Review: Spirited Away
Spirited Away is a movie by Hayao Miyazaki.
If you’re from Japan or an anime fan, I just told you enough to convince you that it’s a classic movie. Miyazaki always makes classic movies (and comics). They turn into blockbusters (in Japan and Europe, anyway) without input from marketing, because Miyazaki makes movies from his heart. The only question is ‘Where do I buy tickets?’.
If you’re not Japanese or a new anime fan, or you just love movies or have kids, though, all you need to know is this: Spirited Away is a really good movie, with very good voice acting and script even in the American translation. It’s all about a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who finds herself trapped in a vacation spa for Japanese monsters, ghosts and spirits. She has to learn how to work hard, think hard, help others, and be polite if she wants to survive in her strange new (and strangely old-fashioned) world. But if she ever wants to get out again or save her parents, she has to remember who she is. That’s it. The visuals are incredibly breathtaking and endearing, but it’s the story and characters who will spirit you away and never let you go.
After you’ve seen the movie, you might talk to the kids about the parallels to going to a new school, or have them look up Japanese hot spring towns (they usually have an -onsen suffix). You might look up for yourself how the Japanese used to have an entire genre of bathhouse art (faithfully represented in the movie, right down to the fierce-eyed oni on the walls in one pivotal scene), or what Chinese/Japanese dragons are like compared to their Western counterparts. But you don’t need to know. One of the beauties of Miyazaki’s style is that he knows kids look at everything, even if they don’t always understand everything they see. Years later, you might find out why the details of a scene were there. While you’re watching, all you need to know is that this is how it looks, right down to the details of baby outfits from the olden days.
Go see it. Take your kids (as long as they’re five or six, at least). It’s rated PG for a reason, but Miyazaki is incredibly wholesome and life-affirming without being cloying. A couple scares won’t hurt ’em. Then rent all the other Miyazaki flicks you can.
I highly recommend Kiki’s Delivery Service (A little witch all alone in the big city. The Disney dub is…okay, but the Melissa Manchester songs aren’t nearly as good as the original Japanese 50’s pop soundtrack. Also, a lot of Miyazaki’s famous silences are covered up by new dialogue (ugh) or the new recording of the soundtrack Disney insisted on (*roll eyes*). Still, the movie is great enough to survive these contretemps (which are mild, compared to what anime usually suffers).
My Neighbor Totoro, currently on video, is being re-released on DVD by Fox before they lose distribution rights to Disney. Get it. It’s kid-friendly for all but the youngest. The story is about two girls and their father moving to the country. The girls explore their new home and meet new friends in the village, including the soot bunnies they clean out of the house and the magical fuzzball totoro creatures who live in a giant camphor tree nearby. They learn to cope with a new school and their father’s long commute to the city. Gradually we learn that their mother isn’t there because she’s in a TB hospital. (This is probably the most stressful moment for kids, but as seen in the credits she does get well and come home. You can tell them this from me.) One day the youngest girl runs away from home to visit her mother. The whole village pitches in to find her — along with the totoros.
The Fox dub and translation is excellent, right down to the songs at the beginning and end. There is one cut — a scene of the family taking a bath. Well, duh, they’re Japanese and take baths accordingly. The scene was harmless and wholesome, and one can understand Miyazaki’s anger that it was cut after he was assured no cuts would be made. But unfortunately, American ratings systems don’t make allowances for this kind of thing, and the cut allowed the video to be rated G. I’m not kidding about how kid-friendly this is, btw. Every time I’ve loaned it out, the parents have found themselves watching the My Neighbor Totoro channel:
all Totoro, all the time. Fortunately, it’s also on Ebert’s list of the greatest movies of all time, so it actually bears watching that often.
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (Girl heir to throne of kingdom based on gliders and windpower seeks a way to live with the mutant plants and animals that are destroying what’s left of the human race, but has a little trouble as warring nations are about to war in the middle of her kingdom) is currently available in graphic novel format; it’s only available in the US on video in the execrable chop job that is Warriors of the Wind. That’s too bad, as it’s the movie all those wasteland war-torn futures in the seventies and eighties wanted to be — except that it’s actually interesting and includes hope, technology, and strong female characters. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Boy in Edwardian mining town meets girl with magic jewel who falls from the sky. They go in search of Swift’s island of Laputa, but meet up with pirates, robots, and other obstacles on the way) was briefly released in movie theaters here in the eighties but has been held back from video by Disney for four years now. Miyazaki wrote and directed six episodes of Sherlock Hound, as you can see on the Pioneer website.
None of his other works except Princess Mononoke are even vaguely available in the States, unless you order DVDs from Japan or Taiwan, or you have some good anime fan friends who’ll let you borrow a fansub. This is a shame, since there really aren’t enough movies in this world — let alone fun ones — about an Italian WWI fighter pilot who deals with his survivor guilt by turning into a pig and fighting air pirates throughout the twenties and thirties (The Crimson Pig). Nor do most videos for cute pop songs turn into 6 1/2 minute science fiction epics about two guys freeing an injured angel-winged girl and perhaps sacrificing their own lives to do it (“On Your Mark”)
(Don’t let the younger kids watch Princess Mononoke, since it’s Miyazaki’s head-chopping battle action, ecology, mythology, angst-and-loyalty-dilemmas Kurosawa flick. Animation does not equal “children’s movie”. But go get the DVD for yourself.)
I know Fellowship of the Ring and the first Harry Potter were great and good fantasy movies, respectively. But Tolkien and Rowling would both agree: Spirited Away is a better movie. (Well, okay, Tolkien didn’t like animation much, but he’d never seen a Miyazaki movie.) I almost regret seeing Spirited Away before the next installments of the other two, because I suspect they will suffer by the close comparison. Fortunately for Peter Jackson, his trilogy will be completely out by the time Miyazaki’s next movie comes out.
Howl’s Moving Castle will be an adaptation of the book by Diana Wynne-Jones, an underrated but kid-popular English children’s fantasy and science fiction writer. (And a fellow filker!) Jones had never heard of Miyazaki when her agent told her the news (!) but she was soon enlightened by her (and Miyazaki’s) delighted fans. Her complex characters, fast-moving plots, blend of humor and feeling, and highly
visual scenes in retrospect seem like an obvious fit for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. God willing and the creek don’t rise, it will be even better than I can imagine. Miyazaki is that kind of animator.