Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited
Away (Sen To Chihiro Kamikakushi)
is the only foreign film to win the Oscar for animated feature, the only
animated feature to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, etc. It’s
also the highest grossing film in Japanese box office history (more than ¥30
billion or $234 million).
More importantly Spirited
Away is one of best animated features ever made.
Like Dorothy in The
Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Chihiro (voice by Daveigh
Chase–Lilo in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch)
is unexpectedly plunged into an alternate reality. On the way to their new
home, Chihiro, a petulant adolescent, and her parents stumble onto what they
think is a ruined amusement park. Her parents stuff themselves on the amazing
food on display until they turn into pigs. Chihiro is horrified to discover
they’re trapped in a hidden resort for kami
(a Japanese term that’s often translated as “gods” but is closer to “nature
As she works in the spa run by the witch Yubaba (Suzanne
Pleshette) Chihiro manifests strengths her idle, spoiled existence has left untapped.
Her determination to rescue her parents and her affection for the mysterious
Haku (Jason Marsden) keep her from being
corrupted by the rampant greed that infests Yubaba’s realm. She cleanses a powerful
river god suffering from the effects of pollution,
resists the temptations of gold, rescues the mysterious No-Face from its lust
to consume, and befriends Yubaba’s kindly twin, Zeniba (Pleshette again). The resolve,
courage and love Chihiro discovers within herself enable her to aid Haku and free her parents.
Fourteen years after its initial release, Spirited Away remains an extraordinary
film that reasserts the power of drawn animation to present fantasy. Chihiro’s
enchanted voyage also re-affirms a belief Miyazaki expresses in many of his
films: Magic can–and does–exist everywhere.
As a director, Miyazaki always
respects his audience; he doesn’t spoon feed them. How many times in recent
American features–animated and live action—have audience members had to fight
the urge holler at the screen, “I got it!” Miyazaki introduces his story and
allows the audience to be swept up in it. The quiet moments feel truly magical,
especially the train ride to Zeniba’s cottage: Chihiro and No Face silently
watch the movements of the misty passengers while the mouse and fly excitedly stare
as the scenery goes by.
Spirited Away is more fully and subtly animated than most Japanese films.
When a terrified Chihiro runs past the restaurants surrounding the bath house,
she awkwardly holds her fists at her shoulders, as a frightened child does. As
she grows more confident, she runs with her arms pumping at her sides. When she
faces Yubaba for her final test, she steels her spine and stares her foe in the
eye with new-found courage and confidence. Her body language illustrates the
Chihiro is a more interesting and complex
character than the seemingly endless string of determinedly spunky American
heroines. When she slips and bangs her head, it hurts; it’s not an “adorable”
oopsy moment. At the end of the film Chihiro has grown and realized her
potential in ways few American characters can match.
The film is now available on blu-ray. The most interesting extra on the set is the Nippon Television Special about the making of Spirited Away. It’s not appreciably different
from many American making-of programs, but it allows the audience to watch Miyazaki
explain how individual movements should be animated, from the dance the frog-greeter
does in Yubaba’s bath house to how the lips of the dragon-Haku should resist Chihiro’s
attempt to give him medicine. Animation fans have heard the old artists talk
about Walt Disney giving comparable performances, but no footage of him exists.
It’s a rare, intimate moment with the greatest director working in animation