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Hayao Miyazagi’s ‘Spirited Away’: A Review (1 Viewer)

Edwin Pereyra

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Hayao Miyazagi’s ‘Spirited Away’: A Review
INTRODUCTION
The Castro Theater, named recently as one of the best movie palaces in the U.S. by VIA magazine, which is also now a landmark in its own city, and the 45th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival is the sight of the North American premiere of Hayao Miyazaki’s Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi, otherwise known in the English speaking world as Spirited Away.
The film has made over $230M in Japan and is now that country’s highest grossing film ever. After over 37 weeks in wide release in Japan, the film is still doing good business and in early April, was still in the Top 10.
At the sold-out screening I attended where people were in line more than two hours just to get a good seat, the film’s producer, Toshio Suzuki, and director John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2) were on hand to introduce and talk about the film. It is important to note Disney’s participation at this special screening as they just picked up the U.S. distribution rights for this film.
THE FILM
Spirited Away is a coming of age fantasy film about a little girl that takes her into a world of spirits, gods and witches. Miyazaki uses both traditional animation and computer graphic imagery to tell the story he also wrote. The results are simply amazing.
The film has very intricate plotting and storylines. I actually found the film to be challenging only because it deals with certain themes that I am not familiar with namely, Japanese traditions, mythology, history, folklore, culture and its current society.
I suspect that the film’s success outside of its home country will depend on one’s knowledge in these certain areas. However, the film provides enough narrative so as not to leave an outsider totally in the dark. In addition, after discussing the film with other festival attendees, my appreciation for the film is that much more enhanced.
Spirited Away is full of allegories and metaphors. It is all the more special because Miyazaki tells us the old Japan and its heritage and what it has now become through the use of special and interesting characters. Metropolis may have gotten the visuals right. But what that film lacked in storyline, Spirited Away certainly makes up for it with its rich storylines and depth.
It is also interesting to note the humor that was used in this film. They were spread out throughout the entire film and placed at just the right moments.
Disney is currently working on an English language version of Spirited Away. It was noted at the festival that both the Japanese and English dub versions will be in wide release in North America this Fall. I’m not exactly sure how that is going to work and which markets are going to get what version. Of course, most of us will prefer the original version of the film even though at the festival, John Lasseter assured the audience that Disney is making sure that nothing gets lost in the translation. The film’s wide release in North America is tentatively scheduled for September 20th.
Spirited Away will delight those that follow Japanese animation, especially long time fans and those that admire Hayao Miyazaki’s long legacy of beautiful, rich and thought provoking animated films.
~Edwin
 

Kirk Tsai

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I certainly hope the dub or subtitles will represent the original faithfully, but somehow I doubt it. It just seems hard to even translate the characters' names when they are so direct and meaningful.
 

Steve Y

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Hi Edwin! I was there too so I'll add my stock review to this thread.
As Edwin mentioned, both shows at the Castro theater in San Francisco this weekend (the North American premiere as part of the SFFS International Film Festival) were sold out in advance. This review is from the second screening on Sunday morning.
The show was introduced by Mr. Pixar himself, John Lasseter, who is a close friend of Miyazaki. He provided some nice anecdotes about his first visit to Japan and Ghibli Studios. Toshio Suziki (Miyazaki's producer) and Ghibli Studios' American marketing director were also in attendence (Suziki-san spoke through an interpreter).
Quite a few criticisms (mostly in the U.S.) have been leveled at Miyazaki's last feature (Mononoke Hime / Princess Mononoke) for the "heavy-handedness" of its environmental themes. Some believed that such themes were unsuitable entertainment for children and quite possibly hurt the box office in the states. I don't doubt the latter (though more due to cultural differences than any broadness of theme) but the former is complete hogwash. If more children saw it, more would enjoy it. Anyhow I suspect this film will do better business than Mononoke -- it is a more humorous, fanciful tale and audiences will connect very strongly with the film's heroine, a clumsy but well-intentioned ten-year-old girl named Chihiro (Ogino).
Which is not to say "Spirited Away" is pandering or childish. Quite the opposite. It is a haunting, humorous, magical story which far exceeded my expectations. One phrase that best describes it is "hugely imaginative". This is the sort of film that might provoke the infernal (and I suppose rather stupid) question, "where do you get your ideas?"
The story begins as the Ogino family is driving into their new town. Chihiro is not happy about the move and laments her new situation from the back of the family automobile. How will she fit into her new school? Will she make any friends? I had the preconception that this would be a suburban tale, set in modern-day Japan and filled with creaky, frightening but ultimately harmless ghosts. Maybe she helps them find peace! I should have known better, of course, than to ever expect something so pedestrian from Miyazaki.
Very suddenly the family is sidetracked as they search for their new house, and end up in a deserted 'ghost town' of sorts (think of the old "Rashomon" gate) where Chihiro is separated from her parents, and then meets a mysterious boy named Haku who immediately becomes her protector. I won't go into details about the separation, except to say that at this point the film became bolder and scarier than I expected, like an original grimm fairy tale. How frightening for Chihiro to get lost in this strange world, with no way back to the "real" world of telephone poles and automobiles and new homes... can she ever get back?
With Haku's help, Chihiro sneaks into the bathhouse at the end of the street, which is sort of a 'resort spa for gods' run by the sorceress Yubaba, who is villanous but not entirely a villain (nothing is black and white in this world)... when the little girl and the old crone meet, something disturbing happens which really changes the way the girl sees herself. It's a simple change, but frightening. You sense that there's no turning back for her, that she must fulfill her character arc and be truly transformed by the experience, or else lose herself completely.
I recommend you go into this movie without reading too much in advance (this review included I suppose
). The plot just keeps winding around, introducing new themes and characters until everything makes sense. Believe me, you *want* to be delighted by all of the small imaginative touches Miyazaki has given to this ghost world and its inhabitants. The animation is beautiful, and as Edwin mentioned there is a bit of nice CG but nothing overdone. There are big puffy marshmallow creatures with tiny tentacles, big puffed up peep-like animals, a spidery man who pulls levers and leads an army of animated soot to pump coal into the boiler -- even the humanoid ghost-servants are elongated and round, as if they were made of microwaved marshmallow. There are also disgusting slimy gods, and mysterious faceless gods who are either adorable or creepy, depending on how many people they eat.
The show was almost stolen by two transformed animals, a tiny hovering bird and a fat little mouse - this comes later in the film but the audience was really rolling when they were on screen (they definitely provoked the biggest laughs). I believe the small moments featuring these characters will go over really big with American audiences. They're better and funnier than any of the "wisecracking talking animals" in much feature animation today, as their comedy is entirely dependent on Miyazaki's amazing visual pantomimes rather than the typical stand-up routines.
One point about the end of the film --
I have no doubt some will complain that the movie ends too abruptly. I disagree -- it ends on a mysterious note, a plot point that is slightly trippy. You're left to just ponder its significance as the credits roll. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

I agree with John Lasseter who says he thinks this is Miyazaki's best effort so far (yes, including Cagliostro and Totoro and Laputa and Kiki)... look for the release sometime this fall, perhaps as early as September. They were pumping up the English Dub during the Q&A session afterwards. (Edwin, was that you with the DVD question?) While I have no doubt it will be a good dub, it is just that -- a dub. Try to see it in Japanese if you can -- it WAS mentioned that a few of the shows this fall would be in the original language. I also hope Disney has learned from Mononoke (which was done right) and knows to again include the OST on the disc when it is released (my guess - early 2003).
~Steve
 

Kirk Tsai

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Steve, if those are the character names in the dub, then indeed some has been lost already. The names are very striking, and they all come together. For example, (major spoiler),

the boy who helps out our main character's name is literally "white dragon" in its original language. If my memory is correct, our heroine is "thousand search."
 

Edwin Pereyra

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(Edwin, was that you with the DVD question?)
No, that wasn't me.
While Spirited Away may have been aimed at kids 10 years and older in Japan, I’m still not quite sure if it will have the same effect on American kids. In my judgement, Spirited Away is a specialty film with deeper meaning – an attribute most American 10-year olds don’t have the patience to sit through. The film has built-in American audience, mostly those that follow Japanese anime, which tend to be older, as evidenced by 99% of the festival attendees at my screening.
A kid sitting behind me begged his parents to leave halfway through the film and continued to do so for the rest of the film. Of course, a lot of this kid’s frustration probably has to do with the subtitles.
There is also a chance that I could be wrong about all of this and Spirited Away could be the first crossover Japanese animation hit among 10-year old American kids.
I’m just afraid that if Disney aims for the kids market, something might get lost in the English translation. Having seen the original version, I wait for the English dub version with great interest.
~Edwin
 

Jason Seaver

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There is also a chance that I could be wrong about all of this and Spirited Away could be the first crossover Japanese animation hit among 10-year old American kids.
Bigger than the Pokemon or Transformers movies?

You also said "Spirited Away will delight those that follow Japanese animation", but I've got to think it should do more than that - after all, almost every movie has some sort of built-in audience. Appealing to them isn't really that much of an accomplishment. Is it good enough to be called a flat-out good/great/fantastic movie (or even, for the really snooty, a great film), or are we talking "pretty good for a cartoon" here?
 

Edwin Pereyra

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or are we talking "pretty good for a cartoon" here?
Like John Lasseter said, Miyazaki just don't make animated movies for the sake of making them. He always makes sure that there is a good story behind each one of them. Spirited Away certainly is more than just a pretty good cartoon.

At the Saturday night screening of this film, it was mentioned that the audience have Disney to thank for by screening the film to the festival. Needless to say, that brought some heckling and boos from the crowd.

~Edwin
 

Edwin Pereyra

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You also said "Spirited Away will delight those that follow Japanese animation", but I've got to think it should do more than that - after all, almost every movie has some sort of built-in audience. Appealing to them isn't really that much of an accomplishment.
You have to keep in mind that Miyazaki's last film, Princess Mononoke only made $2.3M in the U.S. Everyone is banking that Spirited Away will be the one to finally make that crossover appeal.
~Edwin
 

TheLongshot

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You have to keep in mind that Miyazaki's last film, Princess Mononoke only made $2.3M in the U.S.
You also have to keep in mind that Miramax didn't know how to market it and it was a very limited release. You would have been lucky to find it in one theater in an area. I think 2.3M is pretty good under the circumstances.

Jason
 

Steve Y

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People might be "afraid" of Spirited simply because it is not Disney (or lately, Dreamworks) animation. Not because the kids won't love it if they are allowed to see it. All the American pop-culture referencing / tongue-in-cheek animated movies are setting up an certain expectation which may leave families somewhat puzzled by anything else... "if it doesn't do dance numbers and wink at the camera, it's not speaking to me."
Disney films have great marketing and release strength outside of the U.S., and are VERY popular there, even if some references go over the heads of the audiences.
I think the cultural references in Spirited, a film which works on many levels, also make far less a difference than one might suppose. Even if you know nothing about Japanese culture (I certainly know far less than many) it entertains mightily and connects universally. You just have to be open to it. Whether or not American families are open to this sort of animation -- & whether or not Disney wants to take a large financial risk on this supposition -- has yet to be seen.
Studio Ghibli has yet to escape cult status here in the states, even if the cult is large. Many families seem to have My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service on VHS (released by Guess Who?).
Steve
 

Jeff Kleist

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Disney bought the Ghibli library for the huge Asian market profits and to bury them in the US. It's just that simple

Unfortunately, to keep Dreamworks (who was standing there with a check when Disney refused the film) from getting the film, Disney bought it. FORTUNATELY it seems Tokuma has used this opportunity to make Disney live by the SPIRIT of their contract (not waiting the MAXIMUM amount of time between releases, not burying the films like they did with Laputa, which has had its dub finished for over 18 months.) Hopefully Spirited Away will be marketed properly, and not just to the state of Minnesota.
 

Edwin-S

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. Many families seem to have My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service on VHS (released by Guess Who?).
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My Neighbor Totoro was a Fox release, IIRC, not Disney. Disney seems to be absolutely refusing to release Miyazaki's movies on Home video. If Spirited Away bombs at the B.O., as I think it will, it is going to be even more unlikely that Disney will release his earlier films.
 

Matthew_Millheiser

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1000 pardons if this has been asked before, but is it true that Spirited Away is coming out on DVD in Japan before its dubbed, American release? If so, when? I worship the R2 Kiki and Totoro releases, and want to get my grubby little mitts on Spritied Away ASAFP.
And what exactly is Stinkfinger, anyhow?!!
 

Dome Vongvises

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Boy them Asians sure love their cartoons don't they.
:p)
Seriously, I would love to check out this one. I saw Princess Monoke on a tip from a friend and loved it. Then when I found out that there's this whol studio that does them, I was willing to check out more, although I'm hesitant to watch Kiki's Delivery Service.
 

Edwin-S

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I'm hesitant to watch Kiki's Delivery Service.
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I was too but after watching some of his other films I decided to take a look at this one. I was able to get a fan subbed version of the film and it is the only version I would bother watching. The Japanese version of this movie has a certain atmosphere to it that is lost with Disney's dubbed version. The ad-libbing that took place in the Disney version along with the expanded soundtrack really took a lot away from this movie. Miyazaki's films are fantasies but they have grounding in real world sensibilties. In Kiki's Delivery Service it is the everyday situations of being on your own, determining what you are going to do to make do, etc. that come through. The movie is a gentle look at life away from home since it was intended for a younger audience but there is a feel of "reality" to it. It is a good movie, well worth watching.
I would like to have a copy on DVD but it would have to be the original Japanese version, not the duded up Disney version which dissipates any of the poetic feel. Sometimes silence says volumes more than a continuous surf of background noise could ever say. I am not insulting the original composer of KDS's music, since he also composed the extended soundtrack for the Disney version. I just happen to think that in this case more was less. His original composition fit this movie very well and should have been left as it was originally composed. The ad-libbed lines for Gigi were even worse. The character was destroyed by all that extraneous noise.
 

Steve Y

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Hi Edwin-S,
I suppose I really meant Disney 'prepared' the earlier Ghibli films for U.S. audiences -- now as to the distributor that's neither here nor there. Continuing to your next points about the dubs' failure to capture mood, story, and characterization, I couldn't agree more. I seem to recall Phil Hartman (r.i.p.) with some really distracting improvisations. (or maybe I'm thinking of someone else??)
You also predict doom for Spirited in another thread... are you pessimistic because of Mononoke's performance? Or because it's a long-shot?
In spite of my own pessimism I think it has tremendous potential to pull a crossover. If Really Bad Movies can pull in $10 million in one weekend due entirely to advertising campaigns and first-weekend theater placement, then anything is possible.
Another point by way of the Q&A I attended this weekend: the marketing director for Ghibli Studios announced his release plan for earlier releases. They have some sort of deal to release about 2 per year. It will happen in Japan first, something about profit separation. Now from what I gathered, this is a done deal; it's happening. I doubt a poor theatrical performance of Spirited Away will "bury" this home video release plan. Disney knows our little niche market; it held back Mononoke a number of months to give us Japanese on the DVD. It was worth it.
Steve
 

Edwin-S

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I seem to recall Phil Hartman (r.i.p.) with some really distracting improvisations. (or maybe I'm thinking of someone else??)

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Yes, it was Phil Hartman. His voice work in "The Simpsons" was topnotch but the ad-libbing he did in "Kiki's Delivery Service" was overdone and unnecessary. The character as it was originally done spoke only when it needed to. Gigi was a pet and familiar not a comic relief sidekick, which is what Disney tried to create with all that extra dialogue. Ugghh.

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You also predict doom for Spirited in another thread... are you pessimistic because of Mononoke's performance?

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Partly but mostly from my experience watching animated shows with more serious themes bomb on this continent again and again. Just to recap a list I had posted once before:

The Black Cauldron - Disney's early attempt at something more mature. BOMB

The Plague Dogs - Easily one of the most mature themed animated films made (not counting x-rated toons). BOMB

Rock and Rule - attempt at a teen orientated animation. BOMB

Titan AE - Regardless of what a person thought of the quality, an attempt at straight SF adventure. BOMB

Atlantis - By Disney standards a BOMB

Final Fantasy - Probably one of the most elaborate CG films ever made. BOMB

Princess Mononoke - Essentially a BOMB, although, MIRAMAX could be blamed for this. The promotion and distribution of this film was absolutely one of the worst. Beat only by "The Plague Dogs" and "Rock and Rule".

The Iron Giant - A decent non-Disney movie. BOMB

Have I left any out? Past experience tells me that "Spirited Away" is going to end with the same fate. People on this continent are so blinkered about animated films they absolutely refuse to watch anything that isn't a comedy or kid friendly.From what I have read of "Spirited Away" it contains unfamiliar cultural themes, somewhat like "Tanuki Pompoko" (spelling?). There are very few people in the mainstream audience that are going to want to try to understand those elements. Not understanding them, they are likely to think the movie is one of two things....boring or dumb.
 

Edwin Pereyra

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From what I have read of "Spirited Away" it contains unfamiliar cultural themes... There are very few people in the mainstream audience that are going to want to try to understand those elements. Not understanding them, they are likely to think the movie is one of two things....boring or dumb.
As I said earlier Spirited Away is a specialty film that will leave many not familiar with Japanese anime, their culture and their heritage scratching their heads as to why it is the #1 film of all time in Japan.
I agree with you that Spirited Away will suffer the same fate as those other films you listed. All I'm hoping for now is that the western audience give this film a chance and by doing so learn more about Japan's traditions and culture.
~Edwin
 

Steve Y

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Edwin those are excellent points.

I sense just as much (if not more) head-scratching among parents when more "serious-minded" animation is released. As in: "isn't this a little too serious for children?" As if children are only suited for comedies.

I wonder how much of that is projected onto children who might otherwise be open to this type of animation? Sure, parents loved "The Iron Giant", but that was set in the most American of environments and still bombed ("huh? this isn't Disney... what is this?").

Above all else I really wish Disney weren't handling this product. It seems to me the sole reason Ghibli Studios has trouble finding an audience in the states - it wouldn't be a large audience, but at least it would exist at all.

Oh well!!

Steve
 

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