November 22, 2002

Titanic Anime

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In what’s most likely going to be one of the most enchanting children’s films of the year, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki weaves together fable, myth, and the anime tradition, creating a tale that captivates children and adults, anime fans and haters alike. Spirited Away is one of the newest additions to the vast library of Japanese animated films that has made it to America, and probably one of the best.

The film begins with a sullen Chihiro and her family on their way to a new home. She’s awash in the typical angst of childhood when her father, lost on a shortcut, is mysteriously compelled to lead the family through an abandoned theme park they’ve stumbled upon. As night falls it becomes clear they’ve entered another reality.

Chihiro finds herself in the world of a fantastic, giant bathhouse for wandering spirits. This setting flowers into a surreal blend of stories and traditions. It has the magically lost feel of Alice in Wonderland and the fantastic scope of Homer’s Odyssey. In this realm Chihiro sets out to save her parents (who were transformed into pigs) with the aid of the mysterious Haku, who teaches her how to fit into the mad hierarchy of spirits and ghouls that is the bathhouse.

Above all it is anime, and undoubtedly will be a treat to any fan of the genre. The best of the tradition comes out in this film, with spell casting dragons and cute little fur-ball things abound (and as much blood as you can get into a PG rated film). But it also has much broader appeal.

This comes largely from the beautifully written and rendered array of characters that Chihiro encounters along the way, such as the vulture-like matriarch who rules the whole establishment, Yubaba — a composite of Cinderella’s wicked step-mother and the sort of hooked-nosed, harpy-like creature one expects to drop out of a japanimation sky. Her movements are dazzling and she drives the film as Chihiro’s antagonist.

Yet is she? In this character one of the flim’s weaknesses emerge; its penchant to tackle weighty moral issues and set up complicated ambiguities are undermined by its ultimate embrace of the simple “love conquers all” philosophy. It’s as though the filmmakers wanted to carry a message to the adult level, but gave up halfway there. It will make you think, but many of its ideas are too intangible, too ill-defined — at least for American sensibilities. It asks us to accept too much fantasy without question, something American audiences can’t always do.

Another slight irritation is the dubbing, which is annoying not because it is evident, but because it is so clearly a Japanese film that one wishes to experience as it was originally created. The dubbing comes as no surprise, as the movie is billed as a Disney presentation, though it quickly shows the limited extent of their involvement. The movie is steeped with a phantasmagoria of creatures unmistakably drawn from Japanese mythology.

Spirited Away, which was released last year in Japan, has out-grossed every other movie in the history of Japanese cinema. With the ever-mounting increase in the popularity of Japanese culture, it’s no surprise this gem has made the trip across the Pacific. The artistry of the film is astounding, and makes up for the weaknesses that pop up in the story. We’ve been through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. Being spirited away was just as fun.

Archived article by Kiah Beverly