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Why China is still spirited away by the movie magic of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki

Rather than wait for the weekend, Shanghai data analyst Wang Guyue decided to take a day off work to go to the movies.

The 35-year-old chose a time when her son would be at school because she “wanted to enjoy the movie quietly by herself”.

As she settled in to see the movie she first saw 18 years ago on a pirated DVD, Wang noticed that all the other people in the cinema were adults like her.

They were all there to see Spirited Away, a Japanese animated film produced in 2001 but only officially released in mainland China last month. Until now, the Oscar-winning movie has only been available illegally but it and others from Studio Ghibli, the production house co-founded by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, influenced a generation of Chinese viewers, connecting the two countries through some tumultuous diplomatic times.

Fans rushed to theatres, earning the movie over 300 million yuan (US$43.7 million) in the first week of its release on June 21.

Wang first watched the movie as a high school student with several friends squeezed in front of a small computer screen, their minds captivated by 10-year-old Chihiro’s adventures in what appears to be an abandoned amusement park.

“The movie was a real masterpiece. The colour, the illustration, the imagination, the music. Everything was flawless,” she said.

Wang immediately became a fan and followed Miyazaki’s other movies over the years, her favourite being Ponyo.

Sitting in the theatre, Wang still appreciated what originally attracted her to Miyazaki’s works but this time realised she was also touched by many small moments that made characters to human.

“When I was a little girl I was so focused on the plot of parents being turned to pigs that I cried,” she said.

“The movie touched me on a different level [this time] … I saw what a courageous girl Chihiro was and how kindness, no matter how trivial, from others can make a big difference.”

“When Zeniba gave Chihiro the hairband woven … by her friends and said magic could not produce this, the script was so beautiful I just felt like crying.”

Mainland audience eager for big screen debut of Spirited Away

The movie’s official mainland release has been a long time coming.

Miyazaki is an admirer of traditional Chinese paintings and the early work of Shanghai Animation Film Studio, including Havoc in Heaven and L ittle Tadpoles Look for Mama. He visited China and the studio in 1984, but people reportedly only wanted to discuss how animators were paid.

His movies were not released officially on the mainland until My Neighbour Totoro premiered last year, three decades after it was made.

Spirited Away took in over 300 million yuan (US$43.7 million) in the first week of its release in China. Photo: EPA-EFE
Spirited Away took in over 300 million yuan (US$43.7 million) in the first week of its release in China. Photo: EPA-EFE

In the intervening years, pirated DVDs, downloads and online discussions of his movies created a large fan base for Miyazaki in China, with his popularity cutting across age groups. Fans discuss his works in online chat rooms and hundreds of articles have been written about the movies.

For Yoki Yang, a 19-year-old student from Communication University of Zhejiang, the movies are a bond with her mother, something they sometimes discuss in their phone calls with each other.

Her mother bought a collection of Miyazaki’s works when Yang was in kindergarten would watch them by herself in the family home in Kunming, Yunnan province.

Over time, Yang also watched the movies and began identifying with the characters.

“I learned to be accountable, to be independent, to be kind and to be a better self on my own,” Yang said. “I feel I am growing with Chihiro.”

Yang Xiaolin, director of Tongji University’s Institute of Film Studies in Shanghai, said the movies’ appeal remained broad despite the ups and downs in relations between China and Japan.

Yang Xiaolin said the popularity was in part because Beijing appreciated the anti-war message in Miyazaki’s movies and allowed his work to be discussed publicly, if not encouraged, even without an official release.

He also said Miyazaki’s messages about universal themes such as courage, friendship, loyalty, and respect for nature, were woven quietly into his films.

“Most of the movies are about the personal growth of young children. Sometimes these children are very lonely without their parents, just like in the movie My Neighbour Totoro, taking audiences back to their childhood,” he said.

“Some movies depict universal feelings and values, like environmental protection, reconciling with your parents and working hard. They are easily accepted by everyone and make the movies a commercial success with high artistic standards.”

A visitor sits at a cinema’s hall as a trailer for Spirited Away shown on a big screen in Beijing on Thursday. Photo: EPA-EFE
A visitor sits at a cinema’s hall as a trailer for Spirited Away shown on a big screen in Beijing on Thursday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Lin Lian, a human resources specialist in Jinjiang, Fujian province, also finds inspiration in the movies for her professional life.

Lin first saw a pirated download of Spirited Away with friends when she was a middle school student. She watched the film another five times after she started work – relating to different things each time.

At first it was just a fantasy film, but then Lin started to work as a junior clerk and related to Chihiro, who was assigned to do the dirtiest jobs in the bathhouse for the gods.

In China, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away blitzes Toy Story 4

After Lin specialised in human resource, the film changed to become more about the need to firmly “resist temptations and value more important things such as professionalism”.

When she watched the film in the theatre late last month to “pay back Miyazaki a movie ticket”, something different came to her.

“We can live a simpler life and be truer to ourselves just like children,” Lin said. “I know I will watch the film again every few years. Perhaps I will take away something totally different then.”



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