September 19, 2004

Spirited Away - That review I wrote :S

There seems to be a growing trend in today’s animated film industry - Take some talking animals, add some clichéd characterisations, throw in a bunch of overused morals, season it with humour and wrap it up in a bag marked ‘Instant Hit’ - Then proceed to drill it into the general public with millions of dollars of marketing and an unnecessary amount of hype. It is particularly refreshing to find a high-quality film that does not follow this formula; Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is that film.

Spirited Away (Or Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) is a successful movie. There is no doubt about it. It was the first anime to be nominated for and win an Academy Award, it was one of the few movies to break the $200 million mark in the Box Office before being released in the US, and it is the highest-grossing film in Japanese box-office history - more than $234 million. Miyazaki, acclaimed director of other works such as Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Mononoke, again tells us a story. He doesn’t attempt to force it down our throats or make it painfully obvious; simplicity is a key factor in this film.

The plot is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz - A young girl gets caught up in a bizarre world of magnificent beasts and beautiful scenery, and attempts to find her way home. However, Spirited Away is much more than that. Instead of following those storylines, he creates a different world altogether, weaving in Chinese and Japanese mythology and customs. 10 year old Chihiro and her family are moving to a new house, when they take the wrong turnoff and end up in an abandoned amusement park. They decide to take a look around, and discover an unattended banquet - Chihiro’s parents sit down to eat, but Chihiro doesn’t want to, and wanders away to explore. She discovers the bath house - the setting for most of the film, and meets Haku, who warns her about being here. Darkness descends and she runs back to her parents, only to discover that they have somehow been transformed into swine. Scared and confused, she runs and meets up with Haku, and discovers that the only way she can escape with her parents is if she works in the bath house of the spirits. Here, however, she pays a hefty price for her contract - the removal of her name.

While this story may seem initially trivial, it leads into something much more sincere due to the wonderfully original characters. Yubaba, with her humongous head; Boh, her giant baby; Lin, the fox-spirit who befriends Chihiro in the bath house; Haku, the young boy who seems to have two personalities; and the Radish Spirit, a… well, a giant radish. The plot, and the bizarre character mix, help portray Chihiro’s development throughout the film, from a whinging young girl to a strong, mature individual.

One of the many complaints about Japanese films in the western world is the translation and voice acting - it is usually plain bad, as the movies aren’t taken seriously enough, and are overacted. However, the western release of Spirited Away was overseen by Disney, and a quality cast was assembled. Daveigh Chase (Lilo & Stitch, The Ring) creates a believable, likeable Chihiro, and is supported by Jason Marsden and Susan Egan. The translation from Japanese to English did have its bad points, but overall the English version maintained the depth and beauty of the Japanese version. There were some scenes in the Japanese version that were infinitely better because of dialogue reasons, and it didn’t ‘sound’ right in English - but it still managed to pull it off, even if it did sound slightly corny. Some additions were made to the English track - murmurs in the background, some different sound effects, etc; and in that small way it was better than the Japanese track.

Of course, there is the animation - and compared to many other animes around, it is breathtaking. The background scenery is intricately detailed, and completely hand-drawn, which is rare these days. There is some excellent cinematography by Atsushi Okui, scenes such as the flower-covered corridor and Yubaba’s palatial rooms in the top floor are memorable. Joe Hisaishi’s erratic piano provides an excellent sensory backdrop, and the main theme floats quietly around the pivotal scenes.

One common misunderstanding today is that animated movies are for children - this movie is not. It contains no ’adult’ themes, but to truly come to grips with it it needs to be understood properly, and it can’t be understood properly by a child. It also contains supernatural themes and a low level of blood - This is not a movie just for children.

A complaint that I have heard is that there are large periods in the movie where nothing is happening; well, if high-action films are appealing to you, you probably won’t like it. But, Spirited Away is a film that tells a story, and stories will always be remembered.

I haven't read this since I wrote it (At 2am Thursday), but I thought I'd just put it up.


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