By Jonathan Clements.
The BFI Film Classics list has had a number of ups and downs in its lifespan. I remember the original releases in 1992, which attracted real heavy-hitters like Salman Rushdie writing about The Wizard of Oz, and then a series of seemingly random and often contradictory directives, as it bounced from the BFI itself, to Palgrave Macmillan and then on to Bloomsbury. In that time, it has grown from a list of just four or five books to almost seven hundred, with forthcoming volumes announced for 2021 on Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki’s Delivery Service. And that’s before we get to the ersatz imitations from a number of other publishers, among them Anime Limited, whose book accompanying Sacred Sailors was deliberately conceived as the Film Classic that the BFI should have published, if only they had thought of it.
Although An Actor’s Revenge was one of the early releases, Japan’s presence in the Film Classics list has been quite sparse, partly because I suspect interest in Japanese film is an even smaller sub-niche of the niche already represented. Among only a handful of volumes on Japanese subjects, Andrew Osmond’s book on Spirited Away, originally released in 2008, was a welcome inclusion, and seems to have set the tone for much of the subsequent Japan-related works the list is now publishing. It has been re-released this year with a new cover and a foreword.
At 20,000 words or thereabouts, a BFI Film Classic is roughly the length of a feature-film commentary track, which means that in many cases, film-lovers have options to hear entire “audio books” on DVDs, often by the people who made the films themselves. I, for one, have spent many happy hours as Chris McQuarrie laments the fate of his Way of the Gun in real time, or listening to James Schamus and Ang Lee relentlessly take the piss out of their own movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In other words, since only a few years after the inauguration of the Film Classics list, it has faced serious competition from the movies themselves, as the nature of DVD extras began to favour very similar, in-depth accounts of a movie’s construction.
When it comes to Spirited Away, Andrew Osmond already has the high ground, because Studio Ghibli doesn’t allow third-party commentaries on their discs. The original Optimum releases of the DVDs preferred to use up all their storage space with toggled storyboards. And so, sadly, there is no tell-all Toshio Suzuki commentary track, or Miyazaki ranting about pigs for 90 minutes – right now, Osmond’s 120-page info-dump is the best we can hope for, and it has aged remarkably well.
The reissue of Osmond’s book could not have come at a better time, particularly since I have noted on several recent occasions that certain others writing books on Miyazaki appeared to have ignored it. That’s in spite of his coverage of elements of Spirited Away that remain unaddressed by academia, such as the grotesque street signs advertising Salty Eyes, Dog Meat and Worms that can be seen in the streets of the deserted town as Chihiro and her family wander through it.
These elements, of course, are unsubtitled and unnoticed in English-language versions, and were all but subliminal even to many Japanese viewers. As an experiment a few years ago, I showed that sequence to a Japanese audience and asked why it made them feel uneasy. Not one of them could explain why, until we went through again frame-by-frame and they read the signage.
The only element of this book that really separates it from the original 2008 edition is the author’s new foreword, although Osmond also manages to pack a surprising amount in there. He doesn’t merely point readers at the horse’s-mouth writings to be found in Miyazaki’s Starting Point and Turning Point, now available in English, but also the long tail of Spirited Away in China, where it went from being a much-loved pirate video memory of the noughties, to a 2019 legal money-spinner in Chinese cinemas. He also notes the shadow of Spirited Away to be seen in subsequent animators and animated films, particularly its influence on Pixar’s Coco.
I suspect if Osmond were writing this book today, he would concentrate less on the history of Miyazaki’s career, since this has since been better covered elsewhere. I expect he would also have access to some more commentary from Miyazaki himself and his crew, in order to leaven his blow-by-blow account of the events of the film with a few more quotes. However, his Spirited Away Film Classic remains a fine account of anime’s first Animated Feature Oscar winner.