Spirited Away and Me

*The following is a gushing love note detailing the history leading up to the first time I ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which was fifteen years ago today, on March 31st 2003.*

Spirited Away was originally released in American theaters on September 20th 2002, but I wouldn’t see it until March the 31st of 2003. This is largely due to the nearly non-existent marketing Disney gave the film in its initial release. I remember during some random night in mid 2002 I saw a commercial for what looked like a Japanese animated film with the word Disney attached. It immediately sparked curiosity and interest from me, unfortunately it was also around 2:00 AM or something, so I was also tired and didn’t catch the name of the film in question.

I kept watching the same channel (if memory serves correctly it was Nick @ Nite) every night to try and catch the commercial again, but it never seemed to show up. I even tried to search Disney’s website for any info on it, but that proved to be something of a needle in a hay stack endeavor (especially considering I didn’t have a particular patience for the interwebs then). There seemed to be no info of it anywhere, and it was driving me nuts. “What was that Japanese Disney movie?!” I kept thinking to myself. All I can remember from the commercial was that there was a girl, what I thought was a sand-worm (really a dragon) and a castle (really a bathhouse… again, I was tired).

A few months past and I was at a hobby/game store at a local mall. And there I saw an anime magazine with the movie from that commercial on the cover. “Praise the sun!” I thought to myself (in not quite those words). But when I opened the magazine up, I barely got to see the article on the movie before I had to leave (why I didn’t just buy the dang magazine is still a mystery to me), but the few pictures I saw of it were beautiful. I think I finally saw the name “Spirited Away” here, but for reasons unknown I didn’t look it up with my newfound knowledge. I didn’t even know if the movie had already been released or if it was still on the horizon. I guess I was just happy that a smidgeon of my curiosity had been fulfilled.

Fast-forward another few months (now well into 2003), and Oscar season was rolling around. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Oscars each year until they aired on TV, so I didn’t know any of the nominees for anything. But I did know that the year prior they introduced a Best Animated Feature category, and thats all I cared about.

So when the Oscars were on and they were giving out Best Animated Feature as the first award on the show (which is kind of a backhanded compliment to animated films on the Academy’s part, but that’s a rant for another day), I was ecstatic. The nominees were Ice Age, Treasure Planet, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Lilo & Stitch…but then they announced Spirited Away!

From the brief clip they showed at the Oscars (where the witch Yubaba magically silences Chihiro by zipping her lip) it finally hit me that the animation in Spirited Away looked an awful lot like My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro has been a favorite of mine since I was really little, and if this Spirited Away were anything like it – even remotely – then dang it it deserved the award! At that moment I immediately decided Spirited Away should win… AND IT DID! (perhaps not my most professional moment, but I was just a teenager then, so sue me).

How amazing it was. I didn’t know a Japanese animated film could even have been nominated, and it actually won! Even then, I still didn’t know anything about the movie. But if it had anything to do with the people who made Totoro, then surely it was gold! I wasn’t even sure if it involved the same people as Totoro, but I knew it didn’t look like most anime, and that it had that unique “Totoro look” (as I probably wold have called it at the time). The similarities couldn’t just be a coincidence, right?

Well, the awesome news was that, due to the Oscar win, Spirited Away was getting a quick re-release in theaters across America (despite the fact that it was due for a release on VHS and DVD about two weeks later…Yes, VHSs were still a thing in 2003). Simply put, I had to see it. And although it was actually re-released around March 24th (if I remember correctly), it would be a week before I got the chance to finally see it.

And then, on March 31st 2003, I finally saw that ever-elusive movie. To say it lived up to the hype I had engraved into myself is as big of an understatement as there is. I never had a movie experience like it. Spirited Away was endlessly creative, had an impossibly unique narrative, and couldn’t be more beautiful (both in terms of visuals and storytelling). Hyperbole nothing, I simply adored the movie. It’s among my chief creative influences, and to this day, fifteen years later, it’s still just as captivating.

After seeing the film, I also noticed the films proper title (in America, anyway) was “Miyazakis Spirited Away.” Naturally, after (finally) seeing some commercials for the film, I looked up Spirited Away and this Miyazaki fellow on Disney’s advertised website. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the decade and a half since that day, which seems so long ago and not long ago all the same, I have become a big fan of Studio Ghibli and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And this creative spark can be traced back to this day, March 31st, fifteen years ago. Spirited Away will spirit me away forever.

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Spirited Away Review

Spirited Away

If ever there were a movie that could be described as indescribable, surely it’s Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece is a work of ineffable imagination. Its storytelling and inventiveness are as spectacular as they are unique.

When it was released in Japan in 2001, Spirited Away broke many records, and ranks as the highest grossing film in Japan’s history to this day. When Disney brought it stateside in 2002, it managed to finally get Miyazaki some worldwide recognition, not to mention an Oscar and many other accolades. Spirited Away has since become regarded as a classic of animated cinema, and its praise couldn’t be more deserved.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year old girl in the middle of moving to a new home with her mother and father. Chihiro is apathetic, somewhat spoiled, and bitter about her family’s move.

On their way to their new home, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn, and the family ends up at the entrance to a mysterious tunnel, which leads to what appears to be an abandoned theme park. The tunnel and park turn out to be a portal to another world. Not a portal in the traditional fantasy sense, as they show no inherent otherworldly attributes. But once night falls, Chihiro finds herself surrounded by ghosts and monsters, her parents – who were quick to consume the many delicacies found in one of the park’s restaurants – are transformed into pigs, and the tunnel that lead her to this world is now a distant speck across an ocean.

YubabaFrightened and confused, Chihiro manages to find a friend in a mysterious boy named Haku, who informs her that if she hopes to survive in this new world of gods and monsters and save her parents, she must find employment at a nearby bathhouse, which is ruled by the witch Yubaba. But working at the bathhouse won’t be so easy, as employment comes at the cost of surrendering one’s name to Yubaba. Should Chihiro (now dubbed “Sen” by the witch) completely forget her name, she will never return to the human world.

The bathhouse, perhaps the most alive location in all of cinema, is where most of the film takes place. It is a place where deities and specters visit for some relaxation and replenishment. The designs for these countless spirits are all richly imaginative, whether they get a decent amount of screen time or are simply background characters. The creatures of Spirited Away are so wondrous and weird they make the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina look mundane.

Such wonderfully designed creatures are the least of Spirited Away’s triumphs, however. There is a profoundness and depth within Spirited Away’s storytelling that ascends it to the highest level of artistry.

Each character Chihiro comes across has something of a story to tell, and nearly every scene works as an allegory with double and triple meanings, sometimes even more. There isn’t a moment in Spirited Away that doesn’t present audience with much more than what’s immediately on-screen.

Spirited AwayEvery character within the bathhouse is wonderfully realized: Haku becomes something of a guardian angel to Chihiro, but also has a loyalty to Yubaba that makes his motives ambiguous. Kamaji, an elderly man with six extendable arms who bears a resemblance to Dr. Robotnik, is a slave to his job as the bathhouse’s boiler man (he literally sleeps where he works). At first Kamaji appears bitter, but he is won over by Chihiro’s determination. Lin is a young woman who becomes something of Chihiro’s boss, confidant and mentor. Even Yubaba is more than just a villain. Although she’s capable of despicable deeds, Yubaba is also given human and relatable traits as the film progresses.

Spirited AwayPerhaps the most important of the lot is Noface, a mysterious apparition who is the embodiment of loneliness and despair. Noface – who is according to Miyazaki the film’s deuteragonist – has his own story that becomes as rich and detailed as Chihiro’s, and both characters’ stories intertwine beautifully.

It is of course Chihiro herself who’s at the heart of it all. She is a flawed character; clumsy, whiny, and apathetic. But it’s her flaws that make her character growth all the more powerful, and make her quite possibly the best leading heroine in any animated film.

One of Spirited Away’s greatest strengths is the way it manages to tell its story and bring its characters to life. Very little of what happens in Spirited Away is explicit. Chihiro’s journey is told with a subtle and ethereal grace that’s all its own. It tells only what needs to be told, and leaves the rest of its details to the viewer’s interpretation.

ChihiroYet, despite its artistic depth, Spirited Away is also a very fun movie. Hayao Miyazaki has claimed he specifically made the film for 10-year old girls, and yet it’s a film that can appeal to anyone. The characters win us over with their charming personalities and sympathetic qualities, and the film sprinkles in a good amount of humor and heart. It’s as entertaining as it is deep, and a real treat for audiences of any age.

Spirited AwayTo top it all off, Spirited Away boasts some of the most gorgeous animation ever seen. All of the character designs leave an impression. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in all of their actions and movements. Even the background characters are always doing something, with each one acting differently to the others. The backgrounds are consistently stunning throughout, with every last frame being a captivating work of art.

Spirited Away, like most of Miyazaki’s works, was scored by Joe Hisaishi, and its soundtrack remains one of his finest compositions. It is (quite appropriately) the most “Japanese” of all the scores of Miyazaki’s films, and many of its tracks are some of the most beautiful and soothing I’ve heard in a movie.

Rest assured that Disney once again did a fine job with the dubbing. Though this was one of Disney’s earlier efforts in dubbing a Miyazaki film, and thus there weren’t as many “big name” actors jumping at the chance to voice a character like there would be in later Miyazaki films, the quality of the dub is just as good as any of them.

Many actors who previously voiced Disney characters can be heard (such as David Ogden Stiers, a Disney veteran, voicing Kamaji, and Pixar’s “lucky charm” John Ratzenberger voicing one of the employees of the bathhouse, complete with his famous ad-libbed one-liners). Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden and the late Suzanne Pleshette voice Chihiro, Haku and Yubaba, respectively, and help give life to the characters (Plashette’s cackling vocals are a particular highlight). Simply put, you can’t go wrong watching Spirited Away in its original Japanese track or the English dub.

ChihiroSince its release, Spirited Away has had a profound impact on animated films the world over, with the likes of Pixar aiming to give their films a richer artistic depth in the years that followed, to name the most prominent example. And yet, despite how far animated films have come in the decade and a half since Spirited Away’s time, none of them have truly replicated its magic. No matter how many times I’ve watched it, I’m just as enchanted and enthralled as I’ve ever been by it. It’s an ineffable work that is entirely its own, and quite likely the most imaginative film ever made.

Its title couldn’t be more appropriate. After watching Spirited Away, you may feel like you’re very much in Chihiro’s shoes, and have been spirited away yourself.

 

10

Animated Films That Won Live-Action Movie Awards

Since the early 2000s,  more and more film award shows and committees have been introducing awards for animated films. The Oscars now have the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, an award which was later replicated by the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Japan Academy Prize (Japanese Academy Awards). The up side to this is that it finally gives these award shows the opportunity to acknowledge animated features, which have been notoriously ignored in the past. The downside is that these awards often come as something of a token, as animated films are rarely even nominated for any other awards on these shows (lest they be for music or songs), despite whatever critical acclaim and admiration these animated films have received.

But every once in a while, the people behind some of these awards manage to overcome their biases, and there are some animated films that have actually won Best Picture awards and the like from some award presentations. I’ve given up hoping that the Oscars will some day crown an animated film with their top prize – considering only three animated films have ever been nominated for it (already a bit iffy), and that none of them were taken seriously as contenders – but that doesn’t mean others haven’t acknowledged the merits and timeless appeal of animated movies.

The following is a short list of some of the animated films that proved they could not only go toe-to-toe with live-action films at award shows, but even overcome their competition. Keep in mind that this is merely a short list of examples. I’m mainly focusing on the animated films that won the big awards at more prominent award shows, so there are probably a few others I’m missing. I’m also not including various critic awards, since it’s been long-established that critics enjoy animated films just fine, but award committees are tougher to win over.

So without further rambling, here are some of the exceptional animated films that overcame the odds, and won Best Picture awards that are usually reserved for live-action films.

 

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro

Won: Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s tale about two girls who meet a magical forest spirit is one of the most beloved Japanese films of all time. It is also the earliest animated film I can think of that nabbed a Best Picture award over live-action competition, winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film. What makes this win all the more notable is that the Mainichi Film Awards already had a long-established animation award (they now have two, the older of which now going to smaller features and the newer going to big budget animations). Totoro won their animation award, and then went on to win the big prize as well. Well deserved.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

While Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, it became the first animated film to win the big prize at the Golden Globes. Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney’s most charming features, and with a wonderful soundtrack to boot. How could it not win the musical category?

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

I may not be the biggest fan of The Lion King, but no doubt the film has a very strong appeal to many viewers, as is evidenced by its repeating of Beauty and the Beast’s win for the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time, and its Golden Globe win only capped off its success.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki once again created magic when he released Princess Mononoke in 1997, which briefly became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history (it still ranks in the top 10). It also became the first animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. It then became the second animated film to win the Mainichi Film Award’s top honor (also claiming its animation award). Princess Mononoke was a landmark animated film at the box office and in acclaim.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

The third animated film to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture is also, sadly, the last. Shrek, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles would all get nominations, but after the Golden Globes established their Best Animated Feature category, their rules state that any films nominated in the animation category are ineligible for either of the Best Picture awards (the least they could have done was named the newer award “Best Picture – Animated“). But at least this trend went out on a high note, as Toy Story 2 is one of Pixar’s best.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, Berlin Film Festival’s ‘Golden Bear Award’ for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away, remains the highest-grossing film in Japanese history to this day. It also became the second animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards (sadly, since the inception of the Japan Academy Prize’s Animation Award a few years later, no other animated film has been nominated for Best Picture).

Spirited Away followed suit with Totoro and Mononoke by winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film (where it also won the Animation Award, Best Director for Miyazaki, and Best Music for Joe Hisaishi). Spirited Away also became the first (and only) animated film to win the big prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. This string of awards would culminate with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, giving that award some depth and credibility in its early days.

When it comes to animated films winning live-action movie awards, Spirited Away is the big dog in this league of animated all-stars.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Wallace and Gromit

Won: BAFTA for Best British Film

Given the huge popularity of the Wallace and Gromit characters, it still comes as a surprise to some that the duo have only starred in a small handful of short films and one feature film. But that one feature film is the only animated movie to win the BAFTA award for Best British Film. Not bad for an absentminded inventor and his mute dog.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film

Frozen has taken over the world (and rightfully so, it’s so lovable), becoming the most successful animated film ever made, and winning numerous awards for Animated Features and for its music. But Frozen’s impact has undoubtedly been biggest in Japan, where it ranks as one of the country’s highest-grossing movies (it was the first film since Spirited Away that actually contested Miyazaki’s box office champ). It broke all home video records in Japan (overtaking Spirited Away in this instance), and it has etched its way into Japanese popular culture. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that it also became the first animated film to win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (previously, Toy Story 3 was the only other animated nominee in the award’s history).

The Oscars apparently couldn’t get over themselves and give Frozen a Best Picture mention, but the Japanese Academy Awards made up for it by acknowledging the film’s unprecedented appeal.

Top 5 Animated Antagonists Who Aren’t Really Villains

Anton Ego

Animated films are often just as remembered for their villains as hey are their heroes. Disney alone has created so many colorful personalities with their villains that they’ve made an entire franchise out of them. Animated villains can be scary and wicked, which prevents a good deal of animated films from being too sugar-coated. But oftentimes, the best animated villains are the ones who aren’t evil, and are instead more emotionally complex, misunderstood, or are simply people with conflicting interests to the heroes’. Sometimes, the best villains aren’t ‘villains’ at all. But, due to their role in their respective film’s narrative, they can still be considered antagonists.

 

The following animated villains fall into such a category. They aren’t evil, but they are antagonists in one way or another, and they create obstacles that the heroes must overcome. Be warned, there will be some spoilers ahead. Continue reading “Top 5 Animated Antagonists Who Aren’t Really Villains”