MIYAZAKI'S SPIRITED AWAY (SEN TO CHIHIRO NO KAMIKAKUSHI) directed by Hayao Miyazaki, produced by Toshio Suzuki, Donald W. Ernst, written by Miyazaki, English version by Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt, with voices of Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egen, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly. A Walt Disney/Studio Ghibli production. A Buena Vista release. 125 minutes. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 113. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
sometime this year, spirited away passed Titanic to become Japan's highest-grossing film ever. In North America, it gets an honour reserved for those few filmmakers who've become established brands. Miyazaki's Spirited Away is what Disney -- Disney! -- calls it. Not bad for a former Marxist and committed eco-freak. But apart from anime cadres around the world and 100 million Japanese, the world is still warming to Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away will help, though it's as weird-ass as ever.
Miyazaki's films marry technical brilliance with deeply idiosyncratic stories. Plots flout logic in favour of wonder and feats of dreamy, jaw-dropping imagination. Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa) admits he consciously mines his subconscious for material, but filters out what he calls his natural pessimism.
In Spirited Away, a pouty little girl named Chihiro gets lost with her parents on the way to a new home. They pass through a tunnel into a ghost town. When the parents spot a steaming buffet, they tuck in and are promptly turned into snorting pigs. That leaves Chihiro to rescue them, save herself from pigdom and navigate what turns out to be a spa town for good and evil gods.
Spirited Away is set in a hallucinogenic wonderland. It's filled with characters that feel drawn both from the raw id of world mythology and the ethos of Miyazaki's green politics. At the supernatural bathhouse where she finds work, Chihiro is forced to clean up a filthy river god whose body is clogged like a sludgy landfill. Later, she gets help from a cute boy who is also a snaky flying dragon. Calling Doctor Freud.
The animation is as rich and detailed as ever. Much of it is hand-drawn by Miyazaki himself, with help from the hundred-strong team at his Studio Ghibli and software from Montreal's Softimage.
Miyazaki returns to his trademark young heroines -- though Chihiro is less noble than Mononoke or Nausicaa -- and his soaring aerial sequences. During the second world war his family owned a company that made wing tips for Zero fighter planes. He grew up embarrassed by his place in the military machine but exhilarated by flying.
Spirited Away conjures up the pure awe that comes from watching a child cast into a world of wonders. But it resonates because it opens itself to so many readings. It's a feminist triumph about a girl fighting to regain her true name, an agrarian pitch for traditional Japanese values and an allegory to adolescence.
But there's also the enticing beginning where two parents gorge themselves at what looks like an abandoned theme park, throwing their own child into peril. Interesting, when you think that it's the kind of place run by the same Disney that financed this film.