Andrew Osmond weighs the pros and cons
In a great many ways, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Production I.G’s Oblivion Island tell the same story. A modern Japanese girl grows up listless and alienated, something plainly lacking in her spirit. Chance, or perhaps fate, draws the girl through a portal into a fantastic world, a shadow Japan inhabited by industrious creatures. Here, the girl learns that the waste and neglectfulness of her world has profound effects on the fantasy location. There are lost, damaged souls, which it is her duty to heal. But the world has a fearsome ruler who wants to enslave the girl, stealing her memories, her identity, even her name. Can the plucky heroine save both the world and herself?
The fantasy world, though, is very different in each film. The one in Spirited Away is centred round a luxuriant, palatial bathhouse, catering for Japan’s weary gods. More deeply, it’s bound up with Japan’s national heritage, and a nostalgia for a world that the kids in the cinema audience never knew – though the adults did. As Spirited Away’s director, Hayao Miyazaki, explains, “The setting is an older Japan, one of a few decades before. Many (Japanese) adults felt attached to the film, many even cried, just to see that kind of almost forgotten scenery. Perhaps they were reminded of their old childhoods.”
Miyazaki is fascinated by the idea of nostalgia as a tangible force, “reminiscences that can be literally touched and felt.” In his book Starting Point, Miyazaki writes of a childhood experience where he found himself standing in an unknown part of town, “overwhelmed by forlornness and homesickness,” acutely humbled. Think of little Chihiro in Spirited Away’s early scenes, and it’s easy to see how much those feelings carried over.
In Spirited Away, the Japanese people have forgotten who they were. They’ve marginalised their history, their myths and gods and millennia that shaped them. Oblivion Island has a very different focus. Its angle is much more personal; that every person, as he or she grows up, starts to neglect what he or she once knew was priceless, the objects and memories of love. It is these objects which collect in Oblivion Island.
Interviewed on the English-language Production I.G. website, animation director Naoyoshi Shiotani says, “As the (Japanese) title, Hottarake no Shima suggests, this movie revolves around the concept of hottarake. In English you may translate it in different ways, from ‘neglect’ to ‘abandon’ to ‘forget,’ not because of malice but because of unintentional carelessness. We abandon even our memories without realizing it. This movie tells that we should care more about feelings. We should never forget what is really important for us and the people around us, and it is something you can’t see or grab with your hands.”
Oblivion Island starts when 16 year-old girl Haruka realises she has mislaid a hand-mirror left her by her mother, who died when she was a child. “I used to have this old mirror my mother gave to me,” she says early, looking mournfully out of a window. (It echoes the opening of Spirited Away, where a listless Chihiro stuck her tongue out of her car window.) “I treasured it, but now it’s gone…”
Haruka spends the film looking for the mirror, which has sunflowers carved on its back. Shiotani notes, “In the language of flowers, sunflower stands for ‘I’m always with you,’ which is obviously connected with the role of Haruka’s mother.” The mirror itself in an obvious symbol. After all, what’s a mirror for except to show you your face, and by extension the person you are?
Haruka’s hunt takes her to the titular Oblivion Island, a land made of millions of discarded human objects, bodged together in a fantastic multi-coloured theme park bricolage. It looks very different from the palatial bath-house and haunted town in Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s film was inspired by period Japanese buildings like the opulent Meguro-Gajoen restaurant hotel, built in the 1930s and still open today. But Oblivion Island’s was also designed to evoke nostalgia, in a purposely scattershot way.
Shiotani: “I wanted people of any generation to feel nostalgic about what they saw on the island, so we used many object from very different periods. As a first step, we asked the staff to gather all kind of old toys, electric appliances, cars, cans, bottles, flyers, books and magazines. Then we selected those we thought could work to build the island landscape. There are so many objects in any background, that one may just spend weeks trying to locate all of them! I imagined the island inhabitants used objects conceived in the human world to build things according to their sensitivities, in a quite original interpretation.”
In particular, look at the scenes in the home of the character Teo, who’s Haruka’s little-boy ally on Oblivion Island. Teo makes good use of everything he finds – for example, his “mask” is a common or garden bike saddle. He recycles like a good Womble, though Teo looks more like Rupert the Bear. He’s actually a fox, a traditionally magic character in Japanese folklore. The film was inspired by a Japanese legend: if you lose something precious to you, you can pray to the foxes to bring it back in the night. The tale’s beautifully illustrated at the film’s start, with hand drawings more like Russian animation than anime.
In Oblivion Island, fox creatures take objects that humans have discarded or neglected, and use them to build their homes. If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty, based on the Britain’s The Borrowers, where tiny people “borrow” objects from giant-sized humans. Postage stamps become paintings; a flowerpot forms a fireplace; the girl Arrietty brings in flowers and turns her bedroom into a garden. Home space isn’t something to be bought and assembled, Ikea-style. It takes effort and vision to create, whether you’re a fox, a Borrower or a womble.
As well as the industrious foxes of Oblivion Island, there’s also a cute but dignified button-eyed sheep, called Cotton. He was created to make Oblivion Island truly universal – not just because he’s a cute sheep (though that helps!), but because of what he represents. “Cotton is the stuffed animal everybody has had when he/she was a kid,” says Shiotani. “I wanted everyone in the audience to relate with and overlap his/her own personal childhood memories… Cotton is a neglected childhood treasure who has the chance to meet up again with his owner, the very person that left him lying around and eventually forgot him.” Who, you might guess, is Haruka herself.
One more theme of the film, a little more Japanese, is its concern with uniting generations. The divisions between children and parents were also suggested in Spirited Away, where Chihiro’s parents – while hardly terrible people – seem careless and inattentive of her (she’s better guided by the magic characters.) Oblivion Island takes a very different angle. Hakura slowly realises that she doesn’t understand her father; moreover, that it’s her responsibility to fix things.
In Shiotani’s view, “Many Japanese families don’t have enough time for proper communications between parents and children, because we all are apparently too busy doing something else. I’d be happy if, after watching the film, people would stop for a while and think about their parents, then go home and start to communicate over dinner or any other occasion.” Doubtless Miyazaki would agree heartily. For if there’s one sentiment both Spirited Away and Oblivion Island endorse, it’s Dorothy’s last line in The Wizard of Oz, after her own adventure in a magic world: “There’s no place like home.”
Oblivion Island is available 1st April on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.