Category Archives: Ramble

The Spirit Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001)

Characters and Spirits

The great appeal of Studio Ghibli’s filmography arguably lies in its encompassing of such a wide variety of stories and ideas. From humble tales of Italian fighter pilots and teenage witches, to grand narratives on spirits and nature, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and more recently Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have brought to our screens some of the most richly diverse animations of all time.

And yet, despite their ranging settings, characters, styles, and ambitions, there are certain films within Studio Ghibli’s catalogue which compliment one another in their treatments of particular themes and motifs. Two such films, I believe, are 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, and 2001’s Spirited Away, both of which involve youngsters coming into contact with the spirit world subsequent to experiencing a great shift in their environment and comprehension of family life. Don’t get me wrong, the number of areas in which these films differ is many, but when considered alongside each other, there are more than a few interesting observations to be made.
Follow the White Rabbit: Entering the Spirit Domain
Passages to Spirit Worlds

Both films center on young girls, who, at the very beginning of their respective stories, are in the process of moving house. Chihiro of Spirited Away, a moody 10 year old, is miserable at the thought of having to construct a new life for herself in an unknown town away from her friends. Sulking in the back of her parents’ car, absorbed by a wilting bouquet of flowers she has received as a leaving gift, she seems reluctant to embrace the beauty of her new surroundings, much preferring to lament that which she has left behind. We are given a skewed view of trees and hills through her car window as she lays down on the back seats, outside greenery distorted by telephone wires and road signs. Contrastingly, Mei (3) and Satsuki (10, note: the same age of Chihiro) of My Neighbor Totoro, are elated at the prospect of starting a new life in the country, and are eager to soak in the luscious landscape around them. They delight in the beauty of their setting as they drive through fields with their father.

A side-by-side comparison of the films’ introductions of their natural landscapes offers an interesting picture of how the characters’ perspectives differ (some of My Neighbor Totoro‘s first frames on the left; Spirited Away on the right):


Whereas Mei and Satsuki’s panoramas are wide open, sun-kissed spaces, where the sky and clouds have room to breathe, Chihiro’s vistas are obscured and interrupted by modern life. The glass of the car windows casts glossy veils over the landscape, and the speed of the vehicle itself distorts the views on offer, blurring lines and colour. ‘What has this got to do with spirits?‘ I hear you ask. Well, from the very opening of the film, Spirited Away places Chihiro in a limbo-like space of pre-teen disinterest and apathy, where the lights of nature and tradition have faded, and boredom and indifference have begun to take hold. This is precisely why her eventual interaction with the spirit world ends up being so much more flamboyant and electric (for want of a better word) than Mei and Satsuki’s, who are themselves capable of finding magic in fresh air and acorns. The first things these sisters talk about when they arrive at their new home are the fish in the nearby river, and the enchanting tunnel of trees that acts as a walk-way up to their house. They are absorbed in nature, unlike Chihiro, who feels a disconnect with everything around her. When her parents stop to inspect the strange, crumbling building they come across on a country lane, Chihiro would rather return to the back seats of their car than enter inside.

This difference in attitude and perspective is the key to understanding the characters’ encounters with the spirit worlds. Whereas Mei comes across the small white spirit in the garden accidentally, and in a moment of pure curiosity and elation, follows it happily into the center of the camphor tree, Chihiro is reluctantly following her parents, who are themselves led by greed, when she finds herself trapped in a magical domain against her will. Mei’s spirit world is a place of sanctuary, a retreat that she has been invited into as a direct result of her inquisitiveness. To her, it is no different from the garden in which she has just been playing, for her youthful imagination grants her everyday life a spiritual depth. For Chihiro, however, the spirit world she finds herself in is initially a cold and alien thing, a place where human comfort has little meaning.

First Spirit Encounter

Having landed in Yubaba’s Bathhouse unplanned, and unprepared for what lies ahead, Chihiro’s spirit world is a more mature environment. A theatrical place of work and movement, it is a highly populated locale where characters of all shapes and sizes bicker, trick, cheat and steal. In this respect, it foreshadows some of what Chihiro can expect from adult life. She is, after all, standing on the precipice of young adulthood, and will be soon coming into contact with a much wider and scarier world than the one she is used to. With the help and guidance of Haku and Lin, she learns early on that the way to survive is to keep busy and please her peers. And yet, this day-to-day experience of work for reward does not come at the sacrifice of child-like magic. Far from it. Every ‘lesson’ that Chihiro learns, she does so through a careful combination of innocent concern and adult wisdom. And some of the very first spirits that she is formally introduced to are the soot sprites (susuwatari) that Kamaji the boiler man enchants to help him with his duties. These creatures are playful and friendly, and are a welcome dose of innocence in the midst of commotion. It is interesting to note that these sprites also appear in My Neighbor Totoro, where they are said to inhabit old, empty houses. When Mei and Satsuki excitedly inspect their new home, they discover these black puffs of soot hiding in the attic.

Soot Sprites

Whereas Chihiro ‘falls’ (or is perhaps ‘pushed’) into her spirit world, Mei and Satsuki are ‘invited’, or ‘led’. The scene where Totoro appears at the bus stop as the sisters are waiting for their father to return from the city, is a good example of one of the key differences in the two films’ treatment of human/spirit relationships. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits appear to the children experiencing emotional or physical turmoil. They are a kind of crutch, in the way that the imagination is a form of blissful escape. There is the suggestion that the spirit world is forever present, and has its core in nature and kindness, if only the right person would want to look. Spirited Away, on the other hand, paints its spirits as mostly disinterested in humanity (similarly to how Chihiro herself seems disinterested in nature at the beginning), and at times even horrified or hurt by it. The Bathhouse is a place for them to retreat to and relax, cut off from ‘reality’ (ironically reflecting Mei, worried for her ailing mother and feeling the absence of her older sister, retreating to the camphor tree and taking a nap on Totoro’s belly). Chihiro is the ‘foreign presence’ in her story, which allows her to engage in a whirlwind journey of emotional and spiritual growth. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits are foreign in that they are of another world, but are never treated with suspicion or disdain, and seem more in tune with their surroundings than the humans they reveal themselves to.
SIDE NOTE: Transport
Transport Comparison 2

Both the grandiose barge at the beginning of Spirited Away, and the Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro are completely suited to their respective environments. They are each sensational and striking modes of transport made specifically for their spirit worlds, that excite the senses and awaken the imagination. Mei and Satsuki delight at their journeys in the bus, with it becoming for them a kind of ‘Cheshire Cat’ that appears and disappears at will, and grins exaggeratedly. It is an embodiment and intense magnification of that which is comforting to them, being a place of fun and warmth. Sadly, Chihiro does not experience the same warmth when she encounters the boat carrying the Bathhouse’s clients. Despite its vividness, it leaves her feeling uneasy and threatened. This is to do with the fact that Chihiro’s spirit world is not altered or morphed to suit her perspective. Her view is one of the outsider, who has stumbled across the goings-on of an ‘alien’ space. She is not eased carefully into contact with spirits as Mei and Satsuki are, but thrown head-first into their domain.

Chihiro becomes most at ease with her surroundings whilst on her journey on the one-way train to Zeniba’s house. She has already experienced a lot within the Bathhouse, and is making her way to Yubaba’s sister in order to bargain for Haku’s life. This journey is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sequences in the film, as we witness shadows and silhouettes of passengers travelling and waiting at platforms, seemingly lost or abandoned. And yet, despite this melancholy overtone, it is whilst on this train that Chihiro really begins to understand the love and determination that comes with friendship. On her travels she has no cartoonish character to whisk her away to safety, only a ticket for an everyday carriage of a train where she is able to be lost in silence, like those around her, alone with her own thoughts for a while. Transport and movement offer her these occasions of deep contemplation.

Transport Comparison
Unbreakable Bonds: Totoro and Haku
Characters with Spirits

Totoro and Haku are the spirits central to their respective stories, and, despite their ethereality, each play a vital role in the emotional stability and growth of their human counterparts. In My Neighbor Totoro, the sisters’ excursions with their forest friends are more than just whimsical escapades, they are necessary relief from some of the darker aspects of their family life. Despite appearing sprightly and playful throughout the film, Mei and Satsuki’s happiness masks a deep concern over their mother’s well-being as she lies seriously ill in a local hospital (a broken promise of her recovery and return is what causes Mei to run away from home). Totoro, a simple creature, spends most of his time either yawning, smiling, or sleeping, and is therefore the perfect companion to youngsters distressed by adult problems. Similarly, Haku, in Spirited Away, helps Chihiro to retain focus on that which is important whilst all around her seems chaotic and displaced. He is her beacon of light in the dark, as Totoro is a reassuring laugh. Both spirits act as guardians of sorts, helping these children through difficult times, whilst simultaneously strengthening and enriching their life and relationships.

If Totoro is like an imaginary friend, or a rapturous ‘troll’ from a picture book come to life (Mei seems to associate him with the troll under the bridge in ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff‘, hence why she names him ‘Totoro’ – a mispronunciation of ‘tororu [troll]’) then Haku and his relationship with Chihiro may represent the link to forgotten memories from childhood. When the two first meet in Spirited Away, Haku seems sure he has met this young girl before, but doesn’t know where or when, and it is not until the end of the film that Chihiro remembers that he is in fact the spirit of the built-over Kohaku River, into which she fell as a youngster and nearly drowned. This flashback sets both of them ‘free’, and grants them a better understanding of their own identities.


Chihiro spends most of the film facing head-on various challenges which result in her growing as a person (her encounter with the ‘stink’/river spirit can be seen a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, and No Face is a warning against greed and consumption). She enters the spirit world as a sulky pre-teen, and leaves it wiser and more at ease with herself and those around her. Interestingly, it is a remembrance of her younger self which lends her the most perspective on her life currently, and which awards her a certain vigor that she lacked before. Transported back to years of wonderment where a sublime river’s power was enough to excite the imagination, she learns once again to embrace the magic of nature. The glittering hairband that she retains at the end is testament to the child-like vision which she has regained, and which will, ironically, aid her in her coming years of maturity.

Without sounding like some sort of therapist, Haku and Totoro are both pillars of emotional development, and are evidence of the importance of creativity in the face of an increasingly technological world. It is easy to label Chihiro as listless in comparison to the vibrant Satsuki, but once you realise the difference in setting (My Neighbor Totoro is said to take place in the 50s, and Spirited Away is at its earliest set somewhere around the late 90s) you realise that Chihiro’s attitude is a product of her environment. She sees trees obstructed by telephone wires because they are there in front of her, not because she wills them. This is why her journey through the spirit world with Haku is such a relevant and meaningful tale. There is no way she can stay in the traditional Japanese world of spirits and shrines forever, but she can learn from her time there and take something valuable away from it. Hayao Miyazaki cleverly constructs these majestic creatures of great significance and makes them a human’s best friend, in an attempt to connect youngsters with ideas which are not so easily attainable and consumable, but which can be accessed via keen observation and imagination.
Flying Comparison

Hayao Miyazaki almost always uses flight/flying machines in his films, channeling feelings of joy and fear whilst simultaneously reflecting upon the limitations and achievements of mankind. In My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, the flight sequences are more natural, and are used to convey the freedom felt by the characters as they are both metaphorically and literally uplifted through their contact with the spirit world. Totoro, and The Cat Bus which Mei and Satsuki ride in, are linked to the wind, and so flying with these characters is to experience a true bond with nature. The sisters must put their complete faith in the spirits they fly with, thus signifying their uncomplicated connection to the world around them.

The development of Spirited Away‘s end flying sequence tells us a lot about Chihiro’s development, as she relies on Haku to fly, only to have him transform from his regal dragon form back to a boy as he remembers his name. The two end up free-falling as tears fly from their eyes, their hands clasped together. Neither one relies on the other. There is no fear, only relief as they realise they have freed themselves. Chihiro’s movement through the sky here is a spiritual moment of elation at having found peace within herself.

Flying Comparison 2
We’re All Mad Here: Finding Families in Spirit Worlds
Spirits Comparison 2

Both films offer an array of incidental characters aside from their central spirits. In the former, the soot sprites, and the two miniature Totoros (Chuu/medium-Totoro, and Chibi/small-Totoro) are welcome additions to the spirit world surrounding Mei and Satsuki. Admittedly a far louder environment, Spirited Away also boasts numerous side characters, who each offer something different to the story. Lin, Kamaji, Boh, No Face, Yubaba and Zeniba are important and colourful personalities who help Chihiro along in her spiritual odyssey.

As touched on earlier, No Face (Kaonashi) is initially nothing more than a blank slate, a dry sponge waiting to soak up aspects of its environment. Once invited into the Bathhouse, however, it quickly and dangerously begins to absorb the personalities and traits of those around it (literally, by ‘eating’ the staff), and becomes selfish and greedy in its search for meaning. To Chihiro, this episode may act as a symbolic warning of the trials she may face in later life; coming into contact with those who have only a negative influence. A caution against over-consumption that is suited to the modern world she lives in, Chihiro learns an ultimately simplistic lesson from this spirit, which is that fresh air and open spaces can sometimes heal a panicked mind. Boh, Yubaba’s giant baby, is a personification of that tendency to revert to babyish behavior in order to get what one wants (a tendency that is not exclusive to the youthful). Once reduced down in size along with Yubaba’s bird, Boh embraces an inner calm, and is a rudimentary reflection of Chihiro’s own development. Yubaba and Zeniba themselves can be seen as representations of different styles or sides to parenthood, with one stifling, and the other encouraging. These dysfunctional spirits make up Chihiro’s adoptive family whilst she is separated from her parents, in a similar way to how, in the absence of their mother, Mei and Satsuki seek basic comfort in Totoro.

Small Spirits

Lessons are also learnt in My Neighbor Totoro, albeit basic ones, as the sisters are able to come to a greater understanding of plants and growth through their midnight ceremonial dance with the spirits. The acorns that they find and rejoice over at the beginning of the film are like a strange reversal of the gold coveted (and offered by No Face) in Spirited Away, as the girls admirably value spiritual over materialistic wealth. Their partnership with the totoros (I’m grouping the three of them here) is a constructive and productive relationship built on a shared love of nature.

Each film provides for its central character/s an assemblage of lively and intriguing creatures, who exist at once separately from, and entirely for, their human friends. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits seem called to the girls; completely suited to their obsessions and traits, they become their personal forest guardians. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s companions are less straightforward and less amenable than Totoro and his accomplices, but this does not mean that they are any less personal to her, and in the end they become necessary stepping stones towards a better understanding of childhood and memory.

Spirit Worlds

I hope you all found this post interesting and not too long! I find that analysing Studio Ghibli can sometimes feel like falling into a whirlpool of colour and texture, which makes it hard to remain intelligible. What is so amazing about these films is that they can appeal to so many people in so many ways. You don’t have to see any ‘metaphors’ or ‘symbols’ or ‘themes’ if you don’t want to. The stories have a charm all of their own, without having to layer any deeper meaning on top of them. But still, it’s fun to write about what you love and it’s nice to be able to share such writing with people who care about film.

Below are a few extra side-by-side comparisons which I compiled (but which sadly didn’t find their way into the piece). Hopefully they reveal some further interesting parallels between the two films. Enjoy! 😀

Frog and Toad
Shrines Comparison
Silhouettes Comparison
Stone Spirits Comparison
Spirits with Leaves

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Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead

Is there another horror genre which, over the years, has evolved and mutated as dramatically as the zombie movie? Compare 1932’s pre-code White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi, to the recent apocalyptic blockbuster World War Z, and it is both fascinating and bizarre that the two movies are of the same breed. Despite both featuring a white, American hero endeavouring to save a person/people from zombification, the films are at opposite ends of the undead spectrum. White Zombie is, outwardly, private, being about the acute struggles of a husband to free his wife from the clutches of a Voodoo sorcerer, whereas World War Z is more far-reaching in its ambitions (the clue is in the title). Where one is domestic, and deals in deeply rooted racial and sexual tensions, the other is apocalyptic, dealing in mass paranoia and catastrophe.

Zombie Comparison
Above: Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer observe a zombified Madge Bellamy in White Zombie (1932); the zombie horde in World War Z (2013)

Perhaps the reason that two films plucked from a single genre can be so wildly different, narratively and stylistically, is that the zombie film has always had a B-movie status, which in turn has allowed for a continual shift in focus and tone throughout the decades. With no distinct Western literary history, the zombie is a drifter, wandering endlessly through film without a concrete heritage. Even when traced back to Haiti and the crude stories that were carried over from the island to America by writers such as William Seabrook, it becomes clear that the living dead are cinematic monsters born out of anxieties towards the unknowable and unexplainable “foreign”, and therefore doomed to occupy the space between fact and fiction. Nameless, faceless, and directionless, the undead on screen are far from the regal monsters of Universal Studios (no respected actor ever plays a zombie; they play the character killing them or controlling them). And yet, it is this anonymity which grants these rotting revenants such power. Lumbering without personality, they become blank canvases on which to project a varying number of preoccupations. Relatable, either singularly or en masse, to themes of gender and female autonomy, the dissolving of the family unit, spirituality and religion, relentless war and violence, and new technology and scientific advancement, the zombie is a meaty, bloody vessel for social and political anxieties.

From the Voodoo of films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to the game changing “Dead” series from George A. Romero, to the video game based Resident Evil films, the living dead have been twisted every which way to suit the current cultural climate. In the 30s and 40s, following the publication of Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929), race and gender were at the forefront of the zombie movie. Western audiences were fed an endless run of cheaply made, “exotic” stories set on various islands in the Caribbean, which often centered on suspicious-looking, European men manipulating Haitian “black magic” for selfish means. In White Zombie, for example, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) is called upon by plantation owner Charles Beaumont to cast a Voodoo spell over the woman of his dreams, Madeline, in order that he may steal her from her husband. And in 1941’s King of the Zombies, Austrian scientist Dr. Sangre is discovered using Voodoo to gain information from an American admiral. As with Madeline’s character, white women often found themselves the victims of zombification, transformed in to mute figures of beauty, and black characters were used either for laughs (see: Willie Best in The Ghost Breakers [1940], and Mantan Moreland in The King of the Zombies), or to deliver wooden one-liner “warnings” to unassuming, white Americans. There existed a glaringly obvious paranoia surrounding anything considered “foreign”, which resulted in stories occupied solely with the containing and subduing of any unfamiliar or “sinister” presence. Western writers took their time to explain away Voodoo with scientific jargon, and the American always saved the day by destroying the European threat. The zombie in the years of the Great Depression leading up to the Second World War often stood as the consequence of foreign manipulation, and was a fitting monster, cold and detached, for those who had lost their jobs and livelihoods in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Zombie Comparison 2
Above: Mantan Moreland as Jeff in King of the Zombies (1941); Belu Lugosi (on the right) as Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932)

Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) made a refreshing change from the string of stagnant stories which had come before it. Mocking the desperate search for knowledge and control in the face of the unknown that had come to characterize the early zombie movie, this RKO picture from producer Val Lewton eschewed the safety of science and reason, and replaced it with confusion. The story follows Betsy Connell, a nurse who arrives on an island in the West Indies in order to care for Jessica, the ailing wife of plantation owner Paul Holland. Upon her arrival, she senses that something is amiss, and begins to suspect that Jessica is the victim of some sort of Voodoo curse. This is never proven, however, and the film spends its time flitting between various narrative threads which never tie up, all the while undermining a prioritizing of scientific explanation. No answers are provided here; the film ends with Jessica dead, and the perpetrator of a suspected crime never revealed. The audience is left baffled, wondering, along with Betsy, whether Jessica was ever a “zombie” to begin with. Not only does this film center on the conflict between reason and fancy that results from attempting to rationalize the unknown, it also proves that such a conflict is a pointless one. I Walked with a Zombie should have signaled the end of ignorant tales of appropriated Voodoo, but unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1968, with Romero’s ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead, that the monster was to be given an entirely new lease of life.

In the meantime, the few 50s zombie films that were being made had begun to stray from Voodoo in order to focus on alien invasion narratives born out of Cold War fears. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (not technically a zombie movie), and Invisible Invaders (1959), played up to fears of Communist invasion and brainwashing through their presentations of either mass infection or zombification spreading throughout society, resulting in loss of personal autonomy on a grand scale. These movies may have not been very good, but what they did do was change the way in which audiences viewed the cinematic zombie. Being zombified was no longer a temporary mental state that could be rectified with the removal of an evil Voodoo master; it was a much more gruesome affair which, by the decade’s end, was tinged with fears over the physical and social effects of nuclear war. In the space of a few years, the zombie as a movie monster had completely transformed, both physically and culturally. Not only had it become more hideous in appearance thanks to a new focus on the horrifying corporeality of the re-animated corpse, but it had also become tied to the idea of the apocalypse: of an uncontrollable, zombie horde. Zombies attacking in great numbers had been seen before in 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, but it had not been a prevalent motif until now.

Zombie Comparison 3
Above: Betsy looks on at Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie (1943); the zombies in Invisible Invaders (1956)

The influence of these alien zombie flicks becomes even clearer when watching the news footage within one of the most important films in zombie movie history. Night of the Living Dead (1968), the horror movie which changed the way that we think about the zombie, at one point sees a news reporter on television quizzing scientists on “the explosion of the Venus probe”, which he believes could have caused “mutations” through radiation. Early script ideas for the film even saw a story heavily featuring aliens. Anxieties over the Cold War had heightened following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and it was obvious that the zombie was fast becoming the perfect embodiment of a collective human fear in the face of a great and looming threat of violence.


Keep checking Screenmuse for the next installments of Zombies on Film.

Part 2: Zombies on Film: Romero’s Homegrown Ghouls

The Hobbit: Quotes from the Family

The Hobbit

I went to go and see The Hobbit today in Leicester Square Odeon with my family (Mum, Dad, sister), and if I’m honest I think that the epic-ness that is that cinema helped in my overall viewing experience. So much has been said about the film and it’s frame rate, that I actually feel like if I say “frame rate” one more time I may turn into a frame rate. Does that even make sense? I personally loved it, but I know that some people didn’t, and that’s fair enough. After the film was over I asked my family what they thought, and I was interested to know what my sister’s view was in particular, because she is an absolute Tolkein buff and has read The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and knows most of the script to the lotr films off by heart. Initially, she was just perplexed by the fact that she was convinced they’d missed out a bit about the eagles? (She wouldn’t tell me what bit it was “in case it’s in the next one”). But then she slowly went on to reveal her thoughts about the *cough*frame rate*cough*, and how the picture looked. Her input was something along these lines:

“I liked it, but I really didn’t like how it looked. I’m sorry, but I didn’t get into it till the storm giants. It looked too real and it wasn’t like the other films. It ruined it a bit for me.” Her verdict: ★★★

Now, my mum on the other hand, who has also read The Hobbit, but not the lotr books, absolutely loved it. Interestingly, she also wears glasses and had to put in contact lenses in order for the 3D specs to fit comfortably. Now I’ve heard a lot of people moaning about the film giving them headaches, and a couple of guys saying that they wouldn’t go because they wear glasses… ?  If anyone was going to complain about the 3D or a headache, it would be my mum, as she often hates it and says it’s horrible to concentrate on. After the film though, she said that she could completely understand why Jackson made it 48fps, and that it meant that the 3D for her was less awkward. She also loved the content, and found Gandalf’s speech to Galadriel about “small things making a difference” really moving.* This was what she had to say:

“I loved it, I thought it was fantastic. I actually thought it was ten times better than the first Lord of the Rings film. There was so much more in it to enjoy. Richard Armitage was so good as Thorin, he gave him more soul than he has in the book.” Her verdict: ★★★★ (or even ★★★★★ “but she wasn’t sure”)

My Dad, a man who very rarely rambles, was short and sweet in his summation. He also enjoyed it more than my sister, and had this to say:

“Very good. Didn’t feel like three hours at all. The only thing I’ll say is that I loved the Lord of the Rings films because they were new and I hadn’t seen anything like that before.” (Basically suggesting that The Hobbit’s tone is familiar and therefore not as enthralling.) His verdict: ★★★★

So, that’s what the family thought. If you want to know what my verdict was then check out my review (should be below, or follow this link)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

*Here’s the quote that my Mum liked so much. I was thinking about it today and decided to try and find it:

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That’s because I am afraid and it gives me courage.”

Love it!

Colour Symbolism: Red in The Sixth Sense

I watched The Sixth Sense with my mum the other night, and I’m glad I did because, despite having seen it a few times before, I’d forgotten just how good it really is. M. Night Shyamalan has gathered a bad rep since The Village, as made clear by articles on the interweb such as this one, and to be honest, there’s been enough written on how dire a director he is. I’m personally a bit tired of it all. I think I’m one of the only people who actually liked The Village, and who thought The Happening was hilarious and therefore incredibly enjoyable (who can deny the comic genius of the plastic plant scene?) But this isn’t going to be a defence of Shyamalan. That would probably take too long. I’d have to engage in existing arguments, and watch The Last Airbender – something I’m not going to do.

Instead, I’m going to be a cowardly English student and talk about colour. I’m planning to write my dissertation on the colour red in Decadent literature of the late 19th Century, and so naturally I’ve been on the look out for anything red in my critical reading at Uni. It seems as though a sensitivity to the colour has passed into my everyday life, as I couldn’t help but notice red appearing symbolically in The Sixth Sense. The colour palette of the film is actually quite muted, except for these instances of bright red that stick out like a sore thumb. Having done a little research (google searching “red in The Sixth Sense”), it’s become obvious that the colour symbolises “anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world” and is used “to connote really explosively emotional moments and situations” (quotes from Shyamalan himself). It’s discussed by a lot of people, but I thought I’d recap the obvious before moving on to the less discussed ideas of sanctuary and religion:

1. Cole’s red jumper at the kid’s party, and the red balloon, both pre-empt the ghost sobbing in the wall. It has also been said that the image of the balloon rising up towards the light through the centre of the spiral staircase is representative of a spirit rising up towards God, with the staircase representing life’s journey. The fact that Cole wears red here could be symbolic of his situation at this point: he is naive and uncertain, but is drawn to the voices nonetheless. Red is the colour of the spirit world, and so by wearing it he is inadvertently drawing spirits towards him. His duller colours towards the end of the film are a conscious choice. He has accepted his gift but does not wish to draw unnecessary attention, showing that he can control his situation better.

2. Anna constantly wears red after the passing of her husband Malcolm. The various shades of it relate to her psychological state, and how strongly she feels the presence of (or remembers) Malcolm. When she gives the gift of a book to her new potential lover, the red is dull and almost brown, suggesting that she is letting go of her memories and moving on. Her red is rarely aggressive, because Malcolm wishes her no harm, the only exceptions being when she wears bright red at her anniversary dinner, and the red of her antidepressants (unfortunately I can’t find decent pictures of them). In the dinner scene, Malcolm talks directly to her while she is awake, something he doesn’t usually do, but is argumentative and stressed. He interprets her demeanour as bitter and dismissive, and so he reacts to this with negativity. The pills are bright red because they embody all of the sadness left over from his death. Anna is also wrapped in a red shawl whenever Malcolm sits with her as she sleeps, but again this red is not startling, but a softer hue.

3. Kyra’s get well soon cards are mostly on red card, a colour that would have foreshadowed her fate. At her funeral her mother wears a striking red suit with red lipstick, there are red roses, and the box with the tape inside is wrapped in a red velvet ribbon. I immediately spotted the red woman, and was therefore suspicious of her. Her haunting is different to Anna’s. The part she played in her daughter’s death means that her relationship to the “other world”  is more acute, represented by the brightness of her red.

4. There are other obvious instances of red, such as the red door knob to the cellar, the red pen that Cole uses to scribble the voices of ghosts, the red dress of the hanging woman, and the red helmet of the dead woman towards the end. These are all rather straightforward nods toward the spirit world and its influence on the real world.

All of these points prove the theory that red is the colour of the spirit world – of ghosts trapped in limbo – their anger and frustration culminating in a fiery flash of bright colour that signifies their desperation to be heard and understood. Their voices are red with bitterness, and when they wear red themselves, their desire to be seen is taken to another level, thus revealing their inherent selfishness.

But is there any red that upsets this understanding of the colour as anger and bitterness? For me, there is, especially in relation to sanctuary and religion. The statue of Jesus that Cole steals is draped in a red cloak, his tent of refuge is red, the stone of the sword that he raises in the play towards the end is a bright ruby colour, and his mother wears red at one of their closest moments. Interestingly, she rarely wears the colour so obviously, except maybe on her nails. This set me to thinking about Cole’s relationship with his mother, and his desperation for sanctuary.

Cole retreats to two spaces of safety in reaction to the spirits that chase him. The church, and his tent. As seen at the start of the film, the church doors are a bright red, and so is his tent:

So, contradictorily, red is both a colour of danger and ghosts, and of safety and refuge. I think the key to understanding this contradiction is in religion and all its contradictions and promises. Cole’s understanding of religion is a simple one. He sees the church as a place to escape the spirits’ voices that are haunting him, and yet he enters possibly one of the most spiritual places he can find. Similarly, his tent is his home-made sanctuary, and yet is a colour that would most definitely attract spirits. He wants to hide behind the positivity of Christianity, and ignore the darker side, thereby ignoring the problem that he faces in his life. It is not until he accepts his situation, and learns to deal with it (to help the ghosts pass on, instead of denying their existence) that he becomes less drawn to these spaces of harsh red. The last scene of him in a church sees him stood in front of a bright stained glass window, with colours such as yellow and pink on offer, but no red. He has learnt a life of balance, and therefore the extremes of the colour palette do not need to make as much of an appearance. This is not to say that red is a purely childish and negative colour. Red can still represent something positive in Cole’s life, but in excess, and uncontrolled, it is dangerous to his mental health.

In the play of “The Sword in the Stone” that Cole performs in at the end of the movie, he is given the part of Arthur. When he pulls the sword from the stone, it has a deep red ruby set in to it. The act of releasing the sword, and the colour of the gem, are representative of Cole’s new ability to harness his power. Red (representative of the spirit world and faith) will still play a large part in his life, but he will be able to control it and harness it (even wield it as a power), just as Arthur is the only one able to lift the weapon. The concentrated nature of the red in the form of a small gem (you almost miss it if you’re not on the look out for it) and its deep colour (it is not brash or acrid), are a turning point for the colour in the film. It is no longer running wild, hurting Cole and distressing him, or causing him religious confusion, but becomes part of his nature.

One option for Cole in his time of distress would be to turn to his mother. However, she does not understand or want to believe his predicament, and her ignorance to his troubles is represented by her lack of red. Her embraces do not help Cole, even though they may be offered with good intentions. She must listen to Cole’s story in order to truly be a space of safety and happiness for him. Therefore, when she finally hears his secret in the car at the end, she wears her most obvious red. Instead of being a figure drained of bright colour, leaving Cole to run to the church and his tent, she now possesses a warmth that she should have possessed as a mother all along, and is his new refuge, as represented by their final hug.

Red is an undeniable tool in The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan has admitted this himself, and it has been discussed endlessly with reference to the spirits and strong emotion. I hope I’ve been able to add my own little twist on the colour’s meaning in pointing out the importance of the sword scene, and of Cole’s relationship to the Church.

Sorry for such a long post! Peace out.

A Taste for Animation

Being a student whose course requires me to spend the majority of my time at home, watching films can be a nice way to keep sane. My life of endless reading is nicely offset by a good movie, or a bad movie… any movie really, as long as I don’t have to read. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the Japanese animations of Studio Ghibli. The films have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I probably watched some of them too young. Nausicaa especially has a lot of dark undertones that can unsettle adults, let alone young children. But in my opinion that’s why they’re so brilliant. They offer levels of enjoyment that go beyond recent Disney projects, challenging and scaring as well as offering endless enjoyment. The depth of character and narrative power of the films is what makes them classics for all ages. And yet there are a couple of Ghibli films that I haven’t seen, and thinking of those, in turn, made me think of other animated movies that I know about but have yet to see. Watching animated movies is a different experience to watching live action. There is obviously an element of fantasy in animation, regardless of the subject matter. Even when the story is mundane, the fact that the images come to life through artificial line and hyper-real colour give the films a dream-like feel. Animation is escapism, and as the Winter months are drawing near, and work gets harder, escapism is exactly what I need.

When I get the opportunity, I will be watching and reviewing some animated movies that I have either not seen, or not seen in a while. I’m looking forward to a couple in particular, simply because I have known about them for so many years, and have just never got around to watching them. I thought I should also say before I start that there are a lot that will not be on the list, simply because I have seen them already quite a few times. These include: The Triplets of Belleville, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, some Disney classics such as The Lion King (1 & 2), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pixar classics Toy Story (1, 2 & 3), Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Up etc.

This list will not necessarily correspond to the order I watch the films in.

1. Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis (2001)

This is a film that I have constantly come across on my internet travels, but have never actually sat down to watch. It’s pretty much guaranteed that any list of top animated movies will have this on it somewhere, usually towards the top. I actually know very little about the plot of this film, other than that it was inspired by the 1927 silent film of the same name. I don’t really know what to expect, but my expectations in general are high, only because I read people singing its praises so often. This is definitely one of the ones that I’m excited about.

2. Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999)

This is one of the many films on this list that I have actually seen before, but it was so long ago in my childhood, that I couldn’t possibly remember enough of it to write a review. My memory of it is fragmented to say the least, but I know that I enjoyed it, and it crops up a lot when people talk about classic animations.

3. Phil Lord’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

This is a more recent animation that, at the time of its release, I had very little interest in. Since then, I have heard it talked about positively by a few critics, who all express surprise at enjoying it, saying it “succeeded their expectations”… hm… maybe it will succeed mine?

4. Vincent Paronnaud’s film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007)

I am hesitant to watch this film before reading the graphic novels. I am a massive nerd when it comes to comics and graphic novels, and so I feel like I would be doing the story a disservice by watching the adaptation before reading the original. But hey, I don’t have time to read any more than what my course gives me at the moment, and so I guess it’s gonna have to be movie before book (shock horror!)

5. Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells (2009)

I don’t really know what to expect from this film, whether it will bore me, or whether the animation will jar me. I have heard positive things about it, and have had chances to watch it, but there has always been something holding me back. Perhaps it is because it appears too childish to me, and I’m worried it won’t sit well with an older audience. But after someone recommended it to me the other day, I am suddenly a lot more intrigued…

6. Lots of Satoshi Kon…

I absolutely love Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers, two brilliant animations from Japanese director Satoshi Kon. Tokyo Godfathers I’ve seen a few times now, whereas Paprika I’ve only seen once. As for Millenium Actress and Perfect Blue, they are films that I know a lot about but have never had the guts to watch the whole way through. I would love to re-watch Paprika as well as watch the other two, but I’m not sure I’d have time. But here they are anyway, and we’ll see which ones I get round to seeing…

Paprika (2003)

An absolutely insane dream/nightmare narrative that will honestly blow your mind. I cannot wait to re-watch it.

Millenium Actress (2001)

I don’t know much about this film other than it follows the memories and characters of actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. Not sure about the tone either, whether it will be light or dark, although I am veering more towards dark, as I know that Kon’s films can be pretty disturbing.

Perfect Blue (1997)

I’ve seen clips of Perfect Blue, and I can definitely say that it is disturbing. Its based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi and follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of a girl group who leaves to become an actress but acquires a nasty stalker. I am aware that this one is pretty dark…

7. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

This is one of a couple of Studio Ghibli films that I’ve never seen. I have heard that it’s harrowing, and that’s maybe why I’ve stayed away from it. I’m drawn to the Ghibli films that offer me fantasy, and all I know about this one is that it’s about World War II Japan… I’m hoping I’ll find it beautiful nonetheless.

8. Rene Laloux’s Gandahar (1988)

I honestly do not know what this film is about or what the viewing experience is going to be like (except that its French and is Science Fiction), but I keep seeing it everywhere! It’s meant to be a classic, and interestingly was made in the same year as Grave of the Fireflies, making this and the Studio Ghibli film two of the oldest films on the list. It’ll be interesting to see how similar or different they are in tone and style.

9. Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (2010)

I love Belleville Rendezvous (or The Triplets of Belleville – whichever title you prefer), and so I was incredibly excited when this film was announced. I never got round to seeing it in the cinema, but was definitely going to rent it out and watch it. A combination of never getting round to it, and also being told by people that it was slow and boring, made me hold back. I’m finally going to bite the bullet and decide for myself whether it’s a success or not.

10. Paul Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip (2009)

All I know about My Dog Tulip is that is deals with the relationship between J. R. Ackerley and his German Shepherd Queenie. I’m looking forward to seeing how the film deals with the relationship, and whether it over-sentimentalises it, or keeps it real.

11. Tono Errando’s Chico and Rita (2010)

I’m excited about this one, simply because its story is pretty much a mystery to me. I know it engages with music a lot, and that’s about it really! The animation style is different to what I go for usually, and reminds me a lot of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, although it’s not rotoscoped like those films.

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Can’t wait to sit down and watch a couple of these soon. Let’s hope I actually end up having enough time to… Might be a good while before all are reviewed!


This is a new blog where I will be collecting and posting my film reviews. I’ve started it up to be a place where I can collect my thoughts and store my opinions. I enjoy writing about film almost as much as I enjoy watching it, and hopefully this will give me an opportunity to develop my writing skills whilst also musing over themes and genres. Who knows where it will take me…!