When Spirited Away beat out Disney’s Lilo and Stitch for the Oscar as Best Animated Film of 2002, it no doubt came as a terrific shock to people who hadn’t been following all the awards that the limited-release Japanese import had already received.
It certainly came as no surprise to the Disney folks, who promptly booked the film (its full title: Sen to Chihiro No Kamikakushi, which translates literally as The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro) into 800 theaters nationwide the following day. (They’d promised to give the movie a wider release if it won the Oscar.) It was also no surprise to anyone who knows in what reverence director Hayao Miyazaki is held by animation fans. And while I am slightly less enthusiastic about Spirited Away and Miyazaki than many people seem to be, I can’t deny that the film is a splendid achievement.
I have certain reservations about Miyazaki’s work — primarily that it tends to be overlong, and that part of what is being taken as originality by Western audiences is largely grounded in cultural differences. Not to minimize the very real qualities of Spirited Away, but more than a few aspects of the film’s approach remind me of the generally forgotten animated Japanese film Saiyu-ki, from 1960, and released in the U.S. as Alakazam the Great. (And later relegated to undeserved oblivion thanks to its inexplicable inclusion in the infamous Medved Brothers’ book The 50 Worst Films of All Time, which makes a good case for the idea that there are no bad movies, only bad ideas for books about movies).
Saiyu-ki is no work of genius, but as with Miyazaki’s approach, it draws heavily on Oriental mythology, featuring such fantasticated characters as a humanized pig, a burrowing cannibal, etc. This is very similar to the world of spirits central to Spirited Away — Miyazaki merely takes these things further and personalizes them … with inarguable brilliance.
So much is good (even great) about Miyazaki that it seems slightly unfair to point out that he’s not exactly original. Even exempting Saiyu-ki, Spirited Away, with its adventures of a 10-year-old girl trapped in a world of fantasticated creatures, magical transformations and strange potions and pills, owes a debt to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. For that matter, the character of Kamaji (voiced by Donald Ogden Stiers) bears more than a passing resemblance to Carroll’s hookah-smoking Caterpillar.
The wonder of Miyazaki is the combination of his striking visuals, his often painstaking animation and the fact that he lets his imagination run as wild as it can — all while managing not to lose sight of his characters’ simple humanity (if that’s the right word). In this regard, Spirited Away is a wild cornucopia of ideas with a worthy (if not exactly deep) emotional center — no mean feat in a movie featuring an extended sequence involving a “stink spirit” (a dripping, oozing fecal-like mass that would do Kevin Smith proud).
There is wit here and seemingly effortless spectacle, too — the unloading of a riverboat full of spirits headed for a little otherworldly R and R at the bath house of Yubaba is an amazing moment, helped immensely by Jo Hisaishi’s brilliant musical score (which keeps threatening at times to turn into Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony). But in the end, much of what makes the film work lies in the combination of its small touches and emotionalism, evening out its more overt grotesqueries and making it something more than a film for people who like to get stoned and go watch freaky animation (though it almost certainly works on that level, too).
One of the more intriguing aspects of Miyazaki’s approach is that he obviously loves his bizarre characters, and that, finally, all of them — even the strangely touching “No Face” — are seen as benign or simply misunderstood. By the end of the film, there are no villains and no bad guys, only an assemblage of fantastical characters with feelings and failings and all the rest. In the debit column, it’s hard to deny (though the faithful certainly will) that at 125 minutes, it’s a bit much, and the film’s opening sequences (in the real world) are a little slow. And yet bearing with Spirited Away is more than worth the trouble.
Considering that Disney virtually buried the film at first, the studio blessedly didn’t stint on the English-language version, calling in a very impressive array of voice talent — ironically centered around Lilo and Stitch’s Daveigh Chase as the young girl who is spirited away on the film’s phantasmagorical adventure.