Spirited Away, Infernal Affairs…and high concept?
Admittedly, the idea of trying to find links between Japanese anime cinema and the Asian gangster genre seems like a stretch – after all, the motifs and origins of these two categories appear to be mutually exclusive. However, upon reading Leary’s (2003) discussion on high concept with Internal Affairs, it was interesting to think about how Spirited Away could fit into this description.
In Justin Wyatt’s highly popularised definition of “high concept”, the author considers such films to have “a narrative which is very straightforward, easily communicated, and easily comprehended”. The idea is that a film’s entire concept or storyline can be summarised in a short elevator pitch; as Steven Spielberg, director of the quintessential high concept film Jaws contends, “if a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie”. The simplicity of such films also lends itself to being highly marketable, with an emphasis on style that is easily integrated with advertising and merchandising. For example, any Western filmgoer would immediately recognise the iconic Jaws poster regardless of whether they have seen the film.
As argued by Leary (2003), Infernal Affairs is a film that fits into this category. The narrative, despite having plot twists, draws upon the tried and true trope of the “duplicitous gangster/policeman” that has long been familiar to East Asian audiences. In addition, the film employs star power with an ensemble of Hong Kong’s biggest names as well as features a distinctive style with the blue-green colour scheme and emblematic imagery of the epic rooftop scenes.
Similarly, at first glance the overarching storyline of Spirited Away also seems like it can fit into a very simplified description. After all, the idea of an ordinary character that gets pulled into an adventure in an extraordinary world is a classic narrative in any type of storytelling. Chihiro’s path through the spirit world is reminiscent of the hero’s journey that spans Hollywood blockbusters regardless of genre, from the Wizard of Oz, to Lord of the Rings to The Lion King. So then does this mean Spirited Away can also be considered a high concept film?
It is my opinion that despite the universal coming of age and hero’s journey outline, Spirited Away is decidedly not high concept. I think that the film has more of a focus on fleshing out the world and characters surrounding the plot instead of the plot itself. It is more than just a skeleton narrative with the goal of mass marketability and profitability; rather there are many intricacies and hidden meanings carefully crafted by director Miyazaki. More than just being entertainment, the film is full of representations that evoke bigger discussions around themes including identity, environmentalism, nostalgia, culture and humanity.
In addition, I took note of the unique Japanese technique of “ma” that is present in Spirited Away as demonstrated by the scene where Chihiro and No Face sit on the train. In these two minutes of almost silence, the scene is driven purely by soft instrumental music and beautiful scenery. There is such a strong sense of mood, peace and calm in these unique moments that exist but do not serve the plot in any way. It was interesting to understand that the meaning of “ma” in Japanese is “emptiness”, and that it is a technique intentionally used in Japanese cinema. When compared to the typical Hollywood high concept films that thrives on action and keeping the audience constantly on edge, there is such a contrast with these scenes that focus specifically on creating calm, reflective spaces.
I think it is this delicate balance between the universal appeal of the extraordinary adventure, combined with the unique moments of “ma” and complex themes that makes Spirited Away such an amazing piece of cinema. There are so many layers to unpack, which is why it is a film that can be viewed with new revelations time and time again.
Wyatt, J. (1994). High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp.1-22
Leary, C. (2003). Infernal Affairs: High Concept in Hong Kong. [online] Senses of Cinema. Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/internal_affairs/ [Accessed 24 Sep. 2017].