Spirited Away (2001)
Summary: When a young girl is trapped in a strange new world of spirits, she must call upon the courage she never knew she had to free herself and rescue her parents. The mysteries of what this place is, who is responsible, and how to escape all fall on Chihiro’s 10-year-old shoulders. She starts off reluctant and worried, but proves to be brave, industrious, polite, humble, and not too proud to get dirty. Be aware of all the food or eating scenes – don’t get too hungry.
Recommendation: Chihiro is surrounded by Kami, the spirit entities “from beyond” that humans don’t normally interact with. Learning from them about her surroundings, she picks up hints about who can help her and who to avoid. The trade-making quality of bartering for favors keeps Chihiro busy all the way to her final test, the rescue of her parents. The supernatural qualities depicted were influenced by Japanese Shinto-Buddist folklore and many references can be followed back to their original stories. For example, Oshira-sama, the Radish Spirit, is also a kami of agriculture in the Shinto faith. The exception is No-Face (or “Faceless”), the towering dark cylinder with formable arms and legs that hides his true mouth behind a Noh-like mask. This was an original creation of Miyazaki’s and represents the fine line between real people and the need to present a ‘face’ or mask that’s not necessarily accurate. No-Face is capable of absorbing the things (and beings) he eats, becoming more like them as if fueled by the ingestion.
The Cat Returns (2002)
Summary: In an imaginative and lighthearted tale, a young schoolgirl saves the life of a noble cat and is rewarded with a shocking proposal of marriage – to the Cat King’s son – and a fateful journey to the extraordinary Kingdom of Cats. There is a tentative connection to Whisper of the Heart (1995) where the Baron is introduced, but it is not necessary to watch it first. His stories are completely separate in each movie, even if Cary Elwes voices him both times.
Recommendation: While I have enjoyed both films with the Baron, The Cat Returns is much more fun and adventuresome. Imagine, being cat-napped er… kidnapped by cats! Haru doesn’t know where she is as the landscape and castle become cat-themed. Eventually, so will she if she doesn’t return home soon!
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Summary: With her newly discovered ability to literally leap backwards in time, Makoto finds that tests become a piece of cake, embarrassing situations are corrected, and she can have her favorite food anytime she wants. Unfortunately, her carefree time traveling has adverse effects on the people she cares for. With every successful leap, Makoto somehow alters the fate of those around her. This was not supposed to happen and as she races back in time to fix everything, she notices that her abilities are not limitless but with every successful jump, she is one step closer to discovering the most wonderful secret in her young adult life.
Recommendation: The source material for this movie is a science fiction story by Yasutaka Tsutsui from the 1960s. It has generated several movies, plays, a mini-series, and other like material beyond this effort by director Mamoru Hosoda. There is a huge gap between cultural understanding for American viewers and the story told onscreen, but the dubbing or subtitles will provide enough explanation for comfort. Makoto is not a perfect daughter, nor does she do well in school (usually), but she’s fun and brilliant and not at all heartless when it comes to doing something for others. Before the end, you’re cheering for her, hoping more magic is on the way.