Kelly McGarry | Wednesday, November 30, 2016
For some, “Spirited Away” lives in our memories as a childhood classic. Others came upon it later in life in response to the acclaim adults awarded to the children’s movie. Whatever experience, “Spirited Away” touched enough lives to sanction a 15th anniversary celebration.
Though “Spirited Away” is only one among many incredible animated films from the world-renowned Studio Ghibli in Japan, it stands apart — in part, because it was the most successful film in Japanese history, but also because it was the most successful at permeating a mainstream audience in the United States.
The film’s ability to span across cultures owes much to the care and attention put into the English adaptation by Disney. The dialogue for the English version was directed by John Lasseter, director of animated classics such as “Toy Story.” The combination of his own animation experience and an appreciation for Miyazaki’s work made Lasseter the perfect choice for the task.
We can thank Disney for making the film accessible to us as an audience, but we can only thank its director and animator Hayao Miyazaki for the imaginative yet relatable story. In its boundless imagination, “Spirited Away” has been compared to “Alice in Wonderland,” where the heroine enters a world where reality and logic don’t hold. Just looking at the characters in “Spirited Away,” you can see that there were no limitations on the figures animated. Some characters, like the villain Ubaba, take on a modified human form. Others take the forms of animals, vegetables and entirely unrecognizable otherworldly creatures, each with a distinct way of moving.
In this wildly creative landscape, Miyazaki somehow still achieves a complete relatability to the heroine. Unlike Alice, Chihiro doesn’t stumble upon a magical world serendipitously. She is unwillingly thrust there, eliciting our sympathy for the once bratty 10 year old. Following her family’s seemingly catastrophic move, she must fight through losing her parents and her identity before discovering the strength that was always inside her.
Imagination and relatability are strengths that might also be found in the best American animated films, but “Spirited Away” stood out to an American audience partially because of those qualities that our films tend to lack. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki said of movies filled with frantic action, “The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over,” he said. “They’re worried that the audience will get bored.” Miyazaki explains the importance of allowing time for emotions to sink in. Where many directors, especially of children’s movies, are afraid that the audience will lose interest, Miyazaki uses what he calls “ma” — a slow-moving, yet always-moving emptiness — to give his films the biggest emotional impact. At two hours and five minutes, “Spirited Away” is at the longer extreme for a children’s movie. The temptation to speed up the film was probably there, but he knew that it was important to have that breathing room.
Extremely detailed animation and a soundtrack in perfect harmony with the visuals are characteristics that we might not even notice on first watch. Miyazaki mused in a 2002 interview, “I believe the human brain knows and perceives more than we ourselves realize.” The success of “Spirited Away” seems to be a testament to that notion.
The 15th anniversary re-release is an opportunity to relive a beloved film or immerse in it for the first time. “Spirited Away” will play in select theaters, including Cinemark 14 in Mishawaka. Showtimes for the English dubbed version are Dec. 4, 12 and 4 p.m., and for the Japanese version with subtitles Dec. 5, 3:15 and 7 p.m.