Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is the recent full-length Academy award-winning animated feature from legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the critically acclaimed Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. It tells the story of a little girl named Chihiro, who enters what appears to be a deserted theme park with her parents after they become lost while driving to their new home in a new city. While her parents take a break to eat, she wanders off and is discovered by a boy named Haku, who tells her she must leave the area. She runs back to her parents, only to discover that they are still eating, and have morphed into giant pigs. Thus begins an adventure that features the some of the oddest characters and weirdest twists I’ve ever seen in a full-length cartoon.

The English-language version features the voices of Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberger (who seems to be making a living lending his voice to cartoon characters of late!), and David Ogden Stiers. The voice of Chihiro is provided by 13-year old Daveigh Chase, already a veteran of over 20 film and television appearances, including Donnie Darko and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Chihiro learns quickly that she is in a place where spirits come to replenish themselves. Haku tells her that the only way she’ll be able to save her parents is to go to the boiler room, and tell the man there that she wants a job, and to persist, even if he refuses. She does so, and meets Kamajii, the boiler room man who has many arms, some of them many feet long. Kamajii commands little pieces of soot, each of whom carries a lump of coal to the furnace and live under the floor.

From that scene, the movie gets weirder and weirder – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film takes left and right turns, introducing bizarre characters and featuring amazing landscapes of colour and complexity. Chihiro, apparently the only human in the place, is assigned to Lin, one of many women (who all look quite human to me) who work in the bathhouse where the spirits come to cleanse and reinvigorate themselves. The house is run by a woman with an enormous head, Yubaba, who in turn has an even bigger baby named Bou. She also has a twin sister named Zeniba, who is after Haku for stealing her gold something-or-other (sorry, I can’t remember!). (Yubaba also has three male heads that bounce around on the floor in her office and make odd grunting noises.) Then there is the Stinky Spirit, who wanders in to be cleansed, and is covered with and leaves trails of the most vile, disgusting goo you could imagine. Chihiro must attend to him, and is helped along the way by No Face, a spirit who seems to befriend her after she allows him entrance into the bathhouse. (All he can mutter is “uh”.) But then No Face starts “eating” some of the locals, and getting bigger and fatter, and demanding that he see Chihiro (now called “Sen”). Haku, btw, appears as a dragon, and it takes the love of Sen to help him recover from injuries and return to human form. I think. Meanwhile, back in the pig barn…

I saw this film this afternoon, and left this film with mixed feelings. I’m wondering if as time goes on, I’ll like it more. I’ve seen none of Miyazaki’s other films, so cannot compare it to anything he’s done, nor can I say if this film is any more or less imaginative than his other films. Therein lies the key for me: imagination. Spirited Away is rife with it. Every ten minutes something new appears on the screen, and I’m thinking, howinhell did he dream that up? There are problems: we never learn about No Face, who or what he/she/it is, and why it does what it does. But this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie necessarily. I think I felt a combination of awe for Miyazaki’s amazing animation, wonderment for the images and characters he creates, and a bit of hesistation in thinking that some of these characters are so way over the top. Honestly, I think my astonishment at what I saw on the screen for 2+ hours may have actually detracted from my enjoyment of the movie while I watched it.) My minor reservations aside, see this film. I can tell you that the many children in attendance today at the theatre seemed to like the film (especially the ones who wouldn’t shut up and kept asking their parents questions – argh!). Now I know I must see his earlier work.

(Submitted as a review to Blogcritics.org)

4 Responses to “Spirited Away”

  1. fiona Says:

    Spirited Away is pretty good, but his earlier works are still better. I recommend Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Not done by Miyazaki per say but by Studio Ghibli is the fantastic Whisper of the Heart.

    Er, instead of me spamming your comments with random titles, check out http://nausicaa.net for all things Miyazaki.

  2. randy Says:

    Thank Fi. What “spamming”? Nonsense! Thank you for the suggestions. I first became aware of him when I heard of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Will need to check these out. What about Princess Mononoke?

  3. fiona Says:

    Princess Mononoke is all right, but Nausicaa works similar themes much better. Miyazaki has ever made a bad film, though. Just watch them. All of them. 🙂

  4. Garth Danielson Says:

    I have been a fan of Miyazaki’s films since I saw Laputa – Castle in the Sky several years ago.

    MY favorite is My Neighbor Totoro, it’s right near the top of my all time favorite movies…period. I think if you check it out you’ll find some amazingly wonderful characters and really beautiful sentiments. The current DVD is not wide screen but it doesn’t suffer too much.

    I was talking to Sperhauk(a guy I know here) about your comment:

    “Honestly, I think my astonishment at what I saw on the screen for 2+ hours may have actually detracted from my enjoyment of the movie while I watched it.”

    His comment was along the lines of someone not having a background in some of the myths of Japan might spend more time assimilating what he was seeing rather than following the story. The DVD of Spirited Away has a nice documentary from Nippon TV that aside from being an enjoyable look at many of the people responsible for the film has some interesting comments from Miyasaki who at one point told a story of his helping to clean out a river near where he lives and having to get ten people to pull a rope tied to a bicycle to remove it out of the mud. Somehow that made it into the movie.

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