Spirited Away Review
On July 20th 2001 the latest title from the Studio Ghibli stable under the direction of the more than capable Hayao Miyazaki was released to Japanese cinemas. Spirited Away (the original Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, literally The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro) was hugely successful in its home country where it continued showing theatrically until March 2002 and took some 230 million dollars in that time. Outside of Japan the film was continuosly making waves at international film festivals, and most significantly it claimed the 'Golden Bear' award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival where several deals were signed for the distribution rights around the world. A success in every sense of the word Spirited Away has at the time of writing since begun its US Theatrical Run where myself and many other fans are quietly hoping Disney will allow the film the success it can achieve if given the release it deserves. Fortunately John Lassiter (head of Pixar), a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, has been placed in charge of the films US transition so it is at least in good hands. However, the true enthusiasts will be more interested in the readily available DVDs from Japan and Hong Kong, the former of which I will be looking at for this review.
Spirited Away opens with a small family (mother, father and young girl) who are travelling to their new home in a rural part of Japan. Chihiro, the young girl (10 years old to be precise), is upset as she is having to leave behind a familiar way of life that includes her school and friends which results in an unresponsive, brooding attitude in these early stages of the film. When they take a wrong turn the family come across an enticing tunnel that is just begging to be explored, and much to the dislike of Chihiro they venture off through the tunnel and come across a small village that is entirely composed of restaurants, and although food is available, service is not.
Leaving her parents to gouge themselves on the platter of foods available Chihiro wanders off and is soon confronted by Haku, a young boy who warns her to leave this village before night falls or she will not be able to leave at all. Startled and confused she runs back as the sun is setting only to find her parents have transformed into huge pigs (literally) while the village has swiftly become populated with various ghostlike figures and worse still the route they came in by has been engulfed by a huge lake leaving her trapped and alone.
Fortunately Haku returns to Chihiro and explains to her that to survive in this Land of Spirits she must find work in the Aburaya bathhouse that like the Land of Spirits is ruled over by a witch, Yu-baaba. It is at this point that the story of a young girl who must survive in an unfamiliar world truly comes to light as Chihiro must overcome her fears so she can attempt to find her parents, restore their image and escape back into her own reality. Along the way Chihiro has her name changed by Yu-baaba to the more simple Sen (by which the film is more commonly referred to) while she will also encounter a variety of strange deities and lesser beasts, from a walking pile of sludge to a River God, a creature that befriends her known as 'No Face', and even a dragon that appears to be related to Haku in some unknown manner.
Various questions also crop up during the films running time. The most interesting and significant to the films storyline is how Haku knows Chihiro's name when he first meets her, and why is Haku helping Chihiro when his reputation suggests otherwise? It is questions such as these combined with sublime pacing that will keep you endeared to Chihiro's adventure throughout but like director Hayao Miyazaki's previous efforts there are so many more touches that lead to you falling in love with Spirited Away.
It will come as no surprise to Miyazaki regulars that the main character of the film is a young girl as this is almost the defacto standard for any Miyazaki tale. This is not a case of sticking to the same old formula though, as in Chihiro we have a modern girl who is firmly established in just the opening minutes of the film as a somewhat spoiled and outspoken character who is particularly rebellious towards her parents, which is quite the opposite to the traditional characters Miyazaki regulars will be accustomed to. In fact, initially Chihiro is not all that likeable (though she is hardly unlikeable) and it is the transformation that she undergoes throughout the film that is one of the strongest points of Spirited Away. Most importantly we see the true Chihiro as soon as she is alone and scared in this strange new world, a young girl who yearns for her parents and quite understandably feels lost without them. This theme of growing and discovering who you are through these spectacular circumstances is quite common within any Miyazaki tale, and in particular the character of Chihiro is very much like that of Kiki (from Kiki's Delivery Service) or even Satsuko from My Neighbour Totoro.
As she rises up to the challenge her character becomes ever more endearing as she goes about her work in an innocent, and more importantly, an honest manner that is vital in gaining the respect of her co-workers and the customers, all of which is an utter delight to witness. The strong central lead in Chihiro is backed up by equally well-developed supporting characters including the intriguing Haku and the powerful witch Yu-baaba, while even lesser characters who rarely utter a word are left imprinted in your mind. From the initially quite understated 'No Face' who becomes a bloated version of his true self thanks to a desperate need to feel wanted, to the adorable likes of the 'Soot' workers and the comedic duo consisting of a rodent and a small bird. Adding life and hence giving a sense of purpose to these almost insignificant characters is simply put what Miyazaki does best, and in that respect Spirited Away is positively overflowing with neat little touches throughout, mainly thanks to the fact that this is a film that almost makes it look as though Miyazaki's imagination was being kept at bay for his previous efforts!
On that note it is no understatement when I say that the 'Land of Spirits' has been brought to life through some of the most astonishing hand-drawn animation I have yet seen, while the careful use of CG enhancements only goes to make Spirited Away all that more beautiful to witness. As I have already mentioned Miyazaki and his team were allowed to unlock their imaginations for this film as they were delving into the world of gods and spirits. By setting the film in a completely fantastical world, rather than the previous approaches which have seen fantasy infringing upon our own world, we are treated to a wide range of strange but wonderful creatures and enchanting locales, all of which are brought to life by that human touch which is hard to describe, but so obviously present. The art direction is complimented further by the composition of shots that is frequently breathtaking with some wide-angle frames that just beg to be studied in detail, making it a visual treat for both the casual viewer and hardcore animation fan alike.
Complimenting the visual spectacle on offer is a voice-cast that screams perfection and another captivating score from long time Miyazaki collaborator, Joe Hisaishi. For Spirited Away Hisaishi has created a memorable score filled with exciting orchestral ensembles for the more action packed sequences yet he never forgets when it is just right to step down to a single instrument, quite often the piano, to accompany the more poignant moments. The scene where Chihiro embarks upon a unique train journey has to be one of those moments that will stay with me for many years to come, not only due to the masterful storytelling at work but because of the overall combination of exquisite artwork and a beautifully subtle score that work together to bring a sense of happiness to the viewer, making it one of those truly memorable cinematic moments, and a fine point at which to bring this review to an end.
Released on July 19th 2002 in Japan this Region 2 encoded set carries a retail price of 4700yen (standard now for the Studio Ghibli collection of titles). You can purchase this title through our Yesasia affiliate link.
This 2-disc set is packaged in a clear slimline double-armaray case that features a fine choice of front cover artwork, though I would have preferred the original poster artwork, or even the more streamlined version of that which is now being used to promote the film in the US. For the collectors of the Region 2 Ghibli releases you may be surprised to note that they have eschewed the now common coloured border/picture approach and have opted to use the entire front cover for the artwork - this is something I was quite surprised by as they even changed the My Neighbours the Yamadas front cover artwork once they had settled upon a standard collection style. Still, it hardly matters as the spine matches all previous releases, and that is what the majority of people will see most of the time. Of course the clear armaray gives the opportunity for the use of interior artwork, and the choice made is a fine one, offering a still of one of the most defining moments from the film, while the disc artwork is as ever of a high quality. There are a few inserts present explaining how to navigate the menus and advertising other Buena Vista Japan releases, though as is to be expected, these are all in Japanese.
Released around the same time in Hong Kong via IVL is a Region 3 alternative that offers essentially the same product for around the £15 mark. Yesasia can also supply you with this release. The quality of this release is widely acknowledged to be equal to that of the Japanese release on review here, though there are minor changes in terms of specifications, a brief summary of which I shall provide here.
The R3 IVL 2-disc set offers the film on disc one in Anamorphic Widescreen with Japanese DTS 6.1 ES, Japanese DD2.0 Surround and Cantonese DD2.0 Surround Audio tracks, while optional English and Chinese subtitles are present. Disc Two contains the same film/storyboard extra feature as seen on the Japanese release with DD2.0 Japanese audio and most significantly, optional English and Chinese subtitles (the R2 has no subtitle options on the second disc). Finally, there is also a 24-minute 'Making of Documentary' that features footage of Spirited Away in production, interviews with Miyazaki and footage from the Ghibli Museum. The documentary is in Mandarin (with some Japanese in the interviews) with only Chinese subtitles available. There are no trailers present on the R3 IVL release.
Presented in the original 1.85:1 Widescreen Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement this is a quite beautiful transfer, as the film so deserves. Barring one point that I will discuss in the next paragraph, everything about the image found on this disc is nearing perfection. The print is blemish free and perfectly framed, detail is high, compression is superb while edge enhancement (the only consistent 'niggle' with the Ghibli R2 releases) is practically non-existant, and dare I say it, the colours are warm and rendered with ease.
So just what is this 'one point' I sadly have to discuss? A red-tint (as it has come to be known on the web) is present throughout the transfer for reasons that so far are not fully explained. The official statement suggests a colour adjustment was made to make sure the image displayed correctly on high-end display equipment (Plasma screens etc) and is how Miyazaki wanted the film to be seen, while the die-hard 'aim for the heart' internet-fans are calling it the biggest botch job on the DVD format to date. What do I have to say about this? I do genuinely wish I did not have to bestow this information on those reading this review as the large majority of viewers simply do not notice this 'red tint' and are only aware of it (and therefore deliberately look for it) because of how fast 'bad news' travels via the internet. You can quite easily counter the 'red tint' with some easy tweaks of your television settings (the difference is very similar to setting your TV to 'cool' or 'warm' in the colour settings), but to be honest it is completely unnecessary as the you hardly notice it ten minutes into the film, and in many ways it truly does give a warmer more glossy look to the world of Spirited Away. It is also worth noting that the 'red tint' looks far worse when viewed via a PC, and hence the screenshots in this review (and many others) will undoubtedly put many off. Due to this issue I have not given the video a perfect ten, which it would otherwise deserve.
The original Japanese soundtrack is available here in DTS6.1 ES and DD2.0 Surround formats which may well prove to be a deciding factor for many as the lack of a DD5.1 option is disappointing considering DTS is hardly the standard Dolby Digital is. Moving past this issue I am happy to report that this is a stunning DTS mix offering a crystal clear representation of the original audio as Joe Hisaishi's uplifting score is recreated in all its glory while the more action packed set pieces give your system a chance to shine with great use of the surrounds while the LFE channel is particularly well served. Of course it is almost pointless comparing this to the Japanese DD2.0 option as it dulls in comparison, but it is by no means a poor soundtrack, just a 'lesser' option.
Also present is a French DD2.0 Surround Dub track option (this was the only other 'western' dub available at the time of release, hence no English option).
English, French and Japanese subtitles are present - for this review I will obviously be concentrating on the English subtitles. With no sign of an English Dub on the disc (as one was not even recorded when this DVD was released) fans can be safe in the knowledge that what we have here is a literal subtitle track that bar the odd grammatical error is easy to follow thanks to an easy to read white font with a fine black outline.
All of the extra features on this release are found on disc two of the set and are all presented in Japanese with NO English subtitles unless stated otherwise.
The main extra feature continues the Studio Ghibli DVD trend as we are presented with the entire feature in storyboard/film format as a multi-angle presentation. This two hour long extra feature is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with only the Japanese DD2.0 Surround audio track present (and yet again, no English subtitles are to be found on the second disc, but this is hardly a problem) and is quite simply a stunning extra feature for any fan of Studio Ghibli's work and for anyone appreciative of what goes into creating an animated film of this scope as you will be treated to detailed storyboards that cover the films entire duration.
Presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen is an impressive 30-minute trailer reel that showcases 12 Theatrical Trailers (10 in glorious Dolby Digital 5.1, and two with English Subtitles) and 10 TV Spots, and if there was ever a Trailer reel comprising of just trailers for one film that I could watch more than once, then this is it! If however you wish to jump to a particular trailer then you can do just that as this 30-minute trailer reel is kindly broken down into chapters. A second, smaller trailer reel weighs in at just one-minute and provides us with sneak previews of The Cat Returns (the follow-up of sorts to Whisper of the Heart) and The Ghiblies Episode 2, both are presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen with DD2.0 Sound.
Other extra features present consist of the now updated to include Spirited Away Studio Ghibli Collection Trailer, and DVD Trailers for Porco Rosso, Whisper of the Heart, Sherlock Hound and a preview for the then forthcoming October DVD release of Laputa which looks absolutely stunning even in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen (as do all of the trailers on this disc).
Though at times I may sound like a one-man Studio Ghibli PR machine I can honestly say that Spirited Away is one of my top films of the year, simple as that really. On first viewing I had ridiculously high expectations and it just about lived up to them, but on subsequent viewings it has grown into a film that exceeds my original expectations and has become another instant classic in the Studio Ghibli range that takes you on a magical adventure suitable for young and old alike.
Recommending this DVD is for the most part an easy choice to make. The film deserves to be seen by everyone and this Japanese release offers the best current method of doing so, though you may be more inclined to opt for the essentially identical Hong Kong Region 3 release due to its cheaper cost. The only point that will be stopping many from purchasing either of these releases is that of the 'red tint' debacle. Please, do not worry about it. Unless you are someone who picks up on the slightest of picture faults then I highly doubt you will even notice it, let alone be put off from watching the film in what is a truly stunning DVD presentation.
If however you cannot bare the thought of having a DVD with a possible visual defect then the subsequent Region 1 DVD offering is nearly (though not completely) tint free.
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