Japanese double feature: Spirited Away, High and Low

Movies watched:  Spirited Away, High and Low

Where watched:  Home

Time:  124 minutes, 143 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 4 hours, 23 minutes


Spirited Away is the first Hayao Miyazaki movie I ever saw.  I remember taking my son Kevin to see it when it was released in theaters.  That was about the time that Disney became the American distributor for Studio Ghibli.  I was completely unprepared for the world that he created.  This film is an absolute masterpiece of animation and of story, very deserving of the Best Animated Feature Oscar that it won in 2003.

And it holds up very well today.  Disney has released almost all of Miyazaki’s catalog in English language versions, and they have employed top-notch voice talent for the movies.  This one features Daveigh Chase in the lead role of Chihiro, as well as Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger.

But it is the original vision of Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli that make this so timeless.  The movie is about a young girl named Chihiro who is moving to a new city with her parents.  As they approach their new house they see a derelict theme park, and begin to explore.  But this is no ordinary place;  after dusk, strange things begin to happen, including her parents being turned into pigs!

Chihiro finds herself in a bath house for members of the spirit world, and meets dozens of fascinating and original characters.  My personal favorite are the “soot sprites”.  And also the river spirit, who comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed, and is full of garbage, including a bicycle.  This is based on a real life episode when Hayao Miyazaki helped to clean a polluted river near his home town, and they found a bike stuck in the mud of the river  bottom and had to pull it out.


For anyone who is averse to the idea of watching Japanese “anime”, let me put you at ease.  Hayao Miyazaki is not like anything else you have ever seen, American or Japanese.  His films will transport you to another place, they will move you and astonish you.  And if you have kids, they will really dig it for sure!

Next up I decided to watch an Akira Kurosawa movie that I have owned on blu-ray for awhile but hadn’t gotten around to watching.  And that is High and Low.  It’s amazing how many different sources Kurosawa drew on to make his movies:  Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, many traditional Japanese sources, and for this movie the 50’s noir detective writer Ed McBain.  (McBain was a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds.)   The novel, titled “King’s Ransom” is a great potboiler detective work, that breezes along at just under 200 pages.  Kurosawa would use this as a launching pad for a much broader and bolder story.

I have loved Kurosawa’s samurai movies for a long time, and I was interested to see how he did with this contemporary picture.  And I have to say that this is probably my favorite Kurosawa movie.  The movie involves a kidnapper who thinks he has taken the child of a wealthy industrialist, but accidentally takes the child of the wealthy man’s chauffeur by mistake.  Will the rich man still pay the ransom, even though it is not his child that was taken, and even though it may break him?  Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune plays the industrialist, who is involved in a power play at the shoe company he works for, when the kidnapping occurs.   This movie is not only a gripping suspense story, but also a movie with a moral center, that asks some real questions, and leaves the audience members to form their own conclusions.


So check out the composition of the shot above;  it is staged almost like a play.  The first 55 minutes of the movie follow very closely the plot of the original Ed McBain novel, and it all takes place in the house of the protagonist.  As a matter of fact, it almost all takes place in the same room.   Toshiro Mifune’s performance is astonishing, playing businessman as samurai. He exudes confidence when the movie opens, then his anger and frustration build in a slow burn, until he erupts into action.

Then, Kurosawa does something astonishing.  He takes the film in an entirely different direction.  The last hour and 20 minutes are entirely original, having almost nothing to do with the novel.  It begins with a scene shot on a bullet train in Japan.  This sequence was actually filmed on a moving train, with 9 cameras, and lasts around 6 minutes.  It is one of the boldest and most exciting sequences ever captured on screen.

After this the movie becomes a police procedural, and Mifune all but disappears for over half an hour.  This section is very well structured.   We then get a sequence in a jazz club, which is filmed with no dialogue, and is as over-the-top as Kurosawa ever got in a movie.  Then the movie visits a street of heroin addicts, and becomes very expressionistic, in contrast to the early documentary-like police scenes.

The movie is brilliantly structured, and really holds up by today’s standards.  And the Criterion Collection blu-ray looks exquisite in hi-def widescreen.  The conclusion, in which Mifune faces the kidnapper through a prison window, is both enigmatic and powerful, leaving as many questions as answers.


If you are a fan of Kurosawa, then you absolutely have to see this.

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