Much as Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa was the Jedi Master of the film school dojo attended by filmmakers Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in the seventies, Hayao Miyazaki is the Yoda for the modern American animators at Disney and Pixar. John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story introduces Spirited Away on DVD. Lasseter declares his admiration for Miyazaki, a true auteur of animation, who writes, directs and storyboards all of his feature films from start to finish at his own Studio Ghibli outside of Tokyo, Japan. If you loved Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, then you shouldn’t miss Spirited Away, an animated classic, on DVD.
Riding in the backseat of her parents’ car, Chihiro is sullen and belligerent because she has been forced to leave the life she has always known behind when her parents decided to move from Tokyo to the suburbs. Suddenly, as if he is being driven by demons, Chihiro’s father veers off the main road and stops outside of what looks to be an abandoned theme park. Not wanting to be left behind when her parents get out of the car to explore, Chihiro follows them through a darkened tunnel into the unpopulated buildings.
After her parents are transformed into pigs right in front of her eyes, Chihiro is left alone and forced to fend for herself in an enchanted land filled with spirits and strange, magical creatures. Chihiro is befriended by Haku, a boy spirit, she later learns is able to shape-shift himself into a dragon. Haku tells her what she must do in order to get a job doing hard labor in a bath house that is a kind of day spa for spirit creatures in need of rest and relaxation.
Chihiro becomes the apprentice of Lin, one of the many workers in the bathhouse. Lin warns her that Haku is not to be trusted. He is the minion of Yubaba, the wicked witch who runs the bath house. Chihiro has to conquer her own fears and face many obstacles in order to rescue her parents from the pig sty before they are slaughtered for a spirit feast.
Spirited Away is an allegorical fable much like many of the classic Grimm’s fairy tales. The story is fantastical and sometimes difficult to follow, and Spirited Awaypossesses none of the quirky fun, pop culture references, and comedic moments that makes Pixar films favorites of young and old alike. Miyazaki’s storytelling is old-fashioned and the plot is filled with adult metaphors. Aficionados of animation may be the only ones to appreciate some of the visual concepts. And while the hero of the story is a child, the plot may be too convoluted and esoteric for children to follow. There are also a couple of scenes, most notably when Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs, that may be too scary for small children.
But children of all ages will be awed by Miyazaki’s overwhelming visual images. It is Miyazaki’s attention to detail that makes Spirited Away so incredibly awe-inspiring. Miyazaki creates an animated world that is realistic in the small details at the same time that the visual images stretch the boundaries of creativity and imagination in their magical appeal.
The backgrounds for the action are incredible, and each new creature that is introduced is more fantastic and than the last. The characters of No Face and the Turnip Spirit are particularly notable for how their appearance and movements reveal their on-screen personality. From the small bits of smudge that carry lumps of coal to the furnace in the basement of the bath house, to the amazing scene when Haku transforms into a dragon and takes Chihiro flying high on his back, it is Miyazaki’s attention to even the smallest details of his animation that makes Spirited Away worth watching.
The DVD version of Spirited Away has only two main bonus features. Both features focus on how the creative team at Walt Disney adapted Miyazaki’s original film for English-speaking audiences. One of the most intriguing moments comes as Miyazaki himself explains how his imagination transformed an occurrence in his real life into something not of this world for Spirited Away. His imagination is obviously unparalleled.
Miyazaki’s most recent masterpiece, Howl’s Moving Castle, is soon to be theatrically released in the United States. It is certain to be another classic from this undisputed master of animation. Before you buy your tickets, you’ll want to check out Spirited Away on DVD, to understand why Hayao Miyazaki is heralded by his peers and considered to be the modern-day Walt Disney.