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Introduction
Also known as ‘Miyazaki's Spirited Away’ this film is quoted by many as a masterpiece of Japanese animation. It is the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, easily overtaking its 2nd placer, ‘Titanic’ and all for good reason.  So is Spirited Away really a masterpiece? Or even a worthy Oscar winner? Continue reading to find out more….

Chihiro, 10 years old and moody as hell.
Film
Words that come to mind when watching the film are ‘wow’, ‘beautiful’, ‘breathtaking’ – and you’ll be saying those even after only the first 20 minutes.  So many people I have spoken to about Japanese animation simply class it ‘not worth watching’ ‘its for kids’ or ‘its only a cartoon’.  These people are fools, tossing aside such adult appreciated works of art as ‘Akira’, ‘Ghost in the shell’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ and many more.

I hadn’t heard much about ‘Spirited Away’ until around January of this year when my anticipation grew slowly until the ‘Oscar’ win and DVD release. I knew it was Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki who worked on such films as ‘Castle in the sky’ and ‘the castle of Cagliostro’.  He also directed the astounding ‘Princess Mononoke’. Miyazaki considered retirement in animation after ‘Princess Mononoke’ but was inspired by a friend’s moody 10-year-old daughter to write Spirited Away.
Still sitting there reading this?! Need more reason to go and buy this DVD?! Ok then…here goes.

Spirited away is the story of ‘Chihiro’ a moody and spoilt 10-year-old Japanese girl. During the move to a new house with her parents, the family stumbles across a doorway to a strange but beautiful world, which Chihiro’s father believes to be an abandoned theme-park. Upon further investigation and a delicious feast, Chihiro’s parents are mysteriously turned into pigs. The journey for an explanation of the world and cure for her parents leads to strange meetings with people and creatures of this ‘spirit world’.  Along the way Chihiro encounters spirits, monsters, a strangely familiar boy named ‘Haku’, the owner of the bathhouse (a witch named Yubaba) and a greedy, but confused spirit ‘No-face’.  Throughout the story Chihiro’s manner and attitude change completely overcoming tremendous odds to help others selflessly without knowing.

You may have guessed by now, I’m a big fan of this film. Spirited Away is a moving story and visually stunning to say the least. The characters in the story are the key to its excellence. You will be drawn into the story because of the relationships between the key people.  Every character met has their own story to tell, which is obvious within only the first few words spoken by them. Their inner turmoil and stresses with their jobs in the ‘spirit world’ are easily driven home to the viewer.  

Chihiro meets the boiler man.
As I’m not fluent in Japanese, I watched the film with the U.S. dub featuring the voices of Daveigh Chase (Chihiro), who also portrayed ‘Lilo’ in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch with such young honesty and Jason Marsden (Haku). All voice actors do a great job portraying the characters.  John Lasseter (Pixar) oversaw the English voice recordings himself (discussed in the extras) to maintain as much authenticity as possibly, even doing his best to fit the words as closely as possible to the animation of characters mouths. Another point of praise goes to the use of C.G. Sure, it stands out, but at the same time it fits in seamlessly with not only the animation but the environment as well. Used in a subtle way, not over-used and when included, it adds to the atmosphere completely.

After the moving and heartwarming conclusion, it may take time to absorb exactly what you have just spend 2hrs watching to some, and others will know it in the first 20 minutes, I am confident enough to say that only a small percentage of people will come away disliking what they have seen.

Video
Spirited Away is presented in 2.0:1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer is stunning. People have said that the film was made for a DVD release, and those people are simply spot on.  An animated film of this style has never looked so good on DVD before. There is the occasional bit of grain, but strangely it is only present on one short scene right at the beginning of the film and the closing credits. Don’t let it fool you, as the remainder of the disc is a spotless joy to watch. It is clear a lot of effort has been made in the transfer.

Simply beautiful to watch.
Audio
In my personal experience, Japanese animation DVDs with 5.1 Dolby digital tracks have been mostly a waste of time. Spirited Away is again, another exception to the genre; this may be perhaps due to Buena Vista taking control of the region 1 release.  A great track Dolby Digital 5.1 track has been included which makes good use of the rear surrounds with many startling effects and subtleties like rain and wind used to enhance the beauty of the film. The score is beautifully written by Joe Hisaishi, using huge orchestral string pieces as well as nicely themed traditional Japanese music and could not have been more appropriate for every scene in the film, Some powerful sub-woofer hits complete a really nicely thought out track.

Extras
Disc one, and the film starts with an Introduction by John Lasseter.  This is stated as an extra on the disc, but is simply a short explanation by the Pixar head honcho basically saying how much he adores the film and that the viewer should feel honored to be able to watch it.

Flying with Dragon form Haku
Also included on disc one is the nice (but highly ‘Disneyfied’) ‘The Art of Spirited Away’. Hosted and narrated by Jason Marsden, (voice of Haku) this 15 minute long feature goes into a nice amount of detail about how Spirited Away was brought to the Japanese and American screens.  There are some nice interviews with all those involved including the voice actors, producers and directors discussing the importance of the film and Miyazaki’s inspiration behind the characters and storyline.  John Lasseter makes multiple appearances talking about how Miyazaki films have inspired every Pixar film released.  A light-hearted look at some confusion between Japanese to English translation finishes things off. Well worth a watch.  Disc one also includes the ‘sneak peaks’ for the DVD releases of ‘Castle in the Sky’ and ‘KiKi’s Delivery Service’.

Over to disc 2 and we kick things off with ‘Behind the microphone’ a 5-minute featurette concentrating on the U.S. voice actors, and the methods used to get the recordings in sync with the animation.  An interesting watch as you can clearly see that some of the actors found it difficult to put expression into the voices while being on such a restriction with timing.  Some Disney favorites will be spotted by their voices, faces on camera and clips from previous films.

‘Storyboard-to-scene Comparison’ features the opening ten minutes of Spirited Away as Miyazaki’s original storyboards with either English or Japanese audio.  Unlike most storyboard extras, this one is great to watch as it is quite clear how little the original storyboards have changed; such is the detail of Miyazaki’s sketches.
Next up is the workhorse of the DVD extras, the original ‘Nippon Television special’ (the making of Spirited Away). Running at 41 minutes the feature is an original Japanese program that aired at the time of Spirited Away’s theatrical release in Japan.  All audio is in Japanese language but English subtitles are included to make sense of things.  This is a superb extra that show just how much effort has been put into the making of the movie.  Interviews, and especially interesting is an inside look at studio Ghibli where Spirited Away was created. Top marks for this feature.

Perhaps the biggest trailer feature of all time?! The ‘Original Japanese trailers’ included on disc 2 come to a total of just under half an hour.  The trailers (at least 10 of them) flow with no chapter stops and are all practically the same apart from length, showing different taglines (English subtitled).  It is interesting to see how the film was marketed in Japan.  Obviously a significant success when you think about how much money it has made by now.

In total, Spirited Away has just the right amount of extras. It is the Japanese ‘making of’ that clears up any Disney litter and saves the extras.

Time to go home.
Overall
Spirited Away is a gem in an otherwise fruitless world.  It oozes class and beauty and is an amazing film to watch and enjoy. There will be those who consider it as nothing more than a cartoon, but this truly is a masterpiece of Japanese animation.  I cannot praise this film enough, the release of this DVD is at a perfect time for those hearing all the hype surrounding it, and those people will hopefully not be disappointed. A superb film, a great transfer, nice sound and informative extras make this a must own purchase.  If you own a multi-region DVD player, get this now, as a region 2 release is rumoured for as far away as 2004. Even buy it for your kids if you are afraid to admit you have bought a ‘cartoon’ for yourself! Now if only Disney could still churn out treasures like this….!


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