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Monday 23 September 2002

Spirited Away

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring voices of Daveigh Chase, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan, Lauren Holly, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, John Ratzenberger, David Ogden Stiers

Reviewed by John Shirley

What was the last great feature-length American animated film? There have been some good ones — Toy Story is very good, in its Hollywood way. Shrek has some fine qualities though personally I think it was about half as good as people make out — and I suspect it was adored chiefly because of its "the ugly duckling is still valid as an ugly duckling" theme. Final Fantasy did some amazing things with computer animation. But none of these are great films. Fantasia 2000? Worth seeing but not a patch on the original. Beevis And Butthead Do America had some laughs and a great psychedelic scene. Monsters Inc? Charm is not greatness. Face it, there haven't been any truly great American feature-length animated films since the original Fantasia and Pinocchio. The best since then are maybe The Lion King — or Aladdin — lots of talent, some healthy themes for kids, but uninspired, artistically more or less like Hallmark cards. And easy to market onto Burger King cups.

But the Japanese, now...There was Akira, there was Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro; there was Jin-Roh, Metropolis... and now there's Spirited Away, one of the best animated films ever, anywhere.

How is it that they can do it — and we can't? I think it's simple. Feature length American animated films are soulless, and we sense it. They're all strategized like an ad campaign. The latest is Disney's space-pirate version of Treasure Island — only this one, see, is Treasure Planet. We move the Stevenson story into outer space, the future. The kid's going to do some far future skateboard, windsurfing, Long John Silver will be a cyborg — that'll appeal to today's high-tech teens, boss. He'll be hip but sarcastic, a risk-taking dreamer — all the right elements. We've got it down to a science. And he'll slide right onto those Burger King cups; imagery from Treasure Planet will blight the media landscape, Target stores and fast food chains like a skin disease on the country's marketing corpus.

Disney films are worked up by teams of writers, often multiple directors, always a committee of producers. The whole creative process — the pitching of the idea, the "development" of the story, the animation design — is calculated like the new ad campaigns to sell the latest Prozac and the new Chevy Suburban. And it feels and smells like it. Disney and Warner Bros animated films push our emotional buttons, we enjoy the E ride, we buy more burgers — but they don't penetrate to those places within us that greatness reaches. They don't make us feel transported, truly transported — and most of us soon forget the experience.

But Myazaki is allowed to be an artist — he can bring the auteur sensibility to animation. This is one fine artist's vision: he wrote and directed it, though he had plenty of very talented help in realizing it.

And you won't soon forget Spirited Away. If you like beautiful animation — not CGI, but gorgeous paintings that come alive — and if you like superlative creativity, Spirited Away will transport you. Certainly the story transports ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents to an outpost in the world of spirits, an enormous bathhouse for traditional Japanese nature spirits to relax in. The bathhouse appears at night in the ruins of a deserted theme park.

Chihiro and her parents get lost on their way to a new house, and stumble into the theme park; here, Mom and Dad find an apparent restaurant with no one around, yet heaped with steaming delicacies. "We'll pay later," they say, and dig in with a greediness that repels their daughter — they do indeed pay by being literally transformed into pigs. (One thinks of the boys turned into donkeys in Pinocchio.)

Panicked, Chihiro finds she's beginning to fade away into nothingness — she's saved from this and given hope of restoring her parents by an exotic boy who brings her to the bathhouse where she can work for the spirits until she can find a way of persuading the sorceress running the place to release her parents. This witch looks like the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland; this huge-headed crone is probably an homage to Alice, for the film does have a "Japanese Alice in Wonderland" feel.

Here Chihiro meets, and becomes maidservant to, a whole series of bizarre, delightful creatures: animal spirits, nature spirits, cryptic Japanese traditions personified; they sneer at her at first, but eventually she wins them over. She sacrifices medicine given her by a river spirit she's cleansed — he was a great hideous reek of a spirit, coated by repugnant human effluvia of all kinds, from rusting junk to sewage — to save her exotic young friend. A theme of purgation plays out again and again in this film, in whimsical scenarios of purging and healing, for which public bathhouses are presumably symbols in Japan. Eventually Chihiro takes a journey on a mystic railroad to save her parents. Her character has a Pinocchio-like arc; she starts out whiny and self indulgent, and by the end feels she can meet any thing life throws at her and no longer wants to complain.

It's nearly impossible to convey the flavor of this movie. A giant spiritual bathhouse? The washing-clean of river spirits? Enormous brooding radish spirits? What about the no-face ghost, or the flock of paper birds pursuing the bloody flying dragon, or the giant baby?

The film's internal logic is a bit murky (perhaps less so to the Japanese) but then again it need only be as logical as a dream. Dream logic, natural beauty, and the metaphor of myth, these constitute the brilliant Miyazaki's creative wellspring. How stunningly he makes the natural world come alive: light like a life-force as it penetrates water; the almost ecstatic rippling of grasses in the wind; an effortless celebration of flowers; the texture of moss and the brushstrokes of tree trunks. It may be that the real "spirit" in his films is the spirit of Zen — for he will not be rushed along by some producer, terrified of a lapse of the audience's hypnotized fascination with story. He pauses between his masterful stagings of the fantastic to contemplate the homely, the excellence of life in the moment; to consider ordinary living spaces and small animals scuttling in the crevices. The details come alive, in Spirited Away — the details, elegantly rendered, are, for Miyazaki, a dimension unto themselves. The broad strokes are no more important than the details; the details never overwhelm the pacing. While the pacing is nothing so frenetic as in a Disney film, there was no restlessness in the audience, when I went to see it, though Spirited Away clocks out at a surprising 124 minutes.

There's plenty of humor; there are small comical animals a la many Disney films — sure, he's incorporated those — and moments of gorgeously rendered jeopardy; shivers from the genuinely sinister. He uses these elements, but they don't dominate the film, as they do in Disney. No, Spirited Away lets you re-live a dream, one of those splendid dreams that you wake from with an aching, ineffable longing.

Meanwhile, the trailer for Treasure Planet suggests, with its expensive combination of cell animation and CGI, that it will be fun, sufficiently imaginative, in a way that borrows from dozens of science fiction writers... but great? This calculated glamour, great? Not likely.

You want great? See Spirited Away. If you're an animation fan, your life isn't complete until you do.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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