited Away? How many people had to be both talented enough and at the peak of their abilities in order to make it the way it is. Just think about it.
So we know Miyazaki’s a genius but he’s just one part of it. The person who worked on the soundtrack had to be just as good. The character designer, producers, the voice actors, every single animator. They all had to to be on par with the story Miyazaki envisioned.
And that’s before we even think about popularity. Anime does not have a massive mainstream appeal, Ghost in The Shell’s abysmal box office numbers will tell you that and it had even less of a hold on general consciousness back in 2001 when Spirited Away came out. If people won’t watch a live action English language version of an Anime in 2017, who was going to watch a Japanese language Anime film in 2001? It should’ve been limited to a niche enough market.
But that’s where the dub comes in. The dub is fantastic. They matched their script with the lip movements of the characters so that it would seem natural. How hard must that have been? Yet another layer of someone having to absolutely kill it to make the film what it became. On top of this the English cast had to get their lines right, capture the feel of the film which must’ve been incredibly hard.
The dub opened the film up to more casual audiences and most importantly to children who couldn’t read subtitles well. When you can get a child to watch something like Spirited Away it will stay with them for the rest of their lives like it did with me.
How many things had to go right for it to become the transcendent juggernaut it became? Nearly everyone knows about Spirited Away even if they’ve never heard of Anime as a thing in it’s own right. The sheer amount of people that had to perform to their limits to make this film is astounding to me. The likelihood of everyone firing on all cylinders at once on any project like this is so small that I would be surprised if we ever see anything like it again.
Your name. is the closet thing we’ve gotten in the last 16 years and it is not as popular as Spirited Away was. Adjust for inflation and it made about 20 million dollars less than Spirited Away worldwide and that’s with the benefit of a currently thriving Chinese film market where it made a whole lot of bank.
Spirited Away is a gateway anime for many people, myself included. It has brought a whole new audience to the anime industry that only it could on the scale it did. So just remember occasionally how much this film has done for the medium you love.
Thank you Spirited Away.
And thank you for reading,