Recent East Asian Cinema #2: Spirited Away.

Welcome to the second of seven posts that will detail East Asian cinema, giving genre history leading up to a recent movie which will be reviewed! I hope you enjoy the series. For more information or previous entries, check the posts below this one.


Genre: Anime.

History: Anime is short for animation, and is primarily used to describe Japanese animation that usually stems from Manga (Japanese comic books). The term itself, in Japan is used for all animation; however, it is used, as stated, to describe Japanese animation for English speakers. Anime isn’t your typical animated family-type film. It can be, but that’s not what it’s stuck to. The genres of Anime are just as broad (and then some) as any other type of movie.

Believe it or not, Anime as we know it began because of Walt Disney. Japanese animators were impressed with the style of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, so they decided to try and mimic the style. It was only meant, however, to be temporary for animators with little skill when production companies were in a pinch.

But when Manga became popular in the 1970s, they began to become adapted into an animated format in this Anime style. The “father of Anime,” and overall Japanese equivalent to Disney himself, is Osamu Tezuka, who was both a creator of Manga and Anime. He was responsible for such works as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion (which, ironically, later came into controversy with Disney's own The Lion King).

But Anime was still primarily a Japanese thing. It wasn’t until the 1988 anime film Akira (based on the Manga of the same name) that Anime began to become popular in the Western World. After Akira, which brought a second wave of Anime fans all around, the style began to grow and expand even more, having any movie type from giant robot action/dramas to slapstick comedy to gay porn. There wasn’t a subject that anime wouldn’t tackle.

Currently, the most acclaimed director of Anime is Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli. He became well-known in the Western World with his film Princess Mononoke in 1997, which was, at that time, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan. He later created Spirited Away, the film we will be focusing on today, which was the first Anime film to ever win an Academy Award.

Spirited Away (2001).

Country of Origin: Japan.

Original Title: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki (and Kirk Wise for English version).

Spirited Away is a weird (as most Anime can be considered… cultural thing), yet endearing movie. Chihiro is a rather whiny and stubborn young girl moving to a new town with her parents. When her dad tries to make a shortcut to their new house, they get lost and end up in front of an old, abandoned theme park (or so it seems). Even with Chihiro’s refusals to go in, they end up wandering around until they find some food, which they chow down on (except for Chihiro, who denies). Chihiro wanders off and discovers and old bathhouse. But when it starts to get dark, a mysterious young man, Haku, warns her to hurry and get across the river before it gets dark. She goes to her parents, but they have been literally transformed into pigs… and then the previously empty riverbed is now so full it’s like an ocean. Chihiro has thus been ‘spirited away’ into the spirit realm. Haku helps her to get a job at the bathhouse, run by the cranky old witch Yubaba, who takes her name away and re-dubs her Sen. There, Chihiro/Sen must work it out with spirit creatures/gods, as well as face the hatred from the other workers for being human, until she can figure out a way to get her parents back to normal and get home.

There’s a lot of bizarre things in this movie, but it all works for the world we’re given. My favorite scene in the movie has to be the ‘stink spirit’ (who is more than he seems), and Chihiro has to work harder than she ever has before to help make this situation right. It’s a great scene in the movie, and is really a turning point.

If there was anything that would be negative about this movie, it’s that there’s no real plot. The purpose is about Chihiro making it through long enough until she can find a way to return her parents to normal and get home. It’s a basic enough thing. But in between that time, so many other random things happen. They all do have some sort of purpose to the ending of the movie, but it’s really difficult to put this into a first/second/third act. It’s almost as if the movie has 4 acts: The human world, bathhouse part 1 (up through the stink spirit), bathhouse part 2 (the No-Face stuff), and the Zeniba stuff. It just makes the movie feel disjointed at points. But that’s probably just me.

The animation style is great, as it’s a mix of hand-drawn animation and computer graphics. And, amazingly enough, the American dubbing actually doesn’t suck. Chihiro is kinda shouty at times, but that’s how the character is anyway. Another thing I loved about the movie were its usually subtle commentaries. It touched a lot on gluttony and greed, via the food/pig stuff and No-Face respectively. And, ironically, Chihiro is renamed Sen (sin), and she’s the only character who doesn’t give in to any of the bad things in the movie.

Overall, the movie is a great film. It has amazing character development with Chihiro, which is really what the whole thing was about. The English dub actually, I think, added something to it that worked really well. Miyazaki has stated that, in the original Japanese version, Chihiro doesn’t remember a thing about the spirit world and there’s no real proof that she learned anything from the experience. However, in the English dubbing, they add in a line at the end that contrasts feelings Chihiro had about her new school, showing that she’s really grown as a person. And that really gives the movie meaning. However, regardless, it is still a great movie either way.

A Keanu 'Whoa'

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