Over/Under: “Spirited Away” (2001) and “Time Bandits” (1981)
Japanese animation has a terrible reputation in American pop-culture. Horror stories of neckbeards with limited and fetishized knowledge of Japanese language and culture haunt the social consciousness, whispered only as urban legends until one is encountered in the wild. With few others to defend their artistic value, anime is unfortunately and frequently relegated as an extremely violent, melodramatic, or sexual form of media. A rare exception to this stigma is Studio Ghibli, whose films have always been considered a cut above the supposedly foreign trash that litters the minds of weebs. Although the studio was founded in 1985 and found widespread success in Asia after the release of “My Neighbor Totoro” in 1988, it didn’t capture the attention of Western audiences until “Spirited Away” was released in 2001.
And what could be a better film for a global debut? Even among Stuido Ghibli’s other incredible releases, it stands out as a truly special work of cinema. I could go on for a while and use just about every synonym for “magical” and “wondrous” there exists in the English language, but that would be unnecessary for two reasons: 1) it would get repetitive, and you would get the idea because 2) you’ve probably seen it already anyway. Aside from its atmosphere, “Spirited Away” is also notable for its unusually mature female protagonist and its metaphor for prostitution. You heard me correctly: around 2012, a popular fantheory emerged that it’s an allegory for child prostitution. It cited historical facts such as bathhouses being brothels in medieval Japan and their madams being called “Yubaba,” which is the name of the primary antagonist. Miyazaki himself has confirmed this, which adds even more layers to an already towering cake.
So what’s wrong with it? What makes it so overrated? Quite frankly, I think “Spirited Away” is fucking perfect. Miyazaki and his magic was an integral and cherished part of my childhood, and my love for him and his studio only grows as I remove my nostalgia glasses and appreciate the sheer depth of their work. The problem lies not with the movie itself; it is the fact that its greatness overshadowed all of Studio Ghibli’s numerous other movies, especially in America. It makes me sad every time I tell a “Ghibli fan” that I have a replica of Sheeta’s amulet from “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and receive only blank looks. It makes me a little sadder whenever people high five me for my Chihiro and Haku shirt, but no one recognizes my “Princess Mononoke” (1997) counterpart. And you bet it makes me sad when people google “The Cat Returns” (2002) because it’s my personal favorite and I can’t talk about it with anyone. But hey, those paper dragonflies from “Spirited Away” were cool, right?
The tragedy doesn’t end there: I can’t begin to name all the non-Ghibli animated films that were overlooked because of “Spirited Away.” Even people that have a decent knowledge of Japanese animation struggle to name more than a small handful from this category even though it vastly outnumbers Ghibli’s filmography. Maybe a few people are acquainted with “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) or “Akira” (1988), but how many have heard of “Paprika” (2006) prior to last year’s Bright Light Screening, or “Tekkon Kinkreet” (2006), or “Tokyo Godfathers?” (2003) Yes, Miyazaki’s fame is well deserved, but whenever his name is spoken, that’s one less mention Satoshi Kon and his unique portrayal of Japanese society, or Eiko Tanaka and her truly unique art direction. I am Studio Ghibli’s number one fan, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish they shared the spotlight a little.
Whenever I’m cautiously asked if I watch anime, my response must be formulated even more cautiously because it’s invariably a loaded question. This is really quite unfortunate because way too often, what’s not Pixar in America or what’s not Ghibli in Asia is dismissed as childish and unworthy of attention, or worse, socially taboo. Animation is an art form that has the potential to achieve what film can’t with an unchained diversity of themes, characters, and visuals. In all its glory, “Spirited Away” is only the tip of a wonderful and limitless iceberg, and I implore you to explore the genre more often.
In recent years, the visionary director Terry Gilliam has fallen from the limelight a bit. His most recent film, “The Zero Theorem” pretty much totally flopped at the box-office and was overall disliked. However, it wasn’t too long ago that Gilliam was raking in cash and praise consistently with movies that are still known and loved today like the hilarious “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” (1975) and his Orwellian-in magnitude dystopia film “Brazil” (1985). These films deserve all the recognition they’ve gotten, but between these two towering cinematic giants lays a dwarfed masterpiece that demands recognition–“Time Bandits.”
Eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) is burdened with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and parents who only care about keeping their kitchen up to date. He seems to live a fairly mundane life. That is until six dwarves spill out of his closet boasting a map of all the holes in the time-space continuum that they’ve stolen from their former employer, The Supreme Being, and that they’re now using to hop around in time, stealing historical treasures as they go. What? That’s right, people, time-travelling dwarves–I think you can safely stop reading and go watch it now because it really doesn’t get any better than that. If you’re not sold, though, I shall continue. Kevin naturally tags along with these strange visitors and is soon a part of the gang. Their quest for gold seems like jolly fun, but alas, there’s Evil afoot–literally. David Warner portrays the antagonist who is simply known as Evil, a rather unpleasant opponent of the Supreme Being who wants nothing more than to get his hands on the map so he can use it to destroy the world. Kevin and The Dwarves (that’s a solid band name) find themselves locked in a game of cat-and-mouse against Evil and The Supreme Being himself as they pilfer and pillage their way through the centuries.
Let’s start with the cast–quite frankly, it’s loaded. Monty Python’s very own John Cleese playing Robin Hood, Sean Connery as the Greek King Agamemnon, Shelley Duvall as whacky Middle Ages maiden Pansy, Michael Palin–another Monty man–as her lover Vincent, and Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins, people!) as Napoleon. In general, the film uses one big star per time period to constantly keep the audience engaged. The location jumps can be jarring–one second we’re in the Middle Ages, the next second Kevin is literally dropped into a Greek desert, bringing the audience with him–but it’s very easy to fall in love with all the explored eras since the big stars serve almost as tour guides and the locations themselves are frequently stunning. The production value is through the roof and a lot of it went towards securing sites for filming on locations like the deserts of Spain or the cities of Morocco. There are also many elaborate sets that portray a wide array of locations such as an Italian city that’s being stomped on by Napoleon and the dreaded Mordor-esque Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. These beautiful places are not put to waste on Peter Biziou (“The Truman Show”), the film’s cinematographer, who manages to capture them in beautiful clarity and detail utilizing some seriously wide-angle lenses (Gilliam’s favorite). He also made the interesting choice to film almost every shot at Kevin’s eye level, making every structure in the film seem even more vast and every character above five feet tall seem like a giant. This has the effect of making the adults in the audience feel even more like kids again, as they giddily laugh at the antics of the misfit heroes.
Even though the humor is usually a caliber of silliness that’s reserved for your typical kids’ movies, there’s definitely something for everyone with “Time Bandits”. There’s a slew of jokes that are clearly intended to be understood solely by the adults (like Vincent’s “personal problem” that Pansy seems so concerned about) as well as a fair amount of heavier themes under the surface. Terry Gilliam pretty clearly aligned himself against consumerism and corporate control with his masterpiece “Brazil,” but this movie shows the development of that thinking in its early stages and frequently touches on similar themes. These themes get expressed in scenes loaded with symbolism that would be borderline obvious to most adults, but just seem like good fun to kids. For instance, the heroes at one point become locked in a massive labyrinth, frantically trying to obtain a kitchen set that a TV spokesman is praising and, without their knowledge, Evil is pulling the strings on the whole thing. These sort of scenes populate the entire film as Kevin, who is happiest when sharing quiet time with people he respects, philosophically clashes with the dwarves as well as his parents, who all seem to think you can buy your way to happiness. It’s easy to picture Kevin as a stand-in for Gilliam–a misfit that uses his wits and imagination to save himself from the TV-dominated culture he loathes.
Imagine Terry Gilliam triumphantly extending a middle finger to corporate America and, with a turned head and a smile on his face, looking at the infinitely fun-loving and whacky expanse of his own imagination. This is “Time Bandits”. And it was probably just as enjoyable for Gilliam to make as it is for audiences to watch. It’s a whacked-out 80s fairy-tale that stands the test of time and it’s as deliriously fun as it is thought-provoking. You’ve never seen anything like this one, I promise.
Written by William Park and David Goodliffe