Madman Entertainment/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 125 mins .
PG . PAL
When Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s most beloved animators and creator of such classics as The Castle of Cagliostro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, declared on his 60th birthday - celebrated during the production of his acclaimed 1998 feature Princess Mononoke - his intention to retire on the film’s completion, many heralded the end of an era in animated filmmaking. His retirement was short-lived, however, when, inspired by the ten-year old daughter of a close friend, Miyazaki began development on a new animated project. The result, Spirited Away, eclipsed Titanic (which in turn had taken the title from Mononoke) to become Japan’s highest grossing film of all time. It has since garnered critical acclaim worldwide; awarded the 'Golden Bear' at the 2002 Berlin film festival and the Academy Award for 'Best Animated Film' earlier this year.
When pool ponies spring a leak.
The story revolves around the adventures of Chihiro - a ten-year old girl imbued with all the petulant indifference that is typical of children at this difficult age, and who is less than impressed when her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new house in a small country village. Driving headlong down an overgrown track, they halt abruptly outside what appears to be an abandoned Edo theme park. Ever inquisitive about their new surroundings, and ignoring young Chihiro’s protests, her parents venture into the park; passing through a long tunnel and onto a grassy meadow beyond which lies an abandoned town centre. Smelling food, and having forgotten their lunch, her parents head into the town; finding a veritable smorgasbord that, seemingly unattended, they consume with gusto.
Horseradish. Now that's hot...
Meanwhile Chihiro wanders aimlessly around the town, halting outside a massive bath house whose fires seem to be burning merrily! Suddenly, a boy appears with a stern warning - night is approaching and if Chihiro and her parents don’t leave immediately they will be stuck forever; for Chihiro and her parents have unwittingly wandered into a spirit world - a world where smelly humans are most unwelcome! Racing back to her parents, Chihiro is horrified to find, as lights spring up and spirits begin appearing from out of nowhere, that her parents have been turned into pigs. Bloody typical! Hysterical, Chihiro flees the scene, only to find that the grassy meadow has turned into a wide black lake; cutting off any chance of escape. Thankfully her protector reappears and the boy, Haku, informs Chihiro that her one chance lies in seeking work at the bathhouse. But the monolithic establishment, a place where the gods of men go to relieve the various stresses of, well, god-dom, is run by none other than Yubabba - the powerful sorcerer who has cast a spell over her parents. And so it falls to Chihiro to somehow find her way in this strange place - without herself falling victim to the wily Yubabba - until she finds a way to restore her gormless forebears…
She love's me, she loves me not...
How does one convey the magic that is Spirited Away without descending into slavering superlatives? In all honesty I just don’t think I can. For Spirited Away is a rare movie experience; a warm and honest family film that is filled with boundless imagination and childlike wonder. With surprises lurking around every corner, this part fish-out-of-water, part coming-of-age story bases itself around some deceptively obvious truths about the universal family dynamic and the need of all children to discover their own identity, and through it responsibility. And it does this with a subtlety and lack of putrid over-moralising that is unheard-of in Hollywood animated features. In fact, the themes are so ambiguous in some places, that multiple viewings are certainly warranted to take it all in. With obvious nods to other classic children’s fantasy tales such as Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and even The Neverending Story, there’s entertainment aplenty here for all ages; kids and adults alike. Yes, Spirited Away is no typical anime. It is an animated film that the whole world, seemingly, has fallen in love with, and with good cause. It's a beautiful film, and a wonderful movie experience for the entire family.
In typical Miyazaki style, an immense amount of time and effort has been sunk into every single frame of Spirited Away. Indeed, in improving upon their previous effort Princess Mononoke, the folks at Studio Ghibli have crafted an immensely beautiful work that is at once richly detailed, yet decidedly low-fi. Indeed, standard cel animation predominates, augmented only rarely with the odd largely invisible CGI effect.
Yukata. Even the most bland seem exotic...
It is in the absolutely stunning backgrounds, both the lush exteriors of the spirit world and the lavish interiors of the bath house itself, where the detail is most prevalent; rendering and every frame of the film a veritable work of art. And yet the rather simplistic, quite realistic characterisations (for anime) sit seamlessly before, and interact with these beautiful vistas. This can easily be attributed to the characters’ fluid, realistic animation (well, within the bounds of surreality), the attention to detail (even spirits look great in their yukata) and the sheer volume of the bath house’s cosmopolitan inhabitants. To these inhabitants, Miyazaki has indeed let his imagination run amok, with some more common Shinto gods sharing the stage with some truly bizarre creations; the bath house a melting-pot for all manner of customers of varying shapes, sizes, consistencies and particular appetites. The results are an animated film in which every single scene is both sumptuous yet accessible; at once engaging and holding you transfixed.
True to the continuing quality of Madman’s anime transfers, the anamorphic (2.0:1) transfer afforded Spirited Away is all but perfect. Drawn from flawless source material, the film’s widely varying palette leaps continuously from every frame; complimented at every turn by flawless black level. In terms of the compression process the story is almost as good. When viewed using component cabling, a small amount of posterisation and chroma-noise can be discerned early on in the film; exhibited in the darkening image that precedes the onset of night. This very small glitch, not to be found in the S-Video signal, is joined by a rather unfortunately placed layer change that comes mid-scene during some particularly heavy rain. The resulting pause in sound output being rather noticeable.
At the end of the day, I can confidently say that these small issues pale in comparison to the quality and beauty that is Spirited Away’s digital incarnation; a release that, in spite of them, provides nothing short of a stunning video presentation.
As good as the visuals are, Miyazaki’s masterpiece is as beautiful to listen to as it is to look at; providing layer upon subtle layer of luscious sonic detail. And Madman, in their infinite wisdom, have furnished their release with not only a wonderful Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub, but in addition to an equivalent Dolby Digital mix in the original Japanese (a wonder in itself), they provide fans with the ultimate compliment to the film - a Japanese DTS 5.1 mix. For Spirited Away, brimming as it is with Japanese culture, is a film that should be viewed in its original language. Combined with better fidelity and the inherent clarity of detail, this Japanese DTS mix certainly outshines its Dolby Digital counterparts.
Did someone order chicken soup?
That is not to say that those purists out there should steer clear of the English language track. Indeed, although the translation takes the normal liberties with the story (dumbing-down some plot elements) and the voice talent is nowhere as accomplished, the English script does provide some useful exposition. This comes in handy for some of the more subtle cultural references - explicitly naming the Horseradish spirit for example – and also provides help with a number of the Japanese signs. I also admit that the English version opened my eyes to a few of the film’s key themes that were hitherto hidden to my eyes, and although I begrudged the heavy-handed way in which these revelations were delivered, they certainly improved my appreciation of the Japanese version all the more.
Utilising all five and a bit channels to glorious effect, each of these mixes is full and immersive. Channel separation is fantastic, surrounding the viewer with layer upon layer of ambient sounds. Water is a constant theme in the film, and the running of streams, the pouring rain or the splashing of gods in baths is the film’s constant companion. The subtle sounds of the Japanese countryside, wonderfully constructed echoes and the none-too subtle sounds of a busy bath house are also to be heard in abundance. Also worthy of note are some of the most marvelous foley effects that I’ve ever heard for a film which, from Yubabba’s parachute dress and rapid gait to the clinking coal lumps, Kumaji's bath-herb grinder and blubbing stink monsters, display as much imagination and forethought as the rest of Miyazaki’s mythical world. Without exhausting your tolerance for example-quoting detail, suffice to say the subwoofer also gets a look in, adding its singular voice to many situations; some standard and some unlooked-for.
Completing the wonderful audio experience is the hauntingly, melancholic score by the one and only Jô Hisaishi. The composer on all of Miyazaki’s recent feature films, Hisaishi’s work here is amazingly moving; very similar in vein to his work on Takeshi Kitano’s masterwork Hana-Bi. Quintessentially Japanese and peculiarly evocative, Hisaishi’s score provides the perfect compliment to Miyazaki’s visuals.
Packaged in a in an impressively-detailed, bi-folding cardboard case, Madman's dual-disc, Limited Edition release of Spirited Away is beautifully presented inside and out. To grab yourself a copy of this 'deluxe packaging' be quick - only 10,000 copies have been printed.
With the first disc filled to the brim with the two-hour feature and three superb soundtracks, there's precious little room for anything else. And yet here we still find no less than 12 trailers for other Madman offerings. Specifically, we get sneak peaks at the weirdly named .hack//SIGN and FLCL, Arjuna, The Big O, Robotech, TransformersGundam Wing, Love Hina, Martian Successor Nandesco, Dragon BallJubei-Chan the Ninja Girl and Leunig Animated. A bundle and no mistake!
Friendly neighbourhood boiler man.
An additional, extras-only disc, disc two provides some interesting additions that are sure to enhance your appreciation of this wonderful film. The first is a making-of featurette - a 42 minute Japanese production that charts the making of the film from inception through characterisation, storyboards, the aggressive schedule and tireless work of the Studio Ghibli animators (a peculiarly Japanese focus), and recording of the sound - including the Japanese voice artists, foley, sound effects and score. Definitely interesting viewing, this featurette gives some particular insights into the Japanese animation production process.
The featurette is supported by a text-only feature denoted the themes of Spirited Away which attempts to explain, in 25 words or less, the peculiarities of Japanese culture that manifest themselves in the film. Such things as Japanese bathhouses, the Shinto religion, and the idea of controlling an individual through their name are discussed. Back to more interactive material, a set of storyboard comparisons are provided for five of the film’s key scenes; the multi-angle features of your player enlisted to display the storyboards, the finished scenes or a combination thereof. These are followed by a set of trailers and TV spots, with 23 Japanese, one American and one French adding up to an astounding 32 minutes of marketing footage! Lastly, an image gallery provides 12 stills from the film, as well as nine film posters from around the world.
It is little wonder that a certain mouse-eared monolith has taken on the Western distribution of Miyazaki’s animated works. For without the preaching or dumbing-down that is typical of Hollywood animated features, in Spirited Away, as in all of Miyazaki's works, we find a magical and imaginative movie experience that will be appreciated by children and parents alike. Presented with a sumptuous video transfer, and accompanied by some wonderful audio mixes that include no less than a DTS track in the original Japanese, Madman’s Limited Edition presentation of Spirited Away is to be congratulated. Without doubt one of the must-have releases for 2003.