In spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.
To date I’ve missed out on animation director Hayao Miyazaki, who has a cult following all his own. His films are championed by many as the noble pinnacle of the Japanese animator’s art, and with his Oscar win earlier this year for Best Animated Feature, he can even count the generally clueless Academy among those followers. I had filed his films away in some dusty mental folder as subjects for further research, and only picked up Spirited Away after Disney deigned to give it a luxe two-DVD release in the U.S. – ironically, just weeks after slamming it back into theaters to capitalize on the Oscar nod.
So it took the sizable and ever-growing cult of Miyazaki to get the disc spinning in my DVD player. As they say, mea culpa. Spirited Away is extraordinary. A through-the-looking-glass yarn about a bathhouse for gods and other supernatural beings that seems to exist in a parallel dimension, Spirited Away yanks a pre-teen girl away from parents who are already more crass than she hopes ever to be (in fact, they’re turned into pigs after tucking rudely into food that was prepared for the gods) and puts her to work at the beck and call of these extraordinary creatures. What happens next unfolds as fantastic drama that’s as riveting and breathtaking as any animated feature I’ve seen. To call this film inventive is to grossly understate its accomplishment. It’s on the level of a Terry Gilliam film, but without the lack of formal control that can become frustrating in Gilliamland.
So many films these days are described as “inventive” when what’s really meant is that they’re ass-heavy with CG imagery, which encourages wild, often only half-baked, flights of fancy. But Spirited Away keeps its wits closely about itself, constructing and populating its primary milieu with such care and brio that it’s all the more startling when Chihiro actually bounds out for parts unknown late in the film. The environment opens up suddenly to make room for an overwhelming sensation of mystery, distance and beauty. The sense of a first long journey undertaken without adult accompaniment is heady, and just one of the frissons Miyazaki evokes here.
The director excels at this type of showmanship. The film exceeds expectations but, crucially, indulges them as well. One of the translucent spirits who hangs around the periphery of an early scene is a dark, cylindrical figure wearing a mask. His general build reminded me of one of those inflatable bop bags that are weighted in the base so a kid can knock them over again and again only to see them immediately spring back upright. The design is welcoming yet sinister in a way that signals this fellow will become more important in Chihiro’s story. And there are brilliant throwaway flourishes that elicit giggles or merely raised eyebrows, furthering the sense of mystery and adventure. I’ve been addressing the film’s loftiness here, but it’s important that the sheer goofiness of the whole affair is as compelling as its sincerity; that strong sense of humor earns the seriousness its keep.
In all these ways, Spirited Away‘s story advances with a simplicity of purpose and elegance of execution that shames its Disney overlords. Despite the obvious similarities – both films are about a young girl who learns life lessons from the introduction of a fantasy element in her life, one that is either left behind or overcome as part of her inexorable advance toward adulthood – there is a gulf that separates Lilo and Stitch from Spirited Away. As enjoyable as the former may be, it has a whiff of pandering about it, from the self-conscious efforts at hipness to the craftily incorporated Elvis tunes. Spirited Away exists in a realm that’s not freighted with references to pop culture. (If they do exist, they’re references to Japanese cultural elements that are so inessential to the film’s execution that they go unnoticed by a viewer like me.) To a small but unnerving degree, Disney’s contemporary animated films have felt like commercials for themselves, advertisements for the multinational state of mind that is The Mouse, encompassing movies, music, retail stores, Broadway shows and theme parks, and swallowing television networks whole. (I forgive Pixar’s Toy Story films for this since consumption is in some ways their subject, and because their depiction of life in brand-saturated suburbia is witty and true and relevant to the times in which we live.) The Miyazaki steers well clear of inducements to commerce. In fact, when Chihiro’s parents become pigs, that indictment of their behavior could be seen merely as a literalization of gluttony or as a more general critique of unchecked consumption. (Certainly Chihiro’s later repudiation of materialism goes a way toward supporting the latter reading.)
There is an English-language voice track on the DVD and, OK, I’ll grant that if I were a Japanese director and my anime feature were to be translated into English, I’d feel honored to have somebody with the talent and sensitivity of Toy Story impresario John Lasseter oversee the work, as he does here. But as good as the performances may be, they suffer from an identifiable Disney schtick. The original Japanese dialogue has been Americanized with results that may suit Lilo and Stitch but are a little, er, sassy for Spirited Away. And the voice performances, from Suzanne Pleshette all the way down to Daveigh Chase as little Chihiro, are just too damned earnest. Stick with the Japanese audio.
Finally, Spirited Away is just dazzling in its sweep, sensitivity and efficiency. An adventure yarn with the brazen craziness of Lewis Carroll, it’s also, subtly, a child’s drama of love, melancholy, and the first stirrings of rebellion. The characters are rich and strange and the settings endlessly evocative. After 12 months spent at the movies without seeing anything that I’d rate higher than an A-, I started to wonder, is it possible that they still make them like this? Well, yes. It is.