A review of “Miyazaki's Spirited Away” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: PG for intense images, adult situations. Dubbed in English.

Run Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

 

 

It won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and a Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture (as “Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi”). It’s the most successful film in the history of Japanese cinema, and has been hailed as a classic, a triumphant swan-song, and a masterpiece.  “Spirited Away” is all of these, and more.  Kudos to the most enchanting film of the year.

With all due respect to the talented folks at Pixar and Disney, Japan’s legendary Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”) is the undisputed master of the art of animation.  His extraordinary career culminates in this bejeweled acid-trip of a film; a hallucinatory dreamscape with lasting emotional and social implications.

The story is charmingly complex, though it plays second fiddle to the astounding visuals.  Ten-year old Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase) is on her way to a new home in a new city with her parents in tow.  Stopped short on a country road, the trio find themselves in the middle of what looks like an abandoned amusement park.  The colorful facades beckon them, as does the appetizing aroma of food wafting from one of the deserted stalls. 

Instinctively, Chihiro balks at sampling the delectable spread of goodies laid out before them.  But her parents partake with gusto, thus initiating a surreal adventure during which Chihiro must prove her love through hard work and sacrifice.

This is Miyazaki’s alternative universe, and you’re graciously invited to attend.  Revel in the glorious attention to detail, and follow Chihiro through a magnificently bizarre adventure, teeming with vividly drawn characters and their hilarious neuroses. The local bathhouse, where spirits come to replenish themselves, is home to a particularly peculiar clientele. Owner Yubaba (voice of Suzanne Pleshette), an oversized, wizened crone, steals Chihiro’s name and sole means of identity. Forced into manual labor, Chihiro befriends sympathetic Yubaba-henchman Haku (voice of Jason Marsden), who can transform himself into a wolfish serpent, and who may or may not be willing to help Chihiro locate her missing parents. 

The animation is positively jaw-dropping. Tiny black spiky balls (with enormous eyes and spindly legs) inhabit the furnace room, wrestling with lumpy coals and skittering about in a delightful frenzy while feeding on brightly colored star crackers. A gigantic sumo-baby is magically transformed into a chubby rat-kitten, who must accompany Chihiro on a pastel-landscaped train trip to return a stolen golden seal. A distinguished, kimonoed frog lends cultural serenity and some well-timed comic relief, while severed triplet heads bobble about in amusing confusion.

Shades of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz”.  The fear factor is lofty, loaded with the kind of fantasy intensity that still lays claim to flying-monkey nightmares.  Miyazaki is said to have made this film to reassure children about their anxieties and their future.  Consequently, it speaks volumes about the strength of innocence and wisdom. Be the first in line for this sophisticated, yet childlike, tribute to mythical allusion and unfettered imagination.