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High Spirits

 

Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001 (2002 English-dubbed version)

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: October 18, 2002

By Laurence Station

Hayao Miyazaki -- widely considered the greatest animator in Japanese history -- announced his retirement shortly after finishing work on 1997's ecologically-minded anime epic Princess Mononoke. But four years later, he delivered Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro), which swiftly became Japan's highest grossing movie of all time. Rumor has it that the director, now past 60, is threatening to call it quits yet again, claiming he can no longer commit the enormous amount of energy required to hand paint the individual cells that make up his uniquely magical films. Conversely, there are also rumors that Miyazaki will be back with a new effort sometime around 2003/04. If the latter proves true, and if his new film ends up surpassing Spirited Away (as the English translation of Spiriting is titled) the way that film topped Princess Mononoke, both critically and financially, it would be an astonishing achievement. Because Spirited Away is not simply the animator's masterpiece; it is one of the great contributions to the cinematic arts.

Spirited Away is set in the Land of the Spirits -- or, more specifically, a bathhouse and pleasure resort for spirits to rejuvenate their, well, spirits. A place where humans definitely aren't welcome, and those mortals that unwittingly get trapped within its fuzzy boundaries eventually disappear if they don't take an active role in the land's upkeep and well being. Into this netherworld resort stumble spoiled, apathetic ten-year-old Chihiro and her gluttonous, self-centered parents, who take a wrong turn on the way to their new suburban home and end up at a tunnel obstructed by a foreboding, two-faced idol. Over Chihiro's objections (she alone gets bad vibes from the place), the parents decide to have a look around, and the young girl reluctantly follows. Beyond the tunnel the family discovers a seemingly abandoned amusement park ("the kind that were built back in the '90s, when the economy was booming," the father wryly notes). Soon Chihiro's parents come across a stand of fresh food and immediately begin gorging themselves. Chihiro, wanting no part of the inexplicably plentiful feast, wanders off and, as dusk falls, witnesses the arrival of the various spirits, gods and monsters that inhabit the realm. Rushing back to alert her parents, she discovers they've been turned into pigs, leaving her on her own in a extremely strange and scary place.

Chihiro's adventures, from trying to rescue her parents before they're slaughtered and eaten to taking a job at the resort so she doesn't fade away, constitute the rest of the film, and the deep wellspring of Miyazaki's imagination takes full flight and soars as never before. Whereas 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service was bright and cheerful, but not overly substantive, and Princess Mononoke powerful, if a bit too preachy in its eco-friendly themes, Spirited Away is first and foremost a celebration of childlike wonder that manages to impart its various ideas and themes in a wise and subtle manner.

Chihiro is initially presented as a girl so bored with the world around her that a move to a new house doesn't even rouse her stunted interest. She's gotten so used to getting what she wants that material things have lost all value for her. In the Land of the Spirits, however, she loses her safety net (i.e., her parents) and is forced to think on her feet for the first time; she has to work for her food and shelter, take orders and be nice to others in order to survive. Miyazaki smartly shows Chihiro going through her various trials, so that the audience can watch her gradually change, demanding work from the vile witch who runs the resort and, later, bravely taking a train to a forbidding swamp to return a stolen idol so that an ailing friend might live.

Throughout, Spirited Away reveals its lessons through actions that have definite consequences. Nothing is cheaply earned, and when a trial is successfully passed (or horribly blundered), the results are rewarding and dramatically effective. But Miyazaki's greatest accomplishment is his ability to convey that sense of childlike awe at discovering a secret place, be it the woods behind a young girl's house or a beautifully rendered, animated world inhabited by fantastical Japanese creatures and deities. The sensations felt as we follow Chihiro through this special place, through each mysterious new door and surprising encounter, are pure and exciting.

From a Western standpoint, Chihiro follows in the tradition of other curious, vulnerable yet brave heroines: Alice in Wonderland, or Dorothy Gale in Oz. The themes Miyazaki explores (rites of passage; the loss of innocence upon attaining adulthood; peaceful coexistence with others) are universal, and ones he's touched on in nearly all of his films, albeit never as effectively and emotionally satisfying as he does here. Make no mistake, though, this is a Japanese folk tale through and through, from the overall sense of compositional balance to the detailed attention the natural beauty of the environment receives. As Miyazaki himself has stated in interviews, Spirited Away falls more in the tradition of Nezumi no Goten (The Palace of Mice) and Suzume no Oyado (Sparrows' House) than conventional Occidental fables.

The film's translation into English is an expert one, with special mention going to Daveigh Chase (the voice of Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) displaying wonderful range as Chihiro; Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba, the greedy witch who runs the resort; and David Ogden Stiers as the six-armed boiler-room troll Kamaji.

Spirited Away manages a rare demographic feat: It has something for all ages, genders, creeds and colors. Miyazaki has created a special world that we're privileged to inhabit for two hours. Do yourself a favor and see this film: the spirit world will appreciate the business.

 
Universal Language
The mouse-eared money-minters at Disney bankrolled the English-language version of Spirited Away, hiring animators John Lasseter (Toy Story) and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) to successfully oversee and translate the work for American tastes and sensibilities.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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