Spirited Away: The Best Movie You Never Saw

The Thinker by Rodin

I’d lay odds that you have never seen the movie “Spirited Away“.

The reason you haven’t seen it is probably because its release in the United States was extremely limited. Typically it could be found in a couple theaters deep in the major cities. Occasionally it could be found in a suburban multiplex. But it disappeared fairly quickly because, well, it was a foreign film. As a rule we Americans don’t go see foreign films, even when lovingly voiced over by the team at Disney, who felt a missionary zeal to bring the film to the United States.

Another reason you may have missed it is because it is an animated film. While animated films are more acceptable these days, people tend to show up at animated films with children in tow. It’s a fairly rare adult who goes to see an animated film with other adults only. This is an animated film for all folks. Anyone will enjoy it.

Others may have been turned off because it is “Anime”. Anime is a type of animated film invented in Japan. From my perspective it is noticeable because most of the characters have such large, oversized eyes. As you might expect anime plots and storylines tend to emphasize Japanese characters. This makes it even harder for Americans to get into it. But anime is catching on with teenagers. My daughter is into anime. Because she is I am exposed to the culture. And I was delighted (no tickled pink!) to discover “Spirited Away”.

In America we’ve come to associate great modern animation with computerized tricks. Films like “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” can create animation that on a technical level is stunning. When joined with an excellent script, fine direction and great voice actors a few of these movies can take the genre to new heights. But in the 21st century creating animation with paints and cells seems incredibly old fashioned. But director Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the greatest living animation director (and possibly of all time) proves that old-fashioned animation can still triumph over computer animation.

“Spirited Away” (2001) is very likely the best-animated film of all time. Period. Now clearly I have not seen every animated film out there. I can take or leave animated films. Still, one can recognize a masterpiece when you see it. There is no room for doubt here. “Spirited Away” is an animation masterpiece.

We Americans should be more open to foreign films. Films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) challenged our conventions that Hollywood knows best. That film absolutely deserved (but did not win) Best Picture. It lost, I suspect because it was a foreign film. If that alone weren’t a black mark there was also the fact that is was subtitled. There are often much, much better movies available if we have the courage to rent from the foreign films section of our local Blockbuster. Oh but wait… my Blockbuster doesn’t have a foreign films section. Yes, that’s the sad state of affairs around here. So your Blockbuster may not have “Spirited Away”. But it’s worth a call anyhow because if they have it you’ll want to rent it. But even if they don’t have it, it is easy to purchase online. You’ll have to trust me on this one: you’ll want the DVD. You’ll be inviting friends over to watch it with you. It is that good.

What should you know about the plot? You really don’t need to know much. It doesn’t matter because the film sucks you in from the first minutes. But in brief a prepubescent girl (Chihiro, who is called Sen through most of the film) moves into a new neighborhood in Japan with her parents. On their way to their new house they get lost and end up at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. After passing through an underground tunnel and into the park slowly things start to get weird. Eventually it becomes clear that they have passed into a spirit world. Sen’s parents turn into pigs when they accidentally chow down on spirit food. Sen spends the rest of the movie trying to get her parents back and to go home.

This corner of the spirit world is a huge bathhouse where spirits of all types come to bathe and relax. Sen has to work in the lowliest of jobs simply to survive. The fact that she is a human who has passed into the spirit world is a major problem. She has to deal with a lot of discrimination and must grow up very quickly. You meet all sorts of fantastical spirits and creatures. Those who serve the bathhouse though at least look mostly human.

What I can’t really convey in mere worlds is the quality and depth of the animation. It is in a word: brilliant. Director Miyazaki is not just a terrific animator; he is a brilliant artist and storyteller too. His imagination just overflows with inventiveness and creative ideas. It is hard not to sit there with your mouth hanging open in sheer awe of his accomplishment. At the same time the story is deeply engaging. You find yourself totally sucked into Sen’s predicament. You are both charmed and appalled by the many spirits she encounters and her many adventures. You will be more than amazed; you will be stunned by what Miyazaki does with colors. The story does not just flow like a river, the film feels like a river flowing. The detail of the animation in every spot on the screen gives it a sense of realism that few animated films have achieved.

It’s the kind of movie that is so good you cry. It’s the sort of movie where when it ends you desperately want it to continue. It’s a movie that you have to share.

I’m doing my part. There is no way not to like it. If you thought the Wizard of Oz was inventive for its time, multiply that by 100. The Disney folks were so enchanted by the film that they left it completely unedited. They felt to edit even a single frame would be to deface a masterpiece. The English voiceovers are seamless and include the voices of David Ogden Stiers as the many armed master of the boiler room Kamaji and Suzanne Pleshette as the bathhouse owner Yubaba. Rent it or buy it today. And then spread the word.

2/5/13 – Belated rated 3.5 out of 4 stars.


(You can view the film’s trailer at the official Spirited Away web site, which is still up. Click on multimedia.)

2 thoughts on “Spirited Away: The Best Movie You Never Saw

  1. I saw Spirited Away this weekend. It’s definitely worth a rent. What I found fascinating is an underlying current of Zen philosophy, or at least an underlying moral that happiness does not come from accumulation and pampering the self. This movie inverts the typical Hollywood script. Ten minutes before the end of the Hollywood blockbuster, the protagonist MUST have some victorious battle to the death with the cartoon villain, right? What happens to the protagonist here? She boards a nearly empty train for a ride out into the middle of nowhere to meet an old spinster. The emptiness of the train forces a contemplation upon the protagonist and the audience. And magically, it works so much better than the umpteenth exploding Death Star finale. The quiet contemplation of the train ends up being much more appealing than the frenetic atmosphere of decadence in the bath house. The movie has its faults. The backgrounds for the characters are unbelievably beautiful, but the spare anime style of the characters themselves, their stiff movements, looks cheap Saturday-morning Hanna Barbera-ish. The plot jumps around in an odd way that won’t immediately make sense to the average Anglo-Saxon. But this weakness is also a delight. This movie is quintessentially foreign, looking at the world from a different angle. And it’s delightful to be provided with this new way of seeing our world. I’d agree with Mr. Occam, this movie is worth seeing.

  2. Mark:
    I should have been reading more of your blog and discovered all the wonderful things you have written about. I will be looking for this movie today! Thanks for this story into Anime..I recently purchased the set Vol 1 and 2 InYuasha for my son and although he worked for them they were not cheap.So rental may be a better option. I don’t know of rental places up here that carry alot of Anime from Japan…maybe I will need to look further..I could have been in the wrong department…Thanks again for the story…Mona

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