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“What’s going on here?”
“Something you wouldn’t recognize, it’s called love.”
-Lin and Kamaji, shippers on deck
Just as any business, sport, or some other third thing has its hall of heroes and boundary-breakers, so too does animation. Walt Disney, John Lasseter, Glen Keane, Chuck Jones, and countless others have left their mark in the pantheon of this art form. One of the most prolific names in animation is a man who some call the “Walt Disney of Japan”, a man famous for his strong characters, gorgeous aesthetics, creative storytelling, and notorious indecisiveness on the subject of retirement.
I am of course talking about Hayao Miyazaki.
When most people think about Japanese animation, things like Astro-Boy, Pokemon, Akira, and certain things involving tentacles come to mind (never again, Deviantart..never again…). Miyazaki, however, is in a class of his own. Deftly weaving together tales ranging from fantasy to slice-of-life (or a mix of the two) while blending in likable heroes and villains, some kickass technology (particularly things involving flight), and subtle themes of environmentalism vs. industrialism, he takes animation to its fullest potential in both artistry and story. He worked his way up in the animation world through the 70’s and eventually founded Studio Ghibli, which is as much a cornerstone of Japan’s identity as Disney is to America. In fact, Miyazaki and several members of the studio paid a visit to Disney’s animation studio in the early 80’s where he met a young animator by the name of John Lasseter. Lasseter was frustrated with how Disney was treating their animated movies at the time (this was the dark period long after Walt Disney’s death but before the Renaissance of the 90’s) and he briefly bonded Miyazaki over their shared love of animation. Later, after Lasseter was fired for his “outrageous” experiments of combining traditional animation with CGI and went on to found Pixar with Steve Jobs, he visited the Ghibli Museum (yes, there is a museum and park dedicated to Studio Ghibli in Japan and going there is on mine and every animation-phile’s bucket list) and he got to meet Miyazaki again; learning more about his approach to storytelling and animation would inspire him when creating his first movie, a little thing called Toy Story, maybe you’ve heard of it.
Just as Miyazaki’s influence helped him reach a broader audience for his films and climb up in the animation world, Lasseter wanted to do the same for his friend. He was upset at how many of his movies were poorly dubbed and released in the US, so he used his clout to convince Disney to buy the distribution rights and let him oversee every aspect of their release, especially the English dubbing. Look on the back of any Studio Ghibli DVD and you’ll find a who’s who of the best of Hollywood lending their voices (Anne Hathaway, Laura Bacall, Christian Bale, Gillian Andersen, Mark Hamill, Liam Neeson, and Michael Keaton, to name a few) and they all do phenomenally with the material given. Spirited Away in particular has a lot of well-known voices, but not for the reasons you might think. As much as I love this movie, I swear John Lasseter was going through a list of Disney veterans who have experience playing similar parts when casting them for Spirited Away. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
The main protagonist is a curious sweet-natured girl who’s loyal to her family but has a bit of a bratty streak…
Her friend is a moody teen who learns to open up to others he considers family…
She’s helped by an outspoken feisty assistant caught in a contract with the antagonist…
And a cranky old-man who keeps the place he calls home running even though he looks like something from out of this world…
Our villain is an overbearing mother whose soft spot for her son is clouded by her greed more often than not…
And then there’s also John Ratzenberger. Because Pixar.
Contrary to what you might think, I don’t find the familiar voices distracting at all because the actors do their jobs so well. I can even overlook the one or two moments where the words don’t match the mouth movements because they and the people translating the script are doing their hardest to make it work for an audience that speaks a completely different language (I will say, however, that watching a dubbed animated film is much easier on the eyes than a dubbed live-action one). I can understand if why anyone else would feel differently and claim the original Japanese dub is better, but if you want to watch it that way you can just change the settings without losing a thing (also, have fun reading subtitles for two hours!)
Our movie opens as a young girl named Chihiro (Daveiugh Chase) sullenly sits in the back of a car clutching a bouquet of flowers. She and her parents are moving to a new town, and like every kid in movies where the plot involves moving away, she’s not happy as it means leaving her old life behind. Her mom and dad try to reassure her that going to a new school and making new friends will be fun, but Chihiro won’t hear of it. She starts to panic when she notices her flowers, which are a goodbye present from her pals, are starting to die, and her mom tells her that they wouldn’t be if she didn’t cling to them so tightly (which is the first instance of a theme that you’ll see running throughout the film that I’ll address later).
Chihiro’s father, who’s driving, gets lost and decides to take a “shortcut” to reach their new house (oh boy, I’ve seen Beauty and the Beast enough times to know this won’t end well). On the way they pass little stone houses by the road, which Chihiro’s mom tells her are shrines built for spirits back when people used to believe they lived there. After a bumpy drive through the woods, they nearly crash into a small grinning statue in front of an old tall red building. Dad wants to go check it out in spite of Mom worrying about missing the movers and Chihiro whining about how scary it is. They leave her behind to investigate, and after a minute alone with the creepy statue, Chihiro runs in after them.
After a long walk through a dark tunnel, the family finds itself in a sort of terminal which opens up into a beautiful field and a dried-up river. Dad surmises that this whole place was probably part of an abandoned theme park that closed after Japan’s economy went down the tube after the 90’s (and yes, Japan does have those. Lots of those. Lots of creepy, creepy, post-apocalyptic Disney World knockoffs of those). The “park” isn’t as abandoned as they think, however, because they can smell food cooking nearby. They follow the scent to a nearby village that seems to consist of nothing but restaurants and find one with lots of delicious food out for the taking but no one around. Mom and Dad help themselves and when Chihiro suggests eating here isn’t such a good idea, they tell her to join them in eating the mysterious strange food left out in the open.
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