Film & DVD Review
From Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the history of animated cinema, comes the Academy Award winning masterpiece.
Spirited Away is a wondrous fantasy about a young girl named Chihiro who discovers a secret spirit world. When her parents are mysteriously transformed, she must call upon the courage she never knew she had to free herself and return her family to the outside world.
Spirited Away is the latest animated film to come out of Studio Ghibli, the company responsible for Princess Mononoke, among other films. While many of their films have received high acclaims from fans, and have even achieved a certain level of cult status, Spirited Away is possibly the one which has risen above all the others in international acclaim. It won the Academy Award Oscar for Best Animated Film at the 2003 Oscar's, which has to be said is a not bad achievement for a Japanese film. Being up against the likes of Lilo and Stitch, and Disney films, many thought that the Academy would stay American, and pat themselves on the back, but no, they did the right thing and deservedly handed the award to Spirited Away.
"Just another lazy day..."
I must freely admit, I've never really, well certainly not in the recent years, been a big fan of animated films. The only ones I've had any inclination to watch are the computer generated ones from Pixar and the like. Maybe it is because somewhere in my head I have it lodged that animation = cartoons = for children. While I know this is not the case, there must be something in my subconscious making me think this, as I, until recently, had not had the slightest bit of will to watch ANY animated film.
Spirited Away changed that. With all the hype that I had been reading online concerning Spirited Away, while still having a bit of scepticism, I did begin to get intrigued towards this world of animation which I was missing. So I bought several animated films - Manga films like Macross Plus, Perfect Blue, Ninja Scroll, Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke and lastly, very recently (mid-June 2003) Spirited Away. I have yet to watch any of the Manga films, but I did watch Princess Mononoke, and it was my entry into the world of animation. After all I had heard and read about it, I was expecting something great. I was disappointed. The film was ok, but to me it wasn't the masterpiece it has been proclaimed to be. As such, when I watched Spirited Away the other day, my expectations were somewhat lower. However, this time I can see what all the fuss is about. It is quite simply an amazing story, expertly handled.
"Ooooo. Pretty lighting!"
Chihiro is a ten year old girl, moving town to her new home. Like all children that age, she moans a lot, and wants to get her own way. On the way to their new house, Chihiro's father takes a wrong turning and gets them lost, but male drivers being the way they are, he continues driving through a forest. At the end of the forest they discover a building that looks as though it has been abandoned, but nevertheless, and against Chihiro's vocal wishes, her mother and father enter. Passing through the building the come out the other side into an incredibly scenic grassland, with buildings over a few hills. Chihiro's father thinks that the whole place is an abandoned theme park, being built quite recently but closed when the business stopped coming.
Reaching what appears to be the main street of the park area, the father smells food, and quickly follows his nose to the source - a huge feast, freshly made, but with the chef no where to be seen. With no one around, mother and father begin to tuck in, intending to pay for what they eat once the owner of the shop comes back. Chihiro refuses the food, as she is scared and curious of her surroundings. With her parents occupied, she goes for a quick look around the local area, where she finds a bridge overlooking a rail track, with a train travelling along. Wanting to see the train pass under the bridge, she runs from one side to the other, but notices someone standing watching her - someone not pleased that she is there. Telling her to leave as soon as she can, as she is not meant to be here, the boy, Haku, gives Chihiro a scare, and she quickly runs back to her parents.
"This is one big bathroom!"
On arriving at the shop where her parents were eating, she makes a terrifying discovery - her parents are no longer there, but they appear to have been transformed into pigs! This makes her even more terrified, and she quite literally legs it. All around her spirits start to appear as it gets darker. Scared and confused Chihiro runs back the way her family originally came, only to find a large sea where there was once undulating green hills, and arriving in front of her is a boat full of spirits. With no where to go, she finds somewhere, anywhere to hide. Crying through fear, she hides, but Haku, the boy who originally told her to leave, comes to her aid. He tries to help her, and explains to her that humans are not welcome in the world she is now in, and that if she is caught, she most likely will be turned into a pig or killed.
With only one possibly way of surviving in that world, Haku explains to her what she must do if she wants to live and save her parents. It won't be easy for her, but the journey that lays in front of her will bring out sides of her character which she probably didn't ever know she even had.
"And you put your left foot in..."
What I've described is only the first 10 minutes or so of the film. I don't even want to mention in any detail much beyond this, as it wouldn't be fair. In some films the plot is so thin, and the story so weak or insignificant to the film, that recounting 90% of what happens doesn't really matter as it won't spoil any enjoyment of the film. Spirited Away is not one of those films. The plot and story are so exceptionally strong that they are the main part of the film, and I don't want to ruin any of the enjoyment.
While the vast majority of characters in the spirit world are not human, I cannot comment on how realistically they are portrayed, however as a ten year old girl Chihiro is created with incredible realism. Her actions and emotions are not similiar to a ten year old girl, they are a ten year old girl. From what I have seen from other Japanese films (Ring, Dark Water), Japanese children do appear to be more independent than western children, which is something that I, as a westeners, don't have that much experience with. This is possibly why I did find the development in Chihiro's character to possibly be a bit too much. I felt she maybe became just a little too level headed, responsible and independent. However, that opinion is based on how I see young children over here, for Japanese children this may be different. Also, I cannot imagine what the effect of Chihiro's experiences in the spirit world could be on a young child. Anyway, I am more than willing to overlook this minor criticism due to the wonder of the magical adventure that Chihiro goes through.
"Lots of shadows, and me... help!"
As far as the animation goes, not being a big watcher of animated films, I didn't really know what to expect. Maybe this is a good thing, as I'm not conditioned into seeing any typical animation style, but maybe it is a bad thing as I did expect the animation to be nigh on perfect. Most of my criticism towards the animation in Spirited Away are based on what I saw in the first 40 minutes, roughly, of the film, as after that I was drawn into the story too much to notice! Anyway, what I did notice was that for my liking some of the animation, particularly when characters were running, was rather jerky looking. I did expect more fluidity than what I saw in some scenes, which was a little disappointing. That being said, in other scenes some of the animation was simply superb. I was honestly amazed at some of the things I saw on screen, and was in awe of the animators. At times I thought that maybe some CG was used to animate some parts of scenes, but nothing about CG was mentioned in the 'Making Of', so I was probably wrong.
Surpassing the animation is the attention to detail in the scenes. This is something which I also noticed in Princess Mononoke. There is no such thing as a plain or bland scene in this film. Everything is treated as if it were real, and given the same amount of detail that you would see with your own eyes if the object were there in front of you. In fact at times, some of the purely scenic scenes, with no characters in them, do look as though they are real!
"Damn household chores... "
The voice acting is something which I have difficulty in commenting on. Of the two languages available - English and Japanese - I watched the film in Japanese as this is the original langauge for the film. Without seeing body actions and facial expressions of the actor and actresses, it is hard to judge the acting quality. That being said, Chihiro's voice did sound realistic for the situations she finds herself in. After watching the 'Making Of', I would imagine that all the voices were done exactly as intended, as Hayao Miyazaki does not come across as a man who would settle for anything less!
There isn't much else I feel I can say about Spirited Away. In fact my next comment on the film is probably the worst part of this review, as I don't have anything to make my point or back it up. With the story really being exceptionally strong, and basically pretty much everything about the film as a whole being very good, you'd probably expect me to give the film 5 thumbs up. However I'm not going to, and I can't really explain that well why. After finishing watching the film, despite being mesmerised in places by it, and genuinely believing everything which I have written so far in this review, there was something that felt a little empty. I don't know what it is either. For me, there is something that Spirited Away is lacking, which could make it the complete package. I don't know if I thought the ending with the pigs needed possibly a little more to explain what Chihiro does... I really don't know what it is that has given me this feeling. But there is something that made me feel that the film shouldn't get five thumbs. Upon repeated viewings I may come back and revise this paragraph, and possibly the film's rating.
"Does the size of my head scare you?"
That aside, I still very much enjoyed Spirited Away, and do rate it very highly. The film has had every possibly word for praise thrown at it, from magestical, magical or as The Australian stated 'A film of rare and genuine enchantment'. I wouldn't say any of them are wrong, and recommend that everyone lets their imagination run wild and allow themselves to be taken on a magical journey with Chihiro.
Audio & Subtitles
There are three different audio options for Spirited Away. Either Japanese DD5.1 or DTS, or English DD5.1. As stated in the main film review, I watched the film in Japanese DTS, with English subtitles. Even though the film is animated, I'd prefer to watch the film with the director's first choice for the voice's regardless the language, and it is a Japanese film. Being an animated film, every single sound effect had to be recorded from somewhere, and then recorded onto the film - something which I imagine must have taken a hell of a long time. Despite this, I was amazed at how realistic everything sounded. From the car on the road, to the sounds of all the spirits with plates and food, every tiny detail clearly had been thought about and made to sound as though it were real. Where appropriate effects are played around all the speakers, although this doesn't happen that often quite simply because it is not needed to. The speech is also perfectly clear, and again realistic to the characters in their situation. Interestingly, depending on which language you choose to watch the film in, the end credits are displayed in the corresponding language's text.
"And just when I thought things couldn't get wierder!"
The subtitles, for me, took a short time to get used to. Every DVD which I have watched to date, that I can recall, has had white subtitles, but in this release of Spirited Away they are yellow. This isn't a complaint, just it was something different and unexpected! Anyway, the grammar and spelling, as best as I can recall, were perfect. I think there was one of two lines of text in the entire film which maybe didn't spend long enough on screen, and I had to rewind the film so that I could read them again. Also there were some Japanese Kanji characters on screen on some occassions which were not subtitled. I actually doubt that they were even in the slightest bit important, but it would have been nice to have had the text subtitled nonetheless. Anyway, top marks for the subs!!
"I'm a nasty looking guy!"
Reading about this film online, and in particular this release, there are people who have complained that this release is interlaced and other technical jargon which I don't really know anything about. Well I won't be mentioning any of that stuff here. Who needs special software or instruments to analyse a picture, when I've got a TV screen and eyes. If my eyes like what they are seeing, the picture is good, if they don't, it is bad. Plain and simple. Sod all this "there is a 5% colour drop blah blah" and "at 35:40 into the film on the top left building if you look closely you can see evidence of edge enhancement" crap (they were both made up by the way!). What did I think of the anamorphic widescreen picture? It was kick ass. The detail which came out on screen was superb. The colours looked strong and vibrant throughout. What I will mention though is stuff about the "red-tint" issue that has plagued almost every other release of Spirited Away. Firstly, I will guess that this release does suffer from the red-tint to a degree, as I don't recall seeing any perfect whites. The Spirited Away logo at the start of the film was not pure white, and did have a slight pink hue to it. However, to me it made no bloody difference to the film. Perfectionists will probably notice it, I however, was not bothered by it. It is extremely easy to over look, and if you don't know it is there, then there is an amazingly good chance that you will not notice. Basically, if there ever is a release that has absolutely zero red-tint, it won't bother me, as I very much doubt there will be that much of a noticeable difference. So basically, the picture is very good.
"Oi! You! Stop hogging all the coal!!"
DVD & Extras
First I'll mention the film's packaging. This release of Spirited Away is the Limited Edition version, limited to 10,000 copies only. That being said it is a big shame that each pack isn't a numbered pack - that would have given it more of a 'collectable' feel! Anyway, on the outside is the cardboard slip case, the front of which is pictured at the top of the page, and inside this comes the digipack style fold out case for the two DVDs. Each section of the digipack is covered with a scene from the film, and it looks great! The custom packaging for the film, does give that extra pleasing edge to the whole film, and is far more pleasing than a standard DVD case.
As far as extras go, there are quite a few to choose from. On the main film disc, after you have watched the film, there are trailers for twelve other Madman released animated DVDs. I didn't watch any of these so can't comment on them. The second disc contains the majority of the extras. The first, and easily the highlight, of which is the Making Of Spirited Away. This is a 40 minute featurette on the film from the early days of production through to completion. This, for me, was just as fascinating as the film itself. Before watching this I never really thought about, or remotely appreciated, the amount of work that went into every area of the film. The hours that Studio Ghibli's employees had to work, that amount of time that had to be spent on different areas, the voice recording, the sound effects, the animation. It really is an incredible watch. It is also very insightfull seeing Hayo Miyazaki at work, and trying to convey to his staff what feeling and actions he wants to come across in different scenes. For me this is one of the best extras I've watched on any DVD to date.
"Awww. Is the little girly all scared?"
Next up comes a Storyboard Comparison. This has 5 scenes from the film for which the original storyboards are shown. You have three options when viewing any of the five scenes. 1) Watch it with just the storyboards, with the audio played over the top, 2) Watch it split screen, with both the final product and the story boards playing at the same time, or 3) just the finished scene. A good watch, as it allows you to see how much detail went into the original storyboards, and also how closely they stuck to the original ideas. Next is one of the more educational extras, Themes of Spirited Away. This gives background information on the Bath Houses, Religion, Chihiro's Name and Heroines with regard to Spirited Away and other Hayao Miyzaki films. It is all text based. After that it is Trailers and TV Spots, which has 3 trailers (Japanese, American and French) and Japanese TV Spots. Penultimately it is an image gallery. Some people may like these, but I don't care too much for them. Finally it is a DVD-Rom feature, a Study Guide. I don't know the content of this guide, but it says that it is for 5-8 year olds, and as such would probably be too advanced for me anyway! All in all, a decent selection with one incredible highlight.
"These people have definitely been here too long!"
Despite the thing I felt Spirited Away was lacking, I still whole-heartedly recommend this film to all, children and adults alike. It has the magic, fantasy and characters to keep children completely enthralled, and the magic, fantasy, characters and story which will amaze adults. It has been along time since I last saw a film which I feel was as imaginative as Spirited Away, and am very happy with my purchase. However, I am now not looking forward to all the other animated films which I own, as I don't feel that any of them will be able to live up to the overall standard which I have now seen. I do feel that I will have to watch the film again, though, to see whether I can narrow down what it is that has made me dock a few marks from the film, and like I've said my judgement on the film may be slightly revised. Anyway, don't take my word, the Oscar's word, or anyone else that has seen the film's word for the film, go and find out for yourself!
"Nothing as far as the eye can see..."
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