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Spirited Away & The Cat Returns

Spirited Away


A young girl, Chihiro, is trapped in a strange new world of spirits. When her parents undergo a mysterious transformation, she must call on the courage she never knew she had to free herself and return her family to the outside world. (From Disney’s original synopsis)

With a career as elegant and varied as Hayao Miyazaki’s, it should be difficult to choose a favourite film. However, it seems most fans and critics agree that Spirited Away sits somewhere towards the top of his filmography. At the very least, this unique tapestry represents the most complete compilation of the themes and imagery that the director had been exploring since he wrote and illustrated the original Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga. It is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation that still manages to stand on its own as a uniquely beautiful work of narrative art. Only truly special movies can teach valuable life lessons via a soul-stirring, goosebump-inducing sequence where bathhouse employees unite to pull pollution from a river spirit’s side.

Throughout his career, Miyazaki referenced the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with his stories of adolescent girls symbolically entering adulthood via fantastical adventures. My Neighbor Totoro’s core concept of a supernatural world hiding within our own was also clearly inspired by Carroll’s Wonderland. Spirited Away is an even more direct link to those stories. Both Alice and Chihiro/Sen are self-absorbed young women that listlessly object to the life changes their parents have thrust upon them. Both stumble upon supernatural worlds, brimming with awe, danger, and a series of rules they don’t quite understand. Both are forced to survive by following these rules and emerge from their adventures with a greater understanding of adulthood. Like most modern retellings of Carroll’s themes (Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro Pan’s Labyrinth, and Dave McKean’s Mirror Mask), the Alice stand-in (in this case Chihiro/Sen) also must achieve selflessness before she can escape back into the real world.


I’m probably not alone when I say I’ve been waiting for this Blu-ray for a long time. Of course, like other Ghibli features, HD versions have been available in Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom for awhile now – I’m just obsessive/compulsive enough to have wanted matching Disney-brand box spines. I can’t speak to the quality of those older releases, but can say that this 1080p, 1.85:1 (apparently 2.00:1 is the preferred framing?) transfer is a spectacular upgrade over DVD versions. The clarity is breathtaking and the colours are much, much brighter than any standard definition release. I believe that Spirited Away was photographed and coloured using digital processes and the lack of film means a clean, mostly grain-free image. Of course, ever since the Sword in the Stone and Oliver and Company Blu-ray debacles, videophiles worry that Disney is over-processing their releases with DNR. Based on the complexity and texture of the hand-painted backgrounds and a lack of smoothing effects on the hand-drawn cells, that does not seem to be the case here. Edges are strong while still exhibiting the charming imperfections that exemplify hand-drawn animation. A few slight hints of aliasing and over-sharpening appear here and there, but the overall transfer has no substantial compression issues.

At the risk of losing all of my ‘cred’ as a Ghibli fan, I have to admit that I prefer the John Lasseter-supervised, Kirk Wise and Donald W. Ernst-produced English dub version of Spirited Away to the original Japanese dub. Both tracks sound great in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The Japanese track is a bit louder and a smidge less compressed, as has been the case with these Disney releases since Princess Mononoke, but the English version also has its advantages. Though the sound effects on each track match, the English mix is more even-keeled with better dialogue integration and nominal improvements in directional enhancement. On the other hand, Joe Hisaishi’s music gets a slight boost during dialogue-heavy sequences on the Japanese track. I cannot speak Japanese, but the subtitles only sometimes directly match the English dialogue, so I think that means they aren’t dubtitles?

Extras include:
  • Introduction by John Lasseter (1:10, SD)
  • The original, feature-length Japanese storyboards
  • The Art of Spirited Away (15:10, SD) – A Disney-produced EPK that includes a look at the English dub process.
  • Behind the Microphone (5:40, SD) – Additional footage of the ADR process.
  • Nippon Television behind-the-scenes special (41:50, SD) – A more in-depth behind-the-scenes EPK that aired on Japanese television.
  • Original Japanese trailers and TV spots


 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns



Spirited Away & The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns


Haru, a schoolgirl bored by her ordinary routine, saves the life of an unusual cat, and, suddenly, her world is transformed beyond anything she ever imagined. To change her fate, she’ll need to learn to believe in herself and, in the process, she will learn to appreciate her everyday life. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns definitely falls under the ‘lesser Ghibli’ category. Like Miyazaki’s own Porco Rosso, it began life as a promotional short-subject and eventually blossomed into a feature. Unlike Porco Rosso, it was put together by a B-team, headed by Morita, who hadn’t yet acted as solo director on a Ghibli production. The release received little international fanfare, in part because most non-Japanese countries were still buzzing with affection for Spirited Away. Morita’s tenure at the company as an animator (he worked on Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Tales from Earthsea) appears to have served this more limited production and its more budget friendly animation style. Despite the occasionally blobby, made-for-TV look, its illustrative qualities are quite charming.

The Cat Returns is the closest the studio got to making a direct sequel/prequel to another one of its canon films. I suppose the technical term would be ‘spin-off’ or ‘side-quel,’ because it tells the story of a character that appears in only the fantasy sequences of Yoshifumi’s Konodo’s Whispers of the Heart (as written by original manga creator Aoi Hiiragi). It exists within the context of Konodo’s film without directly effecting the narrative. Despite its place on the low end of the Ghibli spectrum, The Cat Returns is a strong and particularly modern character study. It fits Miyazaki’s alternate Alice in Wonderland model with more Chuck Jones absurdism and swashbuckling whimsy.

The Cat Returns hit US DVD in 2005 and, like Spirited Away took its sweet time coming to Blu-ray here (though there was another Studio Canal release in the UK). The image is as sharp and colourful as we’ve come to expect from the Ghibli collection. The more simplified animation style has little in common with the studio’s ‘house style,’ possibly due to a smaller budget/shorter production time. The hand-painted backgrounds have the usual amount of fine texture and soft gradations, while the cell animation is flatter, including fewer shading effects (if any), less detail, and a broad swath of computer-assisted colouring. The smoothness is not a DNR issue, but part of the production. All of the elements are sharp without notable edge enhancement, compression noise, or even film grain, since it seems that the footage was taken from a digitally scanned, not a film-based source.

This Blu-ray features the original Japanese dialogue and the Disney-brand English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Despite the tighter budget, the modern sound design meets the standards of most post-digital animated releases. Silence remains an important part of both mixes, but doesn’t completely define them. There are plenty of immersive elements and directional enhancements. Once again, the Japanese track is a bit louder and more subtly blended. The English dub maintains all of the effects work and features performances that are on-par with their Japanese counterparts. It also recreates the occasionally directional representation of the Japanese dialogue (i.e. off-screen performances being relegated to the stereo channels). However, the English dialogue is a bit clumsy and the vocals are keyed a little too sharp and loud. Yuji Nomi’s score is too on-the-nose to be memorable, but has plenty of instrumental depth on both tracks.

Again, the English subtitles appear to be a direct translation of the Japanese track, not dubtitles (but I don’t actually know any better).

Extras include:
  • The original, feature-length Japanese storyboards
  • Behind the Microphone featurette with the American voice cast (9:00, SD)
  • The Making of The Cat Returns (34:10, SD) – A Japanese featurette that covers the film’s odd production history, including Ghibli staff interviews.
  • Japanese trailers and TV spots


 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns
 Spirited Away & The Cat Returns

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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