RetroReviews #36: Spirited Away (2001)




At last, I’ve gotten a chance to review the best known and most beloved of Hayao Miyazaki‘s films, 2001’s Spirited Away. It has the unusual honor of being a foreign language film that won Best Animated Film at the Oscars in 2002, and critics all over the United States were raving about this movie, giving it four stars, calling it a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, etc. etc., It was also a box office hit for American audiences, despite having very little marketing to drive interest in the film, and mostly relied on buzz after it won an Oscar (of course, the fact Walt Disney Pictures again did the English language version might have helped the movie, of course!)

As for me, I’m not going to take the approach here that I did with How to Train Your Dragon – where I hated a movie that was universally beloved by audiences and critics alike. For the most part, I completely agree that this was the greatest of Miyazaki’s films, and is beautifully animated and wonderfully charming movie. It is very much the Japanese equivalent to Alice in Wonderland. In fact, may be somewhat better from an emotional standpoint, since it has some wonderful character moments for the Chihiro (the little girl protagonist in this story) where she learns important lessons about life, moreso than anything that was in Lewis Carroll’s Alice (although on a personal standpoint, I still prefer Alice over this). Where I’m going to disagree with most of the professional critics is that is a “must see” movie that everyone can enjoy, and a universally beloved children’s classic.

As is the case with the other Miyazaki films I watched, Spirited Away can be enjoyed in its own right as a zany fantasy adventure film, but to truly understand the themes and ideas presented in the film, you have to understand Japanese culture. As a college educated adult that has some familiarity with different elements Japanese culture after years of learning different things, I still felt like I didn’t “get” roughly 70% of the character situations and settings in this film. It is very hard for any American to really grasp the significance of things in a movie that takes place at a Japanese bathhouse, and one in a fantasy world where its customers are unclean spirits. The main character also spends most of the movie befriending a monster called No-Face – a being that basically consists of a large black blob which consumes souls while wearing a white face mask. Needless to say, it is a completely bizarre concept to western audiences, no matter how much the movie tries to explain it in English. Some of the scenes may actually be upsetting for young American children (I’m thinking 7 and under), although there are plenty of cute moments as well, and some of the humor still works well in translation.

Spirited Away is overall a fantastic movie that really needs to be seen to be appreciated, as my review can’t even begin to scratch the surface or explain the story. If I was going to add one anime film to my collection, it would probably have to be this one, just from the standpoint of a movie that I can watch over and over again. But Spirited Away is still a very Japanese film at heart, and I know plenty of people that would actually be turned off by this movie, film it to be incoherent nonsense or grotesque scenes for a children’s movie. Sorry, critics, this one isn’t for everyone. But for those of you who can appreciate it for what it is, you will discover this is the cream of the crop for Japanese anime.

*** ½ out of ****


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