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Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) 2001


    With the release of his 1997 masterpiece Princess Mononoke, gifted Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from filmmaking. As such, the release of Spirited Away could only be seen as a great thing, since it was such a wholly unexpected venture. Thankfully though, Spirited Away is a fantastic film, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the majesty of Miyazaki’s Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro (my favorite animated film of all time). Still, a remark like that could only sound more derisive than I intend it to, since even the worst Miyazaki picture is a remarkable achievement, and Spirited Away is one of his better films. It’s just that the unmitigated pleasure that it inspires in me crops up with a frequency comparable to Kiki’s Delivery Service (i.e. every two minutes or so) instead of the continuous buzz that I get from his unquestionable masterpieces. Telling a dolled up Alice in Wonderland-style story, as he often does, Miyazaki here uses more Japanese iconography that usual in his images, but the film hardly suffers as a result. The character designs here are astonishingly varied, and every few moments, when you think you’ve come to terms with the fantasy world that he’s spun, another, greater wonder rears its head. His imagination seems boundless. Oftentimes, I found myself simply awed by his invention, and I imagine any child or child at heart would have the same reaction.


    Set in an alternate universe that hides within an abandoned amusement park, Spirited Away stars Chihiro, a ten year old girl who must infiltrate a “health spa for the gods” in search of a cure for her parents, who were turned into pigs after eating food intended for the spa's patrons. This plot seems secondary, however, to the presentations of this fantasy world from Chihiro's innocent perspective. Most of the set pieces that Miyazaki presents introduce a stunningly conceived new character or two and all of them seem rather effortless in comparison to most American animation, which will bonk you over the head with itself to achieve a desired effect. Even the central emotional drive behind the movie, which examines Chihiro’s gradual peek out of her shell after she moves to a new home, is muted here. Mostly, we understand her state of mind because her disproportionately baggy clothes make her seem awkward. In any case, several scenes here easily rank with the best of Miyazaki’s output. I doubt anyone who sees Spirited Away will be able to forget the impish soot creatures or the wonderful action scene where Chihiro has to bathe a god of stench. Still, the pleasure that comes from watching Miyazaki films don't just stem from their ability to string together a few satisfying action sequences. The generally placid pacing makes it easy to slide into his alternate worlds, and by the end of his films his creatures are always endearing, without exception.


    So much of my enjoyment of Miyazaki’s work comes from the subtle expressions and movements that his characters make. You are always aware you’re watching an animated film when you’re watching Spirited Away, even if it’s his most technically polished effort. There’s a certain something about these charming hand-drawn creations, though, that no complex computer imagery has come close to appropriating. I doubt this film will sway anyone who doesn’t already love Miyazaki’s body of work. He’s too idiosyncratic and distinctive a filmmaker to really deserve the title of “the Walt Disney of Japan” that’s often afforded to him (besides, he deserves better). Nevertheless, his rabid fans will find plenty to cherish here. If the obligatory flying sequence in Spirited Away isn’t as utterly exhilarating as the one in Totoro, you can hardly complain, especially because it segues into a transcendent moment where one character’s tears flow upward. Everything about Spirited Away seems perched and ready to ascend to that sequence’s awe-inspiring heights, though. As the title implies, it transports the audience to somewhere else for a while. It would take a complete cynic to not enjoy this kind of blissful layover, though.


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Jeremy Heilman