Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ukiyo Double Feature: Yojimbo (1961) and Sprited Away (2001)

For my "Ukiyo" class we had another film assignment: after watching both Yojimbo and Spirited Away, pick one that is conclusively "floating world" in its concept and themes, and participate in a group debate in class in which we defend our choice and shoot down the other film as not indicative of the time period we're studying. Before I even sat down to watch Yojimbo I knew I'd pick Spirited Away- it's got the hedonism, escapism, lush visuals, and fleeting aspects that defined "floating world" culture. The debates went well but my professor claims they were both draws. Hah.


Yojimbo tells the tale of a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune), aka a samurai who no longer has a lord, who finds himself in the middle of a small-town gang war. Disgusted by the feuding gangs' immorality and pettiness, he sets a plan to manipulate them into destroying themselves, thus freeing the townspeople from their reign. It's a good plan, but some problems happen, mostly in the form of Unosuke, an asshole gang member with a penchant for gunslinging. But then, some solutions happen in the form of sword fighting and fire-setting. It's a western for mid-nineteenth century Japan, and it's all pretty great. There are several comedic characters as well as a few scary/sadistic ones. The samurai himself is cool and gruff, with no reservations about hacking someone's arm off as long as it's someone he knows isn't very nice. He doesn't need the pleasures of a courtesan or the bribe of a corrupt silk-maker, all he needs is Justice. In case this is sounding familiar, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, one of three Kurosawa movies to be turned into spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone (maybe that's common knowledge and I'm just being overly informative, but I didn't know about this before so... whatever).

Having never seen either a Kurosawa film or any of Sergio Leone's westerns, I had very few preconceptions about Yojimbo. I don't think I could have ever seen it coming, anyway! Everything about it was so... cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood. The face-offs between the gangs were awesome and bloody; why can't all westerns have swords instead of guns? Much more attention-grabbing. My main criticism is that there are way too many characters, and I had a hard time following who was on which side and who did what thing, etc. Could just have been me, though. Maybe if I watch it again I'll be able to follow it better. Otherwise, it's a really fun movie with a great protagonist, cool style, and pretty accurate depictions of small-town life and people in Japan on the eve of the Meiji Era (when it fully opened itself to the West). Unfortunately, the soundtrack is mad expensive.


Well, Spirited Away, what can I say that hasn't already been said? (Probably not much.) In this modern fairy tale, young Chihiro finds herself torn from her parents and thrown into a world of spirits, demons, witches, dragons, and lots of other things I wish we had in real life. Almost the entire narrative takes place in a large bath house where nature spirits come to rest and replenish. It's run by the large and squat witch Yubaba, who begrudgingly gives Chihiro a job helping with the baths. Haku, a young sorcerer's-apprentice-type, befriends her and helps her in her quest to save her parents (who've been turned into pigs) and return home. She meets a bunch of interesting and fantastical creatures, helping everybody out with her incorruptibility and stalwartness, and (spoiler alert) is eventually able to go home with her parents, safe and sound. Also, she falls in love.

It's beautiful and heart-warming, with some life-lessons thrown in. In just a few days, Chihiro grows from a whiny, scaredy-cat brat into a confident, enabled heroine. The stunning visuals and imaginative characters surround her transformation with fun and adventure. Miyazaki is a guy who can consistently make a good movie that's interesting to both kids and adults, plus he's given anime films some credibility in Western culture. This movie is great, no doubt about it, but I think Howl's Moving Castle is my favourite Miyazaki film (probably because it's more of a love story). I'm not sure what made Spirited Away his big thing in America, but I suspect it has something to do with our girl-caught-in-a-strange-land-just-trying-get-home fixation (eg The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).

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