With the narrative drive of a live-action feature and the imaginative leaps of East Asian manga, Japanimation B.O. phenom “Spirited Away” is an out-and-out charmer. Latest production by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki following his eco-parable “Princess Mononoke” (1997) is again a story that both kids and adults can tune in to, a Niponese “Alice in Wonderland” with a totally convincing world of humans, ghosts, animals and other beings in which a 10-year-old girl spends a short period. Pic definitely has some wings to fly in the West — in both dubbed and original lingo versions — as an exotic alternative to Hollywood toons, and its surprise co-win (along with “Bloody Sunday”) of the Golden Bear award at this year’s Berlin festival reps a useful publicity boost, especially in Europe.
On home turf, where it opened last summer, the $19 million film has become the biggest Japanese grosser of all time, with some $230 million to date — six times the haul of “Jurassic Park III,” more than four times that of “Pearl Harbor” in the same territory. Its Berlinale unspoolings were the first proper chance by non-Japanese audiences to experience the movie.
Pic is very different in both tone and flavor from “Mononoke,” with no eco-message hammered home, no dark violence and an overall lighter, more fantastic feel. It’s far closer to Miyazaki’s earlier successes, with the quest theme of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) and the magical, alternative universe discovered by two kids in “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988).
And just as Miyazaki made the idea of a pig flying a creaky fighter plane seem perfectly natural in “Porco Rosso” (1992), so in “Spirited Away” he creates a whole spirit world that operates by its own natural rules.
If the movie has a message, it’s simply that you need to know who you are and hold fast to your identity. As in “Totoro,” the opening shows a family moving house — here, the spoiled, bratty Chihiro and her parents, Akio and Yugo. En route, much to Chihiro’s displeasure, their car gets lost in a forest and the road peters out in front of a hillside tunnel.
At the other end, the tunnel opens on to a broad, windswept plain with what looks like an abandoned theme park in traditional Japanese village style. In the main street, an outside eatery has lashings of fresh, hot food, and Chihiro’s parents immediately start guzzling it down — turning into pigs in the process — while their daughter wanders off toward a huge palace. A teenage boy, Haku, warns her to go back before nightfall, but the headstrong Chihiro — a wonderful creation that mingles cuteness, wonderment, anger and feistiness all in one character — gets trapped as the sun finally sets.
A succession of wraiths and other weird creatures start to arrive, and only through Haku’s help is Chihiro prevented from becoming transparent, from turning into an animal to be eaten at the ghosts’ banquet. Haku directs her to the basement of the huge palace, where she meets the half-human, half-spidery Kamaji, an ornery old critter who stokes the boilers with an army of tiny, coal-carrying bugs.
Kamaji says he has no work for Chihiro, so a maid, Lin, takes her to the top of the palace to meet the sorceress, Yubaba, who runs the whole joint like a giant hotel — a “resting place” for 80 million spirits, complete with baths, banqueting rooms and private chambers. A grumpy old harpy straight out of Lewis Carroll, Yubaba gives Chihiro a new name, Sen, and puts her under contract as a worker.
That’s just the start of a new life for the kid in which she has to balance her desire to grow up against Yubaba’s desire that she renounce her former identity and never return to the human world. Referencing the girl’s two names, the film’s Japanese title literally means “Sen and Chihiro, Hidden by the Gods.”
Pic’s first 40 minutes have a powerful narrative drive, sweeping the audience forward from one discovery to another until Chihiro is settled in the palace. After a pause for breath next morning, as the girl wakes up in her new surroundings — and Hayazaki’s regular composer, Joe Hisaishi, intros a sun-kissed romantic theme — the film diverts for a central setpiece featuring the bath time of the foul-smelling, glob-covered Extra-Large Stink God. Following this comic interlude, the film loses its momentum for a reel or so, but recovers in the third act with some truly magical ideas, as Chihiro journeys on a ghost train across an endless ocean to meet Yubaba’s evil twin, Zeniba.
It’s almost impossible to do justice in words either to the visual richness of the movie, which melanges traditional Japanese clothes and architecture with both Victorian and modern-day artifacts, or to the character-filled storyline, with human figures, harpies and grotesque creatures. Its look is frequently astounding, with a feel of traditional animation that humanizes the movie in a way pure digital animation never can. As in Studio Ghibli’s previous pic, Isao Takahata’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999), all drawings, characters and sets were first hand-painted before being digitalized for animation and coloring.
Though characters like the Extra-Large Stink God sound like the pure stuff of kidtoons, “Spirited Away” is still very much a Hayazaki creation that can be enjoyed by sprigs and adults alike — a fantasy with substance and developed characters, and a charmer that isn’t just cute for its own sake. Hisaishi deserves equal plaudits here for his sweeping, detailed score, as well as whoever were responsible for smaller details like Chihiro’s engaging facial mannerisms and the idea of her two tiny traveling companions (a gnat and mini-porker) during the third act.