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Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

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When was the last time you really cared about a Disney picture? How about when you were older than thirteen? I thought so. That means you have to go see Spirited Away given half a chance – it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Japanese maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s new film has just enraptured me so completely that watching it felt like reliving a dream; the two hours certainly passed as quickly as they would during dream-filled sleep. I’ve always loved Miyazaki’s work in the past, but I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly caught up in this film.

Released in Japan over a year ago, it’s received accolades including the Japanese award for Best Picture. (Does that really mean anything? In this case it does.) The story involves a young girl transplanted to a Japanese version of Wonderland populated by characters who seem loosely based on Japanese mythology. (An early scene involves what I’ve discovered is a God of Daikon Radish.) It’s a coming-of-age tale (as are many of Miyazaki’s films) and as Chihiro goes about returning home, you may be reminded of Amelie as Chihiro’s generous nature speeds her return. As with the rest of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s been acquired by Disney for release in the US and other non-asian markets and has been dubbed by an American cast, as was the case with the 1999 US release of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, handled by Disney-owned Miramax. I didn’t see the dub, instead watching the film via import DVD. I’m very much looking forward to catching this in the theater.

Disney’s distribution of Spirited Away represents a wonderful irony. The film is everything that Disney animation isn’t, and in my opinion has never been. While thousands revere Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Pinocchio as benchmark-setting classics, those films have never held any sway for me. Sure, I didn’t grow up with them, but even when put into context they don’t work for me. Of course, the best Disney films of late have been those produced by Pixar, so it’s fortunate that Pixar’s Executive Creative Vice President, John Lasseter, is overseeing the Mouse’s handling of Miyazaki’s work. But while recent Disney output (since their animation revival at the hands of The Little Mermaid in 1989) has occasionally been entertaining, it’s never even approached sublime.

Miyazaki, on the other hand, seems to approach his work with ‘sublime’ as the default setting.

The range of detail and emotion he presents is incredible, and it’s done with an apparent ease that makes each film a true pleasure to watch; in Spirited Away there’s so much to admire that I don’t know what’s best to single out. Chihiro’s movements are one; in the beginning as she’s walking with her parents, she moves in a jagged rhythm that perfectly captures the way a child walk/runs to keep up with a parent. Miyazaki reveals his mastery in many ways, but his depiction of movement is key among them. See the swarm of paper dolls (in the trailer), the spider-like arms of Kamaji and the sludge-to-life bulk of the Stink God.

Every aspect of our world and it’s dreamlike neighbor is rendered in a manner that is intuitively right. This is animation as I’ve always wanted it to be, a medium that uses freedom from physical and technical confines to scrutinize emotion and behavior. Spirited Away has no songs by Elton John and no dominating comedy relief (aka toy commercial) characters. Closest to Disney’s paradigm of pointless “aw, shucks” characters are the soot/dust bunnies and even they have an important role. Everything in this picture serves the story and the atmosphere, which are so locked together that there’s little point in trying to define one without the other. Color, sound and geometry cooperate to a degree rarely seen in animated film, or in film at all for that matter. And to top it off, it’s the most trim 125-minute film I think I’ve ever seen – compare to the visionary, trend-setting Akira, which at the same length is way too damn long. Spirited Away is simultaneously lean and expansive, with a storyline that bobs and weaves but persistently advances towards a satisfying conclusion.

Disney is releasing Spirited Away on a somewhat limited scope – a few major cities to start, then something they’re calling a ‘wide’ release, but it’s one that has none of the push given to any Disney-originated film. It’s been reported that they didn’t mess it up, with only a few small changes to dialogue, fewer additions, and no visual changes to speak of. I pored over the info at the best Miyazaki site on the net — Nausicaa.net — and found that among the conditions of the contract between Studio Ghibli and Disney was a stipulation that Disney could not alter the films in any way. They can request that Ghibli make changes, but Disney cannot make the cuts themselves. That’s good news for audiences in the US, because it means we get a chance to see Spirited Away in near-unadulterated form. And it should most definitely be seen — it’s the most worthwhile film I’ve come across this year, an essential one.

[I’ve linked to the DVD release of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a film that is of equal quality but far more serious character. While Spirited Away is suitable for audiences of any age, Princess Mononoke is somewhat intense for kids under 12. Import copies of Miyazaki’s films may be obtained through Poker Industries or Cd Japan, but be warned: these discs are region coded for playback in Asia, and will not work on DVD players purchased in the US. If you don’t know that your player can accept discs from other regions, do not buy these discs.]
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