Movies: Spirited Away

Standing in line to see Spirited Away at the dollar theater last night, I skimmed a Seattle P-I review posted in the box office window. “Japan’s ‘Spirited Away’ has the makings of a breakthrough” read the headline, with the critic later wondering “Will [this] be the spearhead of the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America?”

Apparently not. If you look at international 2002 box office grosses, Spirited Away comes in fourth, due, no doubt, to the fact that it’s the biggest hit of all-time in Japan. But I can’t even find it on the domestic lists — not even this one which bottoms-out at #150 (but not before listing Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Juwanna Mann, Jason X, and Sorority Boys).

Which is too bad, because, if ever a film was going to bring about “the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America,” this would have been it. Spirited Away has an engaging storyline, a seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, excellent voice work, and not a single goddamned pony or jet-powered skateboard in sight.

Furthermore, the film opens with what could be easily mistaken for a typical American family: they are recklessly cruising along in their SUV, the father boasts about his “cash and credit cards,” and the daughter comes across as sullen and whiny. They are en route to a new home, but take a wrong turn along the way and quickly [fall down the rabbit hole / travel through the wardrobe / get carried off by a Kansasian twister] and find themselves in [Wonderland / Narnia / Oz].

So, yeah, the premise isn’t the most original we’ve seen. But once the protagonists wind up in the Otherworld, the similarities to traditional Western “through the looking glass” tales evaporate. The parents are soon transformed into hogs. The young girl, Chihiro, is besieged by specters and seeks sanctuary in a bath-house. It soon becomes clear that we have passed into a land populated almost exclusively by spirits, and where humans are as rare as they are disliked. And then the real weirdness begins.

It’s important to realize that, despite the sometimes cartoony nature of the animation and the presence of a 10-year old girl in the lead role, Spirited is decidedly not a children’s movie. For starters, it’s long: two hours of story, with no songs or dance numbers to pass the time. It’s also, at times, frightening, disgusting, and bizarre enough to ensure that your kid has months of nightmares featuring giant, walking, obese turnips. That’s bad news for the many Americans who automatically equate animated films with “kid’s stuff” (pity the poor chump who brought his daughter to this expecting a sequel to Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron), but a godsend to those of us who don’t immediately dismiss the concept of “mature fantasy” as oxymoronic.

Daveigh Chase, the young woman who provides the English voice for Chihiro, is fabulous; this is the first time I’ve ever watched an animated movie and thought to myself “Wow, the person doing the voice work for this character is a damned fine actor.” The music is also superb. And while the foreground animation is of the traditional “big eyes, small mouth” anime style, the backgrounds (landscapes and parallax shifts) are breathtaking. All this makes for a movie that should be seen by anyone who enjoys a good story well told. If I had caught this a month ago, it would have easily made it into my “Top Five For 2002″. As it stands, 2003 will have to be a helluva cinematic year to keep Spirited Away off the top of this year’s list.

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17 comments.

  1. I think there’s more of a preference for anime in Seattle than in other cities. More of a geek factor? I didn’t care for Akira, but I’ve liked lots of other anime.

  2. Glad you liked it–an excellent film. I’m glad that it surpassed ‘Titanic’ as the #1 all-time Japanese gross. I prefer the pre-Titanic champion, however–‘Princess Mononoke.’ It’s also done by Miyazaki and is deeper, grander, and more epic. The English version has a lot of big-name voiceovers (Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson…) If you haven’t seen it you should rent it ASAP!!

  3. I liked it better than ‘Princess Mononoke,’ myself. Now there’s a movie that the kids should have stayed away from! I actually think ‘Spirited Away’ is great for older kids–like, say, 10-year-olds.

    Entirely by accident I saw the subtitled version, and I think I’m glad of that. But from all I hear the dubbed voices were pretty good; I’ll have to watch it again to compare the two. And cause it’s the type of movie I want to watch a bunch of times anyways!

  4. Thanks for touching on an issue near and dear to my heart. What a phenomenal film. I was lucky enough to get in to the US premiere back in April at the Castro Theatre here in SF. It was so exciting to hear John Lasseter (who was finishing his duties supervising the English dub) praise Disney for what a great job they were doing and how they were going to put a great marketing campaign behind it and make it a great success.

    Fast forward to today and yeah, things didn’t exactly go as promised. No ad campaign, and they only rolled it out to 150 screens nationwide. By comparison, “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” was simultaneously opened on 2,320 screens. It made about the same amount of money (on name recognition alone, no doubt).

    The only thing that gives me a shred of hope is that the movie looks like a shoo-in for the animated Oscar and Disney will have some pressure to rerelease. Read this. However, the DVD is already set for a 4/15 release, so it’s looking like it will go down in history as a box office “failure”…

    And if you want to see which festivals and critics have shared your opinion.

    Now run out and rent My Neighbor Totoro! And Castle of Cagliostro! And Nausicaa! This guy is pure genius.

  5. The Japanese version is really good, too.
    It was written for young girls, but, you know, not dopey ones. Miyazaki gave a great lecture on how much it sucks that respecting young girls is considered revolutionary, but he’s fightin’ the power yo. And I tell you, cat buses (Miyazaki put together a t.v. series featuring buses that are cats. short feature coming soon. hooboy.) have it all over talking flippin’ kangaroos.

    The American one was exec produced by John Lasseter, and there’s a lot of Pixar in it. Hence the non-suckage of the ADR (“automated dialogue replacement.” recording of actors is typically done before animation; both the voices and the pictures are acting feats. Ideally.). (here’s where I tell you that my last major gig was as script supervisor and production coordinator there, and how much you’re so gonna dig the things I can’t tell you about)

  6. Also watch Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Laputa. Miyazaki is da man. Humanistic, naturalistic, affectionate, painterly.

  7. The theory is that Disney bought the rights to distribute Miyazaki’s work in the US and then promptly did their best to bury it is deep as possible to prevent competition.

  8. This may be my favorite movie of all time. There was a film festival near my town and this was the most convenient time to see a movie, so I walked in knowing nothing about it, which is my favorite way to see a movie, but rare because it’s risky most of the time. It’s just breathtaking. I thought Princess Mononoke was great, but something about it just didn’t seem perfect to my sensibilities. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what yet.

  9. Agreed, it was a pretty wild flick. Much preferred it to Princess Monoke, which while the latter may have had a more serious theme, went waaaaay to long for me, with not enough action to keep me awake. And my kids, (9 and 5), went to see Spirited Away without nightmares…

  10. Added trivia: Daveigh Chase played the little sister (ie “Sparkle Motion” dancer) in Donnie Darko, as well as the scary girl in “The Ring.” Go Daveigh!

  11. Gotta repeat the suggestion from Anser and K about Porco Rosso, Nausicaa and the others. Non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli films are worth checking out as well, notably Omohide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday) and Grave of the Fireflies. Scarecrow should have ‘em. But you knew that.

  12. Guess we are all preaching to the converted here. Just add my story that I live in Tokyo and saw the movie over a year ago when it opened in Japan. The fun part was that they had a showing at 7:30 in the morning which I saw with a friend visiting from the US. They were selling beer in the theatre which made us laugh though we didn’t buy any. It was interesting to see the movie in Japanese with no subtitles with my limited knowledge of Japanese. My friend knew no Japanese. Talk about a dream like experience. I will add that all the Studio Ghibli DVD releases are great and differ from the US counterparts in terms of the extas they include. Also the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is great since you can see many of the origional drawings of the movies. They have two rooms devoted to Spirited Away. And for the curious the Japanese title “Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakuchi” means in effect “Chihiro was kidnapped by the gods”, a saying they used in the olden days here when a kid disappered in a rice field or wherever in the countryside and could not be found. Kidnapped by the gods.

  13. Daveigh Chase is a remarkable little actress. It’s telling that she’s the main voice in the two best animated films to be seen in this country, perhaps ever. (This, as well as Lilo & Stitch).

    And Castle in the Sky is due on DVD soon. Pick it up.

  14. lmao, from what I’ve read, ‘Castle in the Sky’ has been due for a DVD release for ages. x_x

    I think that Disney should have given the movie the advertising it deserved. I wouldn’t have known the movie even existed had I not heard great things about it from my online friends. Personally, I think it’s better than anything that Disney could ever churn out, and it had BETTER win an oscar, or I will not be happy. ^_^

    Does anyone know when the Australian DVD release is? If so, please email me at suteki@phoenix-song.com ^_^ Thanks.

  15. The movie was fabulous. It was very sentimental and touching. although the concept and plot are hard to understand until the near middle of the movie, they both develop well. The dubbing is excellent, it looks like it could have been done in English. I recommend this movie, especially for those who are into sentimental magic and related topics. I also recommend Princess Mononoke. it was a revolution to me. I never really watched anime, until a friend promised me I would like it. Now, i am hooked. Believe me, this man can only create a masterpiece.

  16. After the hype of Princess Mononoke I decided to check that one out and hated it on almost every level. Bur loving animation all my life I gave Spirited Away a chance because I thought that 4 years would have been enough time for Miyazaki to improve himself but the story structures are almost identical to Mononoke minus the combat. The movie is long and boring and not much happens in terms of story or character development, unless you think characters with heads 5 times too big is unique. This is just a anime showcase, nice colors and such but nothing beyond that. A huge disappointment. Even the ending was just a blah and uninspired.

  17. Actually, he’s a radish, not a turnip.