Holding hands, a boy and girl fall through the sky. She calls his name, and when Haku, an ancient river spirit, remembers a life before, the sky shakes around them with a thousand silver scales. The girl, Chihiro, falls. As she does, she realises that, like the mundane Japan she left behind, she can come to embrace the past whilst becoming her own independent person. It’s these scenes that lend Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 2001) a resonance sometimes lacking in other animated features, so much so that it became the first foreign film to win Best Animated Feature. Despite anime’s popularity, you would still be hard-pressed to find many outside of Japan who would assuredly label such films as art. There is a general perception around animation, Japanese or otherwise, which sees it as inferior to live-action films. For example, animating emotions is unrealistic, harder to capture, and thus the impact is less.
Before she falls, Chihiro recalls a moment many years ago where she almost drowned. It’s a small but significant scene. For myself, however, this moment struck a powerful chord in me the first time I watched this. Chihiro and I were the same age – ten or eleven. My family took us to a town which nestled above a river that ran into a waterfall. Whilst the rest of them laid down blankets we ran along the edges of the river and spotted a small jetty of land on the other side. I can reach that. The river was about half a mile wide. Still, I kept swimming, kicking my feet at the bottom of the river I could barely touch, arms failing, and within as much time as it had taken me to get to this point, I suddenly felt that this was it. Seeing the sensation of fear, relief, disbelief at still being alive so beautifully animated on Chihiro’s face made an impression unmatched by reality. It was like looking into a memory. We didn’t speak the same language, but still, for those few hours we did through lines drawn on celluloid.
There’s a certain, almost ineffable power to cinema. Yet just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t impact you. After all, isn’t that what all stories do? There have been inlands and changes towards how we may view anime. UEA’s own Rayna Denison is a specialist in the field, having published numerous articles and monographs on Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997). Talks have been held, retrospectives written, and entire departments established in Universities in Indiana, London, and Paris. In 2019, The British Museum ran an exhibition of manga and anime in collaboration with Citi, an American multinational investment bank. Focusing on individual artists such as Tetsuya Chiba, manga is placed in the history of world literature and anime as an extension of this medium. Across the pond, the soon-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is set to host an entire exhibition dedicated to the work of Miyazaki- the first of its kind in North America. When one considers that the filmmaker has only been recognised by the academy a handful of times, the fact that he was chosen above all else is surely a step forward.
For large corporations such as Citi, Manga, and Anime are just as valid as any other art-form, in terms of communicating to their customers exactly what it is they should care about this month, or what face they’ll wear. Consequently, Japan’s most commercial export is becoming more respected and visible in spaces usually reserved for more serious forms of fine art. With this, however, comes a cautionary message about the commercialisation of art. Miyazaki himself famously said that Anime, as it becomes more and more concerned with the tastes of western audiences, “was a mistake.” The ultimate consequence of this: anime and other imported media, will fall off the metaphorical waterfall of popular culture, not into obscurity, but something far worse – parody.