Fierce intelligence prevents both films from committing to a single, definitive characterization of their hosted spirits. Rather, both leave it to us to either acknowledge them as fixtures of our world, or explain them away as externalizations of conflicted psyches. Or, somehow, both.
The imaginative depth, richness of vision, and sensuous humor in these films temper the stoic lesson they share: that growing up is a solitary (and lifelong) business – a core-shaking struggle with fundamentally indifferent and seemingly epic forces – that must be met with clear eyes and a healthy dose of self-reliant ingenuity.
Both films situate this struggle within intricate social structures that simultaneously constrain and bolster their protagonists’ development. From within a strenuously hierarchical bathhouse and a solidly affluent family, respectively, the heroine of “Spirited Away” and the hero of “Fanny and Alexander” experience the guilt that can accompany wish fulfillment, and the thrill of coming into their own power. Both learn to gradually expand their intra-group positions by working within, rather than against, the expectations of their assigned roles, then letting their resourcefulness and the affection they inspire in others do the rest.
For a marathon: The opening third of “Fanny and Alexander” does little to prepare you for its harrowing middle, which parallels “Mysteries of Lisbon” in both circumstance and mood.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “Evelyn_py” and “dL_chang” at Flickr)