Spirited Away (DVD, 2003, 2-Disc Set) Reviews
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Spirited Away (DVD, 2003, 2-Disc Set)

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In High Spirits

Sep 3, 2002 (Updated Mar 28, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fascinating, exciting, gorgeous, sweeping work of animation, kid- and adult-friendly

Cons:It ends, alas. Also, a few scenes may frighten younger viewers.

The Bottom Line: Go see it. Take your kids, the neighbor's kids, any kids you can get your hands on. You will see no better movie (animated or otherwise) this year.


Every so often, a movie like Spirited Away comes along that makes you consider the inadequacy of the choices under the "Would See Film Again" option when submitting a review. The most positive choice available is, "Yes, if I'm bored"—which seems the very definition of damning with faint praise. I want to see Spirited Away at least three times in a movie theater, and to own the DVD soon after.

Though he works exclusively in the medium of animation, Hayao Miyazaki stands out as one of the greatest filmmakers of any medium that Japan has ever known. Every one of his films is a masterpiece of storytelling. When Miyazaki made Princess Mononoke, fans were disheartened to hear that it was to be his last film. How fortunate for us that he changed his mind, and made Sen and Chihiro: Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is literally the highest-grossing movie ever in Japan (it made $230 million, in a nation with 1/10 America's theater screens), knocking Titanic out of the top slot—which in turn knocked Princess Mononoke ($159 million) out of the top slot a couple of years before. Despite its high Japanese gross, Mononoke made less than $3 million in the American box office; as a result, Disney nearly didn't option Spirited Away for American distribution.

Fortunately, they saw the light. The American run of Spirited Away opened in limited venues in late September, 2002. Both subtitled and dubbed prints of the movie were available to theaters. Unfortunately, it had very little advertising and only played on 151 screens at its peak, making a little over five million dollars in this arthouse theatrical run. However, all hope was not lost—this theatrical run qualified it for nomination for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and against all expectations (but not all hope), it very-deservedly won this award. Thus it has, as of this review revision in late March, 2003, been rereleased to 750 theaters, with a big advertising push.

Though the movie was not yet out in America at the time I first wrote this review, the DVD (featuring English subtitles) has been out in Japan and Hong Kong for a couple of months, and it was by this expedient that I first watched the film. I have just now seen the dub (supervised by Pixar's John Lasseter, and starring Daveigh Chase, "Lilo," as the protagonist); and I can report that in either version, this film is a true classic and well worth seeing.

The differences between original language and dub, for those who care about such things, are mostly minor. A few lines are changed, one or two things are added, but by and large it remains true to the spirit of the original. And, unlike many anime dubs, the voice acting was first-rate. In particular, Daveigh Chase did a yeoman job in the role of Chihiro, starting out appropriately whiny and maturing nicely as she grew stronger over the course of the film. Michael Chiklis was excellently smarmy in his role as the father, too—though I could be prejudiced since I did enjoy The Commish. The only dissonant moments came after some of the long periods of silence in the film, when I was subconsciously expecting to hear the characters speak in Japanese but instead it was English.

For those who remember Princess Mononoke, whose brilliance was mitigated by its violence, the first question Spirited Away might evoke is, "Is it kid-friendly?" The answer is unabashedly yes. Spirited Away is one of that rare breed of movie that is made for children but without pandering or condescending to them—so it can be enjoyed by children of all ages, whether young in body or young at heart. There are some scary moments (that may be too intense for the very young) and a little bit of blood, which is why it is rated PG, but there are no deaths and very little violence. Disney is putting its own name and logo at the beginning of the movie, and Disney would not endanger its own family-friendly reputation.

In Spirited Away, Miyazaki revisits the world he first explored in My Neighbor Totoro, and later touched upon in Princess Mononoke: the realm of Shinto nature-spirits hiding just out of sight behind the ordinary world.

The story begins as a young girl named Chihiro is sulking in the back of her parents' car, unhappy about being taken away from all her friends, as they drive to their new home in the suburbs. Her father takes a wrong turn, and they end up in what seems to be an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro thinks the place is creepy and doesn't want any part of it. Despite her protests, her father and mother decide to explore the decrepit village across a dry riverbed, and Chihiro comes along rather than be left behind alone.

Chihiro's premonitions are not unfounded…for after nightfall, the village is a very different place. Under the lit lamps, shadowy spirits walk the streets. The dry riverbed is a mile-wide flood, plied by a riverboat that carries gods and spirits across the water. Customers of all different shapes and sizes cross the great arched bridge into the palatial bathhouse that surmounts the village. Before she fully understands what has happened, Chihiro's parents have been turned into pigs, and she has been forced to work as a bath attendant for Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse. Chihiro—or "Sen," as she is called after Yubaba steals most of her name—must make her way in that strange world, so she can free her parents and return home.

Spirited Away is an exciting and fascinating movie. Like all of Miyazaki's films, you come to care for and empathize with the protagonist and the other characters—even the witch Yubaba, who is not so much evil as she is greedy and self-centered. You keep watching because you want to find out what happens next, and how the characters learn, grow, and deal with their problems. Contrast an early scene with Chihiro inching down a staircase one terrified step at a time to a later scene which has her running on a decrepit, collapsing pipe, leaping to safety just as it finally gives way. You get so caught up in these developments that before you know it, the movie is over.

The story of Spirited Away is inspired by many sources—most notably Japanese Shinto folklore, which holds that everything in nature has a spirit or god living within it (for the purpose of this story, the Japanese terms for "spirit" and "god" are roughly interchangeable), and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which tells the story of a girl's journey through a strange and sometimes frightening fantasy world. In fact, Spirited Away has most often been compared to Alice, though taken as a whole, the resemblance is only superficial. The movie also harks back to some of Miyazaki's earlier movies, revisiting the funny-looking nature spirits of My Neighbor Totoro, the young girl making her way in a strange world of Kiki's Delivery Service, and the vulnerability of gods to man-made corruption of Princess Mononoke.

In Spirited Away, the main themes are finding one's inner strength, and the value of friendship over coercion—themes found in many of his other works as well. The message is to be true to oneself—that even if you do not change the world, you can still survive it. There are also mild pokes at the consumerism that is especially rampant in modern Japan, and at man's tendency to pollute his environment. Miyazaki often uses his work for gentle preaching of this kind, but the marvel is that it is so subdued—showing by example, rather than by broad exposition—that the method of delivery does not prejudice against the message.

Miyazaki doesn't simply create movies, he creates entire visualized worlds. Every scene has the sort of attention to detail that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen…even the dim corners of each scene are populated by things—pipes, valves, gauges, a sink with a towel hanging over it on a clotheshanger on the wall of a machine room, or characters running this way and that. One memorably well-composed shot shows Chihiro inching out of a door at the left of the screen, while at the right, numerous strange creatures pass back and forth over the bridge in the distance. Every one of those creatures is unique—there's no recycling or looping of cels because they don't think you'll be paying attention. And there are dozens and dozens of unique spirits and monsters, many of whom can be seen repeatedly in the background throughout the movie if you only look for them. Miyazaki's films are a feast for the eyes, fun to watch over and over again simply so you can see the little details you missed before.

A word should also be said about the animation. Japanese animation has a different style, comes from a different background than the modern-day Disney to which most Americans are accustomed. American animation often shows expression through the use of exaggerated facial motions and body language, similar to the way a stage performer conveys his expressions so that even the people in the back row can see what's going on. When a Disney character's jaw drops, the whole shape of his face changes. When he throws up his hands in amazement, he seems more like a caricature than an actual person.

However, anime borrows from a manga, or graphic novel-style, tradition, in which ways have to be found of showing emotion that work even in a still frame. The artists become so used to thinking in those conventions that those conventions get translated to the screen in their animated works. Japanese animated characters do show emotion, change expression—but they do it in a more minimalist, realistic fashion—in the way their eyes and mouth move, and with more subdued body language.

I am so used to watching Japanese animation that reading the characters is second nature to me—but American critics often seem to complain about these films having "bad animation," confusing style with quality. It is a pet peeve of mine, because Miyazaki's films, including Spirited Away, are animated on a level of quality that few other than Disney ever reach. Miyazaki has many Disney animators among his fans.

The score to Spirited Away is composed by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who has written the music for most of Miyazaki's movies. Hisaishi's score uses a full symphony orchestra, and is by turns haunting, creepy, melancholy, and boisterous, perfectly evoking the mood of the scenes it accompanies. It was truly wonderful finally hearing it through the larger speakers of a movie theater.

Miyazaki's movies have always been amazing roller-coaster rides that thrill and delight almost anyone who sees them; Spirited Away is no exception. Much more accessible and family-friendly than Princess Mononoke, it should be a smashing success if the theater-going audience gives it a chance.


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