Spirited Away Review
Hayao Miyazaki is a, now retired, bona fide legend in the animation world. To casual western audiences he is, probably, the most well known of all the names in the field of animation but to afficionados of anime, he belongs in the upper echelon of revered figures along with Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and the sadly missed Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue).
With a career spanning 50 years, Miyazaki began as a manga artist but progressed to animation, working on such notable titles as Lupin III, Panda! Go, Panda and Sherlock Hound for TV. He would eventually go on to co-found Studio Ghibli in the mid 80's, with Isao Takahata, and proceed to write, direct and produce a quite incredible string of highly regarded features, including Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and 2001's, Spirited Away.
Spirited Away is essentially the coming of age tale of our heroine, ten year old Chihiro. The film begins with Chihiro being uprooted from her life to move to a new town with her parents. On the car journey to their new life, Dad takes a turn up a foreboding forest path which ends abruptly at a ruined old gateway. Dad insists on exploring beyond this gate and before long Chihiro's life is turned upside down when both her parents are turned into pigs and she is, seemingly, trapped in a fantastical nightmare world ruled by the witch, Yubaba.
She befriends a young boy, Haku, and with the help of a woman called Lin, convinces Yubaba to give her a job in a bizarre bathhouse for gods and spirits. Unfortunately, the deal with Yubaba involves giving up her true name and taking the name Sen, which is a magic spell that Yubaba hopes will trap Chihiro and her parents forever.
She sets to work in the bathhouse and tackles a filthy river spirit and a strange masked spirit called No Face, who starts gobbling up bathhouse workers with glee. Sen also discovers that Haku can transform into a dragon and when he is mortally wounded by Yubaba's sister, Zeniba, for the theft of a golden seal, she decides she must save him also. How can she convince Zeniba to help save Haku, stop No Face eating all the workers, break free of Yubaba's spell and save her parents?
A magical, magnificent feat of imagination, Spirited Away runs for over 2 hours and never feels like it. The artistry and animation is exquisite, the voice acting (both the native Japanese and English language) is perfect and the musical score is wonderfully touching and rousing in equal measure.
Spirited Away was released in 2001 and became the highest grossing film in Japanese history, overtaking James Cameron's Titanic and the movie also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.
Studio Canal present Spirited Away in its original, screen filling aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a cracking looking 1080p Blu-ray. This transfer to HD has really given the film a new lease of life. Colours are rich, vibrant and slightly more real looking than the old DVD. The detail and information in every frame is greater and everything just seems to look cleaner, tighter and crisper. In motion, the animation is smooth and fluid and I can't even see any of the usual bane of animated transfers, macro blocking, anywhere! Truly a joy to behold!
Both the Japanese and English audio tracks are given the DTS-HD Master Audio treatment for a 5.1 set-up and present the excellent voice acting and sound effects cleanly and clearly while leaving enough room for Joe Hasaishi's musical score to breathe and weave in and out of the action as required.
All of the extras have been ported over from the old 2-disc DVD edition but this is no bad thing. The headliner of the extra material, for me, is the 'Making of Spirited Away' feature, which runs almost 50 minutes and is a very typically Japanese making of documentary. It takes us inside Ghibli and into the heads of some of the many animators who worked on the film. We see them eat, sleep and breathe the movie, very literally at points, and shows just what a labour of love the project was for Miyazaki and, in turn, his whole team. At one point we even see the great director cooking the noodles and sauce for the team during another endless day/night at their storyboards.
Next up is an alternative angle, storyboard to screen comparison, which runs the entire length of the movie and while interesting to see how the boards compare to the finished film, it's not really something you'll want to watch twice. There is an introduction to the movie by John Lasseter from Pixar, who oversaw the English language translation for the film's western release and who also features in the 'Meet Hayao Miyazaki' clip as they are both interviewed at some press party. There is also a brief featurette on the U.S. voice dubbing sessions and some original Japanese trailers for the movie.
Spirited Away was my belated introduction to the magical world of Miyazaki and Ghibli and while it has since been usurped as my favourite Ghibli movie, by Princess Mononoke, there can be no doubt about it's importance to the world of film and in particular animation. A startlingly original and inventive tale, crafted with love and incredible skill, all told in breathtaking fashion, Spirited Away is a masterpiece of modern cinema. Some new supplemental material would have been fantastic, perhaps a commentary, but this is still a top quality release.