Asian Cinemas Blog Post 3 (Week 10)

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.

Spirited Away – Train Travel Scene [HD] from Alecsander Alves on Vimeo.

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: [Accessed 24 Sep. 2017].

My comments:





Hello! I'm Jess and I like pizza and marathoning TV shows.


  1. Good job, Jess!
    I think it’s such a well-written and interesting blog post! You’re so smart to link the two movies together using the idea of high concept! Again, very interesting to read your analysis.

    The point you made about “ma” technique in Spirited Away that contrasts Hollywood high-concept movies (which drive on fast-paced actions) is very convincing. This technique is quite signature of Miyazaki’s works which focus a lot on triggering emotions. As I also mention in my blog post, this makes Studio Ghibli anime “touch the soul” while Disney ones touch the heart 🙂

    Another feature of high-concept movie you’ve mentioned is the star cast in Infernal Affairs (Tony Leung, Andy Lau and even pop singer Kelly Chen), which definitely makes the movie much more marketable. How do you think this element of “star cast” fit into Anime genre as obviously there is no real actors/actresses in Anime. Do you think that this lack of star persona might hinder Anime (or Animation) in general to become high-concept?

    Thanks Jess!

    • Hi Duong!

      I also personally really enjoyed the unique “ma” technique, and the fact that it “touches the soul” is definitely true in my opinion! It provides a quiet moment for the audience to really reflect on the film and place their own experiences and thoughts onto the situation.

      As for the marketability aspect from star power, I think there is a similar affect in animated films with voice actors even though it might not be as obvious as in drama or action films. I think maybe films like Kung Fu Panda would be made with the high concept model in mind, with famous Asian American names such as Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan as well as acclaimed comedy actors such as Jack Black in the all star ensemble cast.

      Thank you for the comment and your thoughts 🙂

  2. First of all, I appreciate your analysis of “ma” the most in the analysis of Spirited Away when you point out that comparing the anime movie in the west, Japanese or at least Mizayaki’s anime movies reflect more about the philosophy of empties. But I still notice that the comparison is kind of limited when you only take the superheroes movies from the west without noticing the other kind such as Up which tells more about love and communications. And concerning the movie Infernal Affairs, you borrow the term of high concept to interpret the movie but I don’t think the argument is convincing now that no detailed plot or characters have been analyzed.

    • Hi Tianyuan,

      Thanks for your feedback! I do agree that there are films like Up from Hollywood that carry deeper meanings, but I do think that the technique of “ma” is still a distinctively Japanese feature. I have seldomly seen moments of this calm almost-emptiness in popular Western films, which in my opinion generally focus more on the information that is in the frame than the context outside the frame. However, I don’t have a complex understanding of these types of moments in Western film so that’s definitely something that would be interesting for me do to further research 🙂

      For Internal Affairs, I took into consideration arguments made by Leary in the weekly reading. Given the word limit for the posts, I wasn’t able to make too many detailed comparisons but a more well rounded argument is something I’d be interested to explore in the future 🙂

  3. Hi Jess, I loved how you linked the two seemingly very distinctive genres of movies together in a very intelligent way. I was struggling to connect the dots; however, your blog post shines from picking out the very subtle connection that is often overlooked by surface film- watchers. I particularly enjoyed how you mentioned the ‘ma’ technique in Spirited Away that touches the soul. This is probably the factor that distinguishes Ghibli movies from others, that they are made actually for adults rather than children. Thanks for the interesting read. Looking forward to your last post.

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