Since I started my movie quest, my film reviews have quickly become the most-viewed pages and posts on the blog. I can think of two reasons for that. Either the films are obscure and my blog is the only place to find reviews in English, or, the film is internationally popular. This film, Spirited Away, is the latter.
This is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki I ever saw and I chose it to review first on purpose. Because people tend to shy away from [non-Disney] animated films I’d like to preface the review with the same sort of message Roger Ebert gave in his write-up. This film is not what you’re expecting. It won the Academy Award for best animated feature. It tore up every film festival it appeared at. It was the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, and the first ever to surpass $200 million internationally before opening in the US. And, if it helps to convince you, it was immediately flagged by Disney who did a brilliant dub under the supervision of John Lasseter, the creative director at Pixar. So it’s a fairy tale for little kids, but it’s not just a fairy tale for little kids, if you catch my drift.
I suppose so plot summary is necessary. The Japanese title, 「千と千尋の神隠し」or “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi“ explains it rather well. It means ‘Sen and Chihiro Spirited Away’ using the Japanese term that translates literally to ‘concealed by the gods’. Chihiro is a ten-year-old girl who moves to the country with her family. On the way to their new house, they accidentally come across what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. When Chihiro’s parents eat food left unattended, they turn into pigs, and as night falls, spirits fill the streets. Chihiro is found by a boy, Haku, who brings her to an enormous bathhouse to hide. The bathhouse serves as the setting for most of the film.
It is revealed that the bathhouse serves the millions of gods of Japanese folklore. Chihiro is sent to ask for work in the boiler room downstairs, where she meets Kamajii the boiler man. He has six arms that extend and perform various tasks independent of one another. He’s the perfect example of a Miyazaki character — he’s got six arms, but nobody’s making a big deal about that because you can tell that it wasn’t for shock effect the same way many Star Wars creatures were imagined. Kamajii is the sort of character that tries to appear cantankerous but cannot help but to be kind to the little girl. And my personal reason for loving him is that he’s voiced by Bunta Sugawara, the 70s yakuza movie star made famous for his role in Battles Without Honor and Humanity. The guy we know for his violence and badassery. Am I the only one who thinks that’s awesome? While not to the same degree, it’s like the idea that James Earl Jones, best known as Darth Vader, voiced Mufasa in The Lion King. Totally awesome.
Chihiro is sent to the mistress of the bathhouse, the sorceress Yubaba, who gives her work. As part of her contract, Yubaba takes possession of Chihiro’s name, leaving her only the first character of the name “Chihiro” — 千 — which is pronounced “Sen”. Through her experiences working in the bathhouse, Sen grows up quite a bit. No longer the whiny little girl afraid to move to a new place, she faces challenges with courage and determination.
This film is great to look at. Many of the shots — even the brief cutaways — are spectacularly detailed. There is no doubt that Miyazaki is a master story-teller, but his films would be diminished without the attention to detail and incredible skill that goes into the visuals. While Satoshi Kon’s works like Paprika elicit reactions to the way animation is used creatively, Miyazaki’s films keep things simple and bombard you with one breathtaking frame after another. I’m not sure why they’re so effective. Perhaps it’s Studio Ghibli’s aversion to computer-aided animation or maybe it’s that Miyazaki himself painstakingly draws thousands upon thousands of cels. Spirited Away really shows what the extra detail work can accomplish; the Disney films that cut costs by keeping the edges of frames simple and untouched can’t compare. It’s the difference between an A- and an A+. It’s also why Disney and Pixar people idolize Miyazaki and study his films so closely.
Miyazaki wrote this film with the young daughters of his family friends in mind. He wanted to give them a story they could relate to, with a heroine that looked something like them. It is, at first glance, a story that is best-suited to young girls, and yet I love it. Not only that, but all sorts of adults I’ve spoken to — male and female — have cited it as their favorite Japanese film. It has something for everyone. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age tale, but has things to say about environmentalism, the loss of traditional Japanese society, greed, and love.
Spirited Away is a story that thrusts its protagonist into a fantastical world full of unknowns and impossibilities. In that respect it resembles the Harry Potter series a bit, but it lacks the long-winded exposition that you have to put up with in those stories. Unlike J.K. Rowling or Christopher Nolan [cough, Inception, cough], Miyazaki doesn’t feel the need to explain every little detail of the world he’s created. Instead, you’re left to take it in for yourself in the same way Chihiro is. From my perspective, it made for a richer experience.
There will be people who simply won’t be pulled into this story in spite of everything I’ve just said. For them, animation itself — regardless of how artfully it may be done — is the obstacle; rather than enjoying the story, they’re more often looking over their shoulders so as not to be caught watching a children’s film. If you aren’t concerned with that sort of thing, I’d suggest watching this movie. It’s rare that I truly consider a movie to be great forall ages, but if ever there was one, this is it. Fortunately, because it was released in the US by Disney, it should be relatively easy to come by on DVD. And as for which language you watch it in…that’s entirely up to you. I watched it first in English back in high school and loved it. Now, I appreciate the Japanese, but don’t feel compelled to hear the ‘original’. The Disney dubbing was phenomenal and the lack of subs means you can focus on the picture.