Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

Released in 2001, Spirited Away has become an instant classic in animation, bringing the anime tradition to a much wider audience.

In its roots, this is a typical coming-of-age story like thousands before it. A young girl begins the story afraid of her own shadow, cranky, timid and clingy. The family is moving to a new town and Chihiro doesn't like any of it. Her mother is clearly tired of this behavior and her father tries to push her into being stronger.

Then, just as the girl feared, something went wrong. A little trip into a strange area suddenly has her parents turned into pigs, herself trapped in a servant's contract, and no sign of escape. She's put to hard work and sees no way of escaping. It's the opposite of the Wizard of Oz - instead of a gorgeous world where she has friends, she's a scullery maid with people snarling at every turn. And like in Pinocchio, it was their own boorish behavior that had the parents turn into farm animals.

But slowly Chihiro realizes that things aren't as bad as she first though, once she gives it a fair try. Her fellow maids are actually quite friendly and helpful. The bathhouse in which she works appreciates the things she's able to do. The creatures and monsters that inhabit her new world, once quite fearsome to her, are now friends.

Most especially, Chihiro is taken care of by a boy, Haku, who both works for the witch overlord of the bathhouse and also seems quite familiar to Chihiro. As the story moves along, Chihiro matures quite a bit, of course. The whole story is about her growing and learning and discovering her strengths. Her friends band together to help her out, and the requisite happy ending results.

I understand why this is the highest grossing movie in Japanese history, and also why it was nominated for an Academy award. The general tale is one all people can relate to - the difficulties of change when you're a child, the wonder and strength that comes from realizing you can overcome those difficulties. The characters all have dimension - there aren't "good guys" and "bad guys". Characters start out harsh and annoying, but you get to like them when you get to know them. Even the 'mean' characters have understandable reasons for being that way.

And yet, despite being an avid student of the Japanese culture and understanding a lot of the underlying themes, the movie just wasn't quite "finished". Themes were started and not completed. Things mentioned with importance are later forgotten. There are characters that she meets for 5 minutes and is petrified of, and others that she knows for 8 minutes and is crying when she leaves them. Her roller-coaster emotions are inconsistant, even as she is maturing.

The same is seen in the animation. There were many sequences in the animation where it became jerky and rough. Yes, some scenes (the entrance to the boss' office for one) obviously were labors of love, with exquisite detail. But there were other scenes that should have been breathtaking - the dragon flying near the end, for example - that looked clumsy. And then only a few moments later, the two faces as they fell were again extremely well done. It's as if someone chose key parts that had to stand out, and really worked on those - but left the other scenes to middlemen. When I hold the animation of Spirited Away up to many of my other favorite animated classics, I'm afraid that Spirited Away just isn't as consistant or smooth across the film.

Also, with the theme being so timeless, I'm afraid that much of the movie was incredibly predictable. Even one of the key secrets wasn't much of a great moment when it was revealed, because there was no 'story meaning' to it. I won't give away the ending section, but while much of the middle of the movie sung with innovations and interesting, fascinating twists, at the end it dissoved back down into just about every other coming-of-age story written, and some extremely tired cliches finish the movie off. I truly felt let down.

It sort of indicates the general tone of the movie when my favorite scene here doesn't hold a candle to my favorite scenes in other animated classics, either from a drawing, a plot, or a character point of view. It was simply funny. It was the soot-dust scene, where Chihiro has first entered the scary bathhouse. She sees a poor little soot-dust creature struggling to carry a lump of coal, and it gets crushed by the coal. Aghast, she tries to help out the creature by lifting its coal lump and then carries the coal herself to the furnace.

The other soot creatures all crowd around her and it almost appears they're thanking her for saving their friend. One of the soot creatures lifts his own lump above his head ... and then THUMP, he drops it on himself, wiggling his little arms and legs and shrieking for help. Suddenly every little soot creature is dropping its coal on its head, hoping to get out of some work. It had me hooting in laughter.

So in the end, while other aspects of the movie were lovely but not excellent, I loved Spirited Away for those little spots of laughter in the story. Those little details are where it shone.


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