Blown Away by Anime 

A review of Spirited Away

*Spirited Away (PG)

To see the best foreign art film in town, you have to be prepared to expand your horizons a little bit. First, you'll have to venture away from Kimball's, the home-away-from-home of the Colorado Springs art-house film set, and go out to the Powers multiplex. Second you'll have to venture into the world of PG-rated Disney movies, and finally, you'll have to get your mind around the idea that animated films can be genuine art.

If you can make this attitude adjustment, you're ready to see Spirited Away, a fantastic Japanese animated film by director Hayao Miyazaki. This is an astonishing movie, and one that puts even fine American animated movies such as Monsters, Inc. and Shrek to shame, both in terms of story and certainly in the beauty and skill evident in the animation.

Sprited Away is the story of a young girl named Chihiro who, along with her parents, happens upon a beautiful world that appears to be an abandoned theme park. Chihiro is reluctant to follow her parents into this land, but when the adults eat some delicious food at an abandoned restaurant and then turn into pigs, she has to stay in this haunted place to try to save them. The world is dominated by the bathhouse for the spirits, the place that the millions of spirits go each evening to unwind.

Befriended by a young boy Haku, Chihiro has to get a job at the bathhouse in order to stay and rescue her parents.

Part fable, part folk tale, part Alice in Wonderland dream world, Spirited Away is a wonderful feat of narrative and visual imagination. Its complex plot that follows first one tangent then another, is more dreamlike than a conventional plot, and several threads are introduced that are left completely unresolved. No matter, for the characters who populate the movie -- from a radish spirit like a lead-white Sumo wrestler with tendrils for a face, or a ghostly spirit with a Noh mask, or a stink spirit that oozes across the screen in disgusting detail -- are each remarkable, sympathetic, scary and multidimensional.

The real triumph of Spirited Away, however, is visual. Largely hand-drawn, the animation retains the beauty of work done by the human hand and eye. It is virtually impossible to describe the depth and richness of many of the scenes; they are saturated with color, full of faithfully rendered detail, and interpreted with an eye to the long artistic traditions of the east and west. One moment, for example, the camera pans down the village street, the horizon sloping precipitously into the distance like a traditional Japanese print; later a long vista over a shallow sea meeting blue sky and white clouds is JMW Turner reincarnated.

Again and again Miyazaki and his immense team of animators (I counted about 120 names listed under "continuity") provoke visual amazement with their work. It will require several viewings to appreciate all the humor and visual tricks and references that the production team embedded in this work.

It should be clear by now that despite the subject (a young girl), despite the distributor (Disney) and despite the medium (animation) Spirited Away is grown-up, serious film-lover fare. I'm sure that kids will enjoy it too, although it may be a little scary for the under-8 set, but unless your child is an artistic prodigy, she won't appreciate it nearly as much as you will.

Spirited Away won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, but it should have been in the Best Picture category, period. It has been an enormous box office hit in Japan, and it deserves the same recognition here. Get over the huge cultural divide, drive over to Powers, and make Japanese "anime" part of your new vocabulary. You will be astonished, again and again.

-- Andrea Lucard


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