Spirited Away Review
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihito no Kamikakushi – ‘The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro’) is the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, the director who brought us My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke amongst others. (It’s a bit of a surprise too, because after Princess Mononoke the director announced his retirement from filmmaking. We can thank the 10-year old daughter of a friend for his return to his art – inspiring him to create Chihiro, the heroine of Spirited Away.) The film has gone on to break every box office record in Japan and is currently being released to cinema audiences in the US – thanks to Disney. The company brought in the head of Pixar, John Lasseter (a self-proclaimed Miyazaki fan), to supervise the English language version and he’s certainly done a good job with the dubbing and timing – making the film a pleasure to watch even outside of its native tongue. Pathé own the UK distribution rights and (as yet) have made no announcements as to when it may (or may not) appear on British cinema screens.
The story is often compared to Alice in Wonderland, primarily because it transports its protagonist into a fantastical world, and by means of a journey where she learns as much about herself as she does about what’s going on around her. This character is Chihiro, a young girl who starts the film in the back seat of a car moving to a new town, new house and new school with her parents. After they take a wrong road, they end up in front of a long tunnel and although Chihiro is apprehensive, her parents decide to explore a little. Through the tunnel they find a deserted town, full of bizarre half-sunken statues and abandoned market stalls. Following the scent of food, they find one stall stocked with all sorts of foodstuffs and her parents sit down to eat. Chihiro wanders off, unwilling to partake in this mysterious feast. As night falls, the town begins to come to life – lights flicker on, bizarre diaphanous figures drift through the streets, and there seem to be the noises of people moving about. Chihiro hurries back to the food stall only to discover her parents have turned into pigs… and she is left to survive in this strange world where she must somehow both escape and save her parents (after finding a way to reverse their transformation, of course!).
Luckily she gets some help, mainly from a strange young man named Haku who tells her she needs to find employment in order to survive the night and sends her first to the boiler room to ask for a job. (The central attraction of this eerie village is a massive bathhouse run by the misanthropic Yu Baaba, a magic practitioner who takes a dim view of those without work!) Eventually Chihiro speaks with Yu Baaba and signs a contract which hands her name over to the old woman in return for a job. Yu Baaba renames our heroine Sen (derived from an alternative pronunciation of the first kanji letter in the name Chihiro) and we later learn that one of the things Chihiro must do is preserve her identity if she ever wishes to leave the spirit world.
It’s quite a difficult task to even begin to describe the fantastical journey that Chihiro takes. It’s scary, imaginative, educational and full of all manner of strange beings and objects. Through it Chihiro remains true to her ethics of helping people, shows her backbone in managing to do her job in some difficult circumstances, holds loyal and true to her friends and family and becomes a little less jaded than she is at the start of the film. For a much fuller discussion about the storyline and background to this film, read the DVD review here.
So… what differs here from the film described in the above review? Well, it’s the English version, of course. I have to admit I very rarely watch English dubs of animé, almost always preferring the original Japanese language, so it was strange to sit down in a cinema and allow myself to become absorbed by an animé film where everyone was speaking in English. That said, I think they did an excellent job on casting the voice actors and in the translation itself. There may have been the odd clunky sentence and no doubt some of the meaning got lost in translation (as it always does). But the characters’ voices were believable and there isn’t the awkwardness of being an obvious translation that you get in other English dubs. Recording sessions were directed by Kirk Wise (Beauty & the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis). Actors include Daveigh Chase (Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) as Chihiro, John Ratzenberger (Toy Story 1 & 2, Bug’s Life, oh, and Cheers), David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H, Lilo & Stitch), amongst many other accomplished actors, and their talents are very much appreciated in bringing this animé classic to a wider audience.
The only handicap the film has is something I see more as a benefit – it’s over 2 hours long, which is quite unusual for animated features seen in cinemas. There’s enough action and surprising events to sustain the long duration, so hopefully this won’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment.