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Spirited Away
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Hayao Miyazaki (director and writer)
Genre:   animated fantasy
Released:   September 22, 2002
Review Date:   October 10, 2002
Audience Rating:   Rated PG
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)
While most anime movies are action movies, Spirited Away is a fairy tale, and where most anime movies are harsh (nothing wrong with harsh), Spirited Away is gentle. The hero of Spirited Away is not a hot babe or a gruff warrior, but a normal, slightly sullen ten-year-old girl. Spirited Away is more than two hours long, with a storyline that meanders and digresses like an old forest trail. Spirited Away is also the highest grossing movie in Japan's history, and it's (to quote the film's creator, Hayao Miyazaki) a movie "for the people who used to be 10 years old, and the people who are going to be 10 years old."

In Japan, Miyazaki is the man. American fans know his work through the recent Princess Mononoke (Japan's third highest grossing movie) and older works like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (for more info on Miyazaki, try Nausicaa.net).

I was a bit unsure about Spirited Away before I saw it. My last encounter with a Miyazaki project specifically targeted at the younger set was Kiki's Delivery Service. While Kiki was nifty, I didn't feel like it had much meat to it. But Spirited Away is an enchanting, layered work, populated with the stuff of dreams.

The girl, Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase, of The Ring and Donnie Darko). stumbles upon one of those in-between places where the separation between the human world and the spirit world becomes rice-paper thin. And the things on the other side are wonderful, terrible, silly, and scary, and sometimes all four at the same time.

One of the things that may limit Spirited Away's appeal to an American audience is its almost offhand mixture of silly and scary. Some "serious" anime fans will be turned off by "cutesy" elements like

frogs in kimonos, bird spirits that look like giant versions of those yellow Marshmallow Peeps, and living specks of soot even goofier than the cock-their-heads-to-the-side rattling forest spirits in Princess Mononoke. Parents, meanwhile, might not be so thrilled about the frequent use of blood, slime, and sharp pointy teeth. And there are some scenes that are disturbing whether you're a kid or not (I'll tell you one thing, I'd never be stupid enough to break Fairy Tale Rule #6: Never eat anything unless you're absolutely sure where it comes from). But that's part of what makes the world of Spirited Away so real, and so transporting. Because the fantasy life of children, while innocent, is not nearly as simplistic, or as sanitized, as adults like to think it is. And this mixture of silly and scary is a trait that also marks the two great post-Grimm fairy tales of Western culture, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

Spirited Away, like Alice, and like the fairy tales of old, works as an escapist adventure story, a metaphor for growing up, and a morality tale all in one. There's a tradition there, and a return to the themes that recur again and again in our most enduring children's literature. The importance and danger of food (what goes into our mouths) and the power of words to shape reality (what comes out of our mouths). The search to define identity (Who am I? What's in a name?). The mysterious guide. Greed punished. Good deeds rewarded. The person who helps a creature no one else would. Transformations. Humans to animals. Animals to humans. Friends to enemies and enemies to friends. The fact that (to quote Labyrinth) "things aren't always what they seem."

Though the themes are universal, there are textures and references here that will be inaccessible to non-Japanese. But part of what makes Spirited Away such a unique experience is the fact that it is a truly Japanese fairy tale, and thus that much more strange and unfamiliar. After all, we've seen dragons and witches and dwarves. But have we seen six-armed men and the spirit called "no face" and green heads that bounce and babble? No, didn't think so.

As happens every time a really good anime comes along, some people will crow about how Spirited Away opens a big ol' film cannister of whoop-ass on Disney. Those people ought not be so eager to kick sand in the face of the Mouse. Obviously, Disney loves this stuff too, since they're distributing it (and did a quite peachy job producing the English dub version, I might add). And yes, I wish that Disney would give Spirited Away the big marketing push it deserves. Once you decide that a quirky foreign import has limited box office potential, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Disney's limited release strategy has definitely been successful. Spirited Away has been out for three weeks, playing on fewer than 100 screens, and quietly raking in half a million a weekend, on impressive per-screen averages. And, as modest as the release is, it's still much wider than that given to recent releases like Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Metropolis, and Princess Mononoke. In fact, it's likely the widest release ever for a non-Pokemon anime. So, if you want to see more quality animation in American theaters, then track down one of those 100 screens, and vote with your pocketbook.

The last time RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers tried to vote with his pocketbook, all the people with wallets laughed at him.

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