Spirited Away Anime Review
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi
The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro
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Chihiro is a young Japanese girl who is upset about her family's move to a different part of Japan. But when her father tries to take a shortcut through the woods to get to their new house, they stumble across a mysterious tunnel. Despite Chihiro's misgivings they explore the other side and find what the father believes to be an abandoned amusement park, left over from the recession. While Chihiro's parents chow down at an empty restaurant mysteriously well supplied with delicious food, Chihiro sulkily wanders off and finds an enormous bathhouse. Accosted by a strangely dressed boy who urges her to escape before sundown, Chihiro returns to her parents only to find that they've been transformed into pigs. As she tries to flee, she discovers that she and her parents have wandered into another realm, and the bathhouse is where many gods and spirits come to relax and unwind. For a chance to save her parents and escape, Chihiro must make a deal with the witch Yubaba, ruler of the bathhouse, to work for her. But how can she succeed when Yubaba steals her name? Will 'Sen' be a slave in the bathhouse forever? Or does a worse fate await her?
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In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki has let his astonishing imagination simply run riot. In Yubaba's giant bathhouse, Miyazaki has created what will almost certainly be his most memorable achievement of all. Visited by a bewildering array of gods, staffed by a range of inhuman characters, with it's own lore and ruled by the nasty Yubaba (a character as fascinating as the bathhouse itself), the bathhouse is a magical microcosm the likes of which I've seen in no other film. It is also a technical triumph--the computer-aided animation flows smoothly and blends perfectly with the hand-drawn art, and both the colour and sense of motion are dazzling. The plot is the film's only weakness--it's a fantastic and wonderful story, it's just that the flow of the narrative lets it down a bit at places.
Spirited Away is a film for everyone who will ever retain at least a tiny fragment of their youth in their hearts, even when they've grown old. It is an utterly immersive and compellingly beautiful fantasy and an absolute must-see film.
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When Hayao Miyazaki announced that Princess Mononoke would be his last film, many people were quite... saddened by the thought that the master director would not be producing any more of his wonders. But in mid-1999, it was revealed that he was working on a other project, a story about a girl whose parents were turned into pigs. This work eventually became Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, more commonly referred to as Spirited Away. Is it good? Well, let's put it this way: Princess Mononoke, when it was released in Japan, was the highest grossing film ever, until Titanic was released. Spirited Away, released several years later, is now the highest grossing film ever released in Japan. Not highest grossing anime, not even highest grossing domestic film--highest grossing film of any designation. It won both Best Film and Best Song at the 2001 Japan Academy Awards, Best Film: Golden Bear 2002 at the Berlin Film Festival and Best Film: Audience Award 2002 at the San Francisco Film Festival. Critics have raved about it and it's got more 5-star comments on its posters than any other film I've ever seen. That's some recommendation.
In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki has let his astonishing imagination simply run riot. As fantastic as his previous films were, for all the creativity and originality that went into them, none of them compare to Spirited Away for the purity of its fantasy. I have always been in awe of Miyazaki for the settings and characters he has created, such as the freaky toxic forests of Nausicaa, the young witch in training Kiki, the friendly, furry Totoros, the flying castle of Laputa, or the deep woods of the animal gods in ancient Japan. But in Yubaba's giant bathhouse, Miyazaki has created what will almost certainly be his most memorable achievement of all. Visited by a bewildering array of gods, staffed by a range of inhuman characters, with it's own lore and ruled by the nasty Yubaba (a character as fascinating as the bathhouse itself), the bathhouse is a magical microcosm the likes of which I've seen in no other film.
Not all of the characters in the film are as fascinating as Yubaba, but the majority of them are all well designed and interesting. Best of all is Chihiro/Sen. At the beginning of the film she is pretty much just as Yubaba describes her--a spoiled, crybaby. Her initial reaction to the reality of her situation is near hysterical horror but, with a little help from Haku, she manages to get a grip on her situation. As she works in the bathhouse, becoming accustomed to her new role as Sen, she matures at a rapid, but not ridiculous rate as the challenge laid out for her by Yubaba and the other human-hating employees of the place causes her to grow up and take control of both herself and her situation. The best example of this is when you compare two scenes--an early scene, where she is literally edging down a large flight of stairs at a pace that would make snails embarrassed, and a scene later in the movie where she makes a near-suicidal run across a collapsing pipe. Chihiro doesn't necessarily turn into a hero, she merely realizes she has to face the challenges before, no matter how daunting they may seem, and finds the courage to do so. This development of her character is wonderful to watch and makes her easy to empathize and identify with--more like the little witch Kiki than warrior princess San.
The support characters were also entertaining and interesting. Haku is a cool apprentice sorcerer with more than a few mysteries about him. Unfortunately, his character isn't very well developed considering his role as main male lead, since he doesn't appear in enough scenes (in a major speaking role at least, especially in the second half of the movie) to get a really solid grasp on the intricacies his character. But he's definitely an appealing character. Kamaji, the spider-like boilerman is another one of Miyazaki's really memorable creations in this film--as well as having a fascinating and impressive character design, he also has more than rudimentary knowledge of both magic and the bathhouse, and a heart of gold within his gruff exterior, making him one of Chihiro's strongest allies within the bathhouse. Her other important friend is Lin, the girl who helps her get to Yubaba and then is assigned as her mentor and coworker in the bathhouse. Lin is a very good "big sister" character, crabbily likable rather than soft and gooey; in fact, she's one of my favourite characters in the movie.
The overall plot of Spirited Away is excellent, but is unfortunately in my opinion the film's only really flawed point. Don't get me wrong--it's a fantastic and wonderful story, it's just that the flow of the narrative lets it down a bit at places. The problems are mainly in the second half, where a series of different plot events just begin coming one after another and the segues aren't all that great. Chihiro's first big job especially seemed to me to just stick out from the rest of the movie's plot, and even though it was ultimately important, it was only in a rather detached manner. Additionally, plot relating to Haku was somewhat confused and when it developed it was a little rushed. Also, the love theme was played a little bit silly, with some cliche stuff about "the power of love" which seemed more like something from a genuine Disney film (no, it wasn't added for the dub). Some more detailed exposition on these problems is available in the spoiler section. But apart from these complaints, which really aren't enough to inhibit enjoyment of the movie, the plot was another masterpiece. Everything that happened was either intensely dramatic, highly emotional, or extremely fun to watch, making the movie as enjoyable as it was engrossing.
Technically, Spirited Away is another triumph. The character designs of the human characters is nothing remarkable, although Haku is certainly striking, especially his eyes. Most interesting is the fact that Chihiro does not conform to the classical "Miyazaki heroine" character design that he has used in almost every film since Castle of Cagliostro. But of course, the majority of the characters in the movie are nonhuman, and these are brilliant, from the bewildering array of gods and spirits to Kamaji the spider-man. But again, Yubaba takes the prize. Her character is frightening without being horrifying, bizarre without being silly and it suits her personality perfectly. The animation of the scenery is also excellent, especially the huge, multi-story rooms of the bathhouse. But the most impressive examples of animation in this movie are during scenes of movement--Chihiro's family driving through the forest, Chihiro and Haku's high-speed run through the night city, the two of them pushing their way through the flowers, the train journey across the otherworld countryside and other such scenes. The computer-aided animation flows smoothly and both the colour and sense of motion are dazzling.
Audio is just as good. The soundtrack is not as notable as in Mononoke, but still does an excellent job at backing the action and illuminating each scene, and the ending theme is a pretty little song which brings the film to a nice gentle close. The voice acting is decent in English. Sen and Haku are both technically voiced well, but there's too much discrepancy in the pitch of their voices when you compare them to each other--Chihiro is too high and Haku is too deep. But they aren't bad voices--even if Chihiro does sound whiney at first, that's because she's meant to. The other voices are good as well--Lin, Kamaji and Yubaba are all played very well and sound very much like their Japanese originals, although they weren't terribly hard roles to cast. Minor characters such as Chihiro's parents and various bath employees were surprisingly good. If you ask me, the Japanese language version is still better. Chihiro's and Haku's Japanese seiyuu had their roles down 100% and minor characters were even better. But more importantly, there were a few changes to dialogue and plot in between the Japanese and the English which I didn't approve of--for people who've already seen the film, my thoughts on this are in the spoiler section.
In all, Spirited Away proves once and for all that Hayao Miyazaki's genius is limitless. I would go so far as to say that it's the best animated movie to be released since Mononoke came out in '96, but aimed at a somewhat different audience--everyone who will ever retain at least a tiny fragment of their youth in their hearts, even when they've grown old. An utterly immersive and compellingly beautiful fantasy and an absolute must-see film.
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All of Miyazaki's movies share a certain magic, but Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Tororo have the most in common with Spirited Away. Totoro has more in common thematically, but both are somewhat more down to earth and milder in their themes. As for movies by other directors, Night on the Galactic Railroad tells a story with some similarities, but with a very different tone and message, and the Labyrinth segment of Neo Tokyo is much more abstract, but shares some thematic imagery.
Notes and Trivia
The two seemingly different names--Sen (千) and Chihiro (千尋) of the main character come from the fact that "Chihiro" is written with the characters for "thousand" and "fathom"; when you take away the second character, you're left with only "thousand", which is pronounced differently on its own.
The name of the bathhouse is also something of a pun; Japanese public baths frequently have the character "yu" (ゆ) on them, short for "oyu," meaning bath or hot water. The bathhouse in the film also has a character that can be read "yu," but it is the character for oil (油). This is presumably an indication of the opposite-ness of the spirit world.
The film is a product of Miyazaki's direction and Studio Ghibli, his production company. Unlike many Miyazaki-directed films, which are based on existing stories, the plot is original, apparently inspired by a friend of Miyazaki's sullen 10-year-old daughter.
Although Princess Mononoke (through Disney's Miramax) had seen a limited theatrical release and Fox had previously released My Neighbor Totoro (as well as the infamous "Warriors of the Wind" dub of Nausicaa long ago), this film marked the beginning of Disney's "big scale" Ghibli releases. It saw a relatively wide theatrical run in the US through late 2002, and was given a full treatment on DVD. It won an Oscar in 2003 for Best Animated Feature (the first anime to do so), as well as a host of other awards around the world.
Likely based at least partly on the claim that this would be Miyazaki's final film (as it ended up, it wasn't), Spirited Away was inordinately popular in its initial 2001 domestic release in Japan. It out-grossed even Titanic (the former record-holder) in that country, and was the first film to take in over $200 million (equivalent) before opening in the US, almost all of that in Japan. As of 2006 it remains the highest-grossing non-Hollywood film in the world, again almost entirely based on its income from Japanese theaters.
US DVD Review
Disney's impressive DVD has only one big flaw: When you start the film, it opens with the introduction by John Lasseter (as, in fact, do all the Disney Ghibli releases of the era). After about the second time you see this, it starts to get very annoying, even if it is easy to skip. The video is gorgeous anamorphic widescreen and the two soundtracks rich Dolby 5.1. Extras include a "making of" special, art, a feature where you can compare the original storyboards to the scenes they eventually produced, interviews with some of the dub cast, and the original Japanese trailers.
Rated PG, on account of some mildly violent content and disturbing imagery that younger children will probably find scary.
Violence: 1 - Nothing harmful, but there is some blood splashed.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing at all.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - A very clean, low-key romance.
Language: 0 - Not a word.