Get local news delivered straight to your phone

In the opening scene of Spirited Away, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest anime epic, a family drives toward its new house in an exurban development. Sulky 10-year-old Chihiro, who didn’t want to leave her old home, asks about the tiny shrines along the road. Those, her father explains, are the dwellings of

forest-animal spirits. Most viewers in Japan, where Spirited Away is the most commercially successful film ever, would recognize the Shinto shrines. They’d also understand the significance of another aspect of the scenery, one that for Chihiro and her family is so commonplace it’s unworthy of comment: the concrete ramps, embankments, and retaining walls that define and defile so much of Japan’s landscape.

The story quickly leaves these structures behind, but it never forgets them. If the sweeter ingredients of Spirited Away recall such kid-oriented Miyazaki fables as My Neighbor Totoro—which also begins with a family arriving at a new home in an outlying district—thematically the film is in part a sequel to Princess Mononoke, the director’s 1997 adult eco-fable. To Miyazaki, Japan is a country whose heritage, cultural as well as natural, has been paved over.

The family takes a wrong turn on the way to its new house and finds what Dad assumes is a defunct amusement park. Despite Chihiro’s misgivings, Dad insists on exploring, and both parents can’t resist digging in when they find an elaborate buffet in an otherwise abandoned arcade. Chihiro goes for a look around, and on returning discovers that the food has transformed her mother and father into pigs. As night falls, the place comes alive, and it turns out that it’s a bathhouse resort for gods, spirits, and other supernatural creatures. A boy, Haku, appears to warn Chihiro that she must leave. When that proves impossible, he tells her how to survive there: She must get a job in the bathhouse.

Humans aren’t wanted in this realm of talking frogs, oversized babies, enchanted bits of soot, and other wonders, but the witch who oversees the bathhouse, Yubaba, is bound by an oath to employ all those who ask for a job. Chihiro begins working as a bath attendant and deals with several crises involving gluttony, greed, and filth—all conditions that relate to the issue of environmental pillage. (When Chihiro manages to cleanse a mucky river spirit, what’s left behind is a pile of the sort of junk people throw into bodies of water.) Ultimately, Chihiro gets a chance to repay Haku for his help, going on a quest—via an interurban train, the sort of old-fashioned technology Miyazaki cherishes—in the company of an enchanted mouse and the vaporous No-Face, a cool-looking but ill-defined character. Then, of course, there’s the matter of her parents.

Miyazaki has said that Spirited Away is rooted in Japanese folklore, but there are numerous Western precedents for the saga, including Alice in Wonderland and the Greek myths of Circe, Orpheus, and Persephone. Executive producer John Lasseter (the Toy Story guy) and a Disney crew have Americanized the tale, recruiting such voice actors as Daveigh Chase (Chihiro), Suzanne Pleshette (Yubaba), and Jason Marsden (Haku). Yet they chose not to cut the 125-minute film, which will likely tire all but Miyazaki devotees, or to replace the drippy original music by Miyazaki regular Joe Hisaishi.

There’s nothing Disney could have done, of course, to preserve the Japanese wordplay, but it’s worth noting that names are important to Miyazaki’s message. Humans who come to work at the bathhouse are assigned new monikers—Chihiro becomes Sen, an alternate reading of the character for chi—and those who forget their real names can never escape. The implication is that today’s Japanese no longer remember the meaning of the things that used to distinguish their culture.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Though thematically provocative and visually alluring, Spirited Away is also meandering and sometimes becalmed. It seems like an odd thing to say about a country’s most successful mainstream filmmaker, but Miyazaki is not much of a storyteller. The director begins making his movies without a finished script—a highly unusual technique for an animator—and the resulting tales can be erratic and unshapely. Even simple Miyazaki tales such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service don’t have a lot of narrative drive, and the complex ones are even more problematic. Still, he fills the frame with endearing characters and amusing action. Like a trip on the movie’s interurban, Spirited Away is less than expeditious, but it offers fascinating vistas to pass the time.

Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers is hardly less exotic than Spirited Away, although the world it depicts is familiar from a century of sagas about uptight Brits tested and transformed by their adventures in their empire’s wilder climes. Based on a musty A.E.W. Mason novel that’s been filmed six times—originally in 1915—this is an old-fashioned tale of honor, updated with the sort of brutality that occurred offscreen in more decorous productions.

It’s 1884, an opening note informs us, and Queen Victoria’s Britain controls one-quarter of the globe. Harry (Heath Ledger) is an officer in the Royal Cumbrians, successful on the rugby field but untested in battle. When his unit is called to action against “Mohamadden fanatics” in Sudan, Harry is not prepared. He joined the army only to please his father, he tells adoring fiancee Ethne (Kate Hudson), and never expected to fight. He resigns his commission, outraging his blowhard military-lifer dad, as well as his friends. Of Harry’s four closest colleagues, only Jack (Wes Bentley) declines to send a white feather accusing him of cowardice. The fourth feather comes from Ethne, whose split with Harry could be a boon to Jack, her longtime admirer.

Having turned down everyone’s advice to disavow his resignation, Harry instead decides to redeem himself by heading for Sudan as a civilian. In an attempt to reach the British fort, Harry attaches himself to the caravan of a man transporting female slaves, only to be abandoned in the desert when the women kill their captor and escape. For the first of several times, he’s rescued by taciturn Abou (Amistad star Djimon Hounsou), the sort of savvy, helpful native that imperialists—and movies about them—could not survive without. Rather than join his comrades, the sun-darkened Harry becomes a bearer for the British troops—which means he’s nearby when Jack, blinded in battle, needs to be extricated. After Jack is sent back to Britain, where he begins to woo Ethne, Harry gets himself thrown into prison so he can help save another colleague, Trench (Michael Sheen). Then he returns home for what would have been, in a gutsier movie, a bittersweet ending.

The Four Feathers combines historical context—the British really did take a licking in the Sudan in late 19th century—with plot developments that recall The Count of Monte Cristo and other romantic fictions. Director Kapur, whose Elizabeth showed a flair for Britain’s nasty history, stages battle and prison scenes that are more visceral than is typical of the genre, and cinematographer Robert Richardson, a frequent Oliver Stone collaborator, makes Sudan (actually Morocco) seem oppressive by regularly pointing his camera at the sun. The movie’s showcase is a grand battle sequence in which British troops deploy themselves in a square to fend off a Sudanese attack but are repeatedly surprised by their enemy’s tactics.

Despite the ferocity of such scenes, Kapur doesn’t challenge the colonial epic’s basic formula. As a native of Britain’s former empire, the Bollywood veteran might be expected to be more skeptical. Yet he faithfully renders the old-school conceits of scripters Michael Schiffer (Colors) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), who—probably encouraged by The English Patient—once again depict Africa as a place where incredible things happen to white people. Though The Four Feathers has some exciting moments, its worldview is dull.

The model of a proper Tunisian widow, Lilia (Hiam Abbass) makes a little money as a seamstress, watches lots of TV, and dotes on her daughter, her only child. But Salma (Hend El Fahem) is a teenager now, and doesn’t want to rush home after school every day. One afternoon, Lilia investigates her daughter’s belly-dancing class, looking for clues into Salma’s life.

There she spies drummer Chokri (Maher Kamoun), and senses—correctly—that he and Salma are linked. The next time Salma calls and says she won’t be coming home that night, Lilia goes to the nightclub where Chokri performs, expecting to find her child. Salma’s not there, but Lilia does meet Folla (Monia Hichri), one of the dancers.

The gregarious Folla encourages her new friend to try on one of her outfits, and soon Lilia—who’s more voluptuous than her customary housedresses suggest—is dancing at the club, delighting the predominantly male clientele as well as herself. She even begins an affair with Chokri, who she no longer believes is sleeping with Salma.

An American movie would hang the story on this mother-daughter erotic triangle, but Tunisian-born Parisian director Raja Amari resolves the conflict gently. A former belly dancer herself, Amari is more interested in Lilia’s psychic rebirth and the sensual release of dancing than she is in scandal—although this first feature would be a shocker in most of the Islamic world.

Deftly using handheld camera and found locations, Amari kindles considerable heat within Tunisian strictures, staging a potent clothes-on sex scene and slowly circling the club’s dressing room as Lilia changes from street clothes into a spangly dance outfit.

Satin Rouge is slight but appealing, and a compelling illustration of the power of not taking it all off. CP