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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Spirited Away  


Spirited Away

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Japanese Title: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writing credits: Hayao Miyazaki(Japanese version), Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt (English version)
Cast (voices): Daveigh Chase, Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Jason Marsden
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation Fantasy
Year released: 2001
Runtime: 124 min
Rating: ***½ (out of four stars)

Spirited Away is Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and in all probability, last) work, and one wonders how he would manage to top previous great works like My Neighbour Totoro and the epic Princess Mononoke. He has, however, done it again, and Spirited Away is definitely one of the best animated films of this year, and can even contend with live-action movies of all ilk. Combining great animation with a wonderful, accessible storyline, it’s no wonder this movie managed to break all previous box-office records in Japan (Titanic and Miyazaki’s own Princess Mononoke were the previous champs).

As the film opens, we find the 10-year-old Chihiro sulking at the back of the family car, resenting her parents’ decision to move to a new home. However, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn, and the family ends up discovering what seems to be an abandoned theme park. Things quickly take a turn into the surreal when Chihiro’s parents start feasting on some food they discover, and are then turned into pigs. Chihiro is also stuck in an alternate reality, patronized by Japanese gods and spirits, and ruled by a greedy sorceress called Yubaba.

In order to continue existing in Yubaba’s world, Chihiro has to work in Yubaba’s bathhouse. For the first time, she is truly alone and has to fend for herself. However, there are kind people even in this alternate world, and a magic apprentice of Yubaba by the name of Haku goes out of his way to help Chihiro, who is now christened Sen. Chihiro never forgets her wish to return to the ‘normal’ world, and is constantly looking for ways to return home and rescue her parents. Along the way, she makes several friends (including a small bird and a rotund mouse), encounters a mysterious spirit by the name of Kaonashi (No Face), and tries to help Haku remember his true name, which will set him free from Yubaba’s grasp.

The two most important aspects of any animated movie are the animation and the storyline. In Spirited Away, both are equally excellent. Miyazaki employs a style of animation with clean lines, colourful elements and amazing depth and activity in every frame. Some computer imagery is employed, but is well integrated enough not to detract from the general feel of the movie. What truly stands out is the amazing character designs, and although the two leads are drawn like normal humans, the monsters, Yubaba, and other inhabitants of the alternate world are all very inventively designed. Yubaba has an oversized head and a multitude of expressions, and the way she transforms into a large bird is by far one of the most creative I’ve seen. The other creatures range from cuddly and adorable (the fat mouse, the large hippo-creature, and the soot monsters) to dark and menacing (the Kaonashi being a good example). If you are impressed by the monster designs in Monsters Inc, Spirited Away will truly blow your mind.

The storyline, whilst reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland, has a unique Japanese spin to it. Miyazaki has also worked in several subtexts in his tale, ranging from environmental awareness (represented by a ‘Mud Spirit’) to the commercialism and falsity of the adult world (the Kaonashi ‘buying’ friendships). Despite the depth of the screenplay, Spirited Away incorporates plenty of light moments amidst the darker sequences. It’s hard to find a favourite scene in the film, but one of the best laugh-out-loud moments was the scene where Sen has to tend to a stinking Mud Spirit. By keeping a good balance between the two, Spirited Away is a rare Japanese animation that has universal appeal (compared to Princess Mononoke, which some viewers felt were too dark and violent for the younger audiences).

Although this is a traditional animation, the storyline is so involving that at times, one can forget that it is not a live-action movie. Augmenting the movie is an aurally pleasing orchestral score, and despite it being a ‘cartoon’, it deviates from the Hollywood norm by not including a single song in its 140-minute running time (except during the end credits). The voice acting is also uniformly excellent, and despite not understanding a large portion of the Japanese dialogue, the tones and inflections helped make the film even more engrossing. For the first time, Hayao Miyazaki’s work is brought into Singapore on a larger scale, and this is a terrific chance to experience, first hand, the magic of his work. Spirited Away is destined to be an instant classic, and if I were to choose another word to describe the film, it would have to be ‘masterpiece’.

Final Word: A veritable work of art, and a befitting swansong for Hayao Miyazaki. Do note that two versions of the film will be aired in Singapore (a English and Chinese subtitled version, and a Chinese dub with English subtitles), so check before you buy. I would recommend the subtitled version.

[See W Manuel's review of Spirited Away ]