English title of the latest Studio Ghibli blockbuster movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. This is the first film produced by Ghibli after the Disney-Tokuma Deal (Tokuma is Ghibli's parent company), and thus partly financed by Disney. As Disney had no say in the production however, it became a beautiful movie, a modern age fairy tale. Despite having been released in the summer of 2001, it is still playing strong to sold out audiences in Spring 2002, and has long since replaced Titanic as the most successful film in japanese history both with respect to audience and revenue.

The japanese title is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. Directly translated, it means "The spiriting away of Sen and Chihiro", but the official english title is "Spirited Away". The release in France, has been a success. There are also limited releases in Belgium and Switzerland. A release in the US however is not likely in the near future given the botched (some say sabotaged) attempt by Buena Vista to launch it's predecessor, Princess Mononoke in the US, and Buena Vista having purchased the rights for "Sen" as well.

The story revolves around a little girl of about 12 years of age, Chihiro, who stumbles onto the entrance into a parallel world, where Gods come to relax in a health spa. Her parents can't resist the food that is on display in one of the restaurants, and are turned into pigs in the process of stuffing themselves. So Chihiro must embark upon a quest to find and free her parents. On her way she sees many different and strange creatures, some friendly, some not. To free her parents from their curse she must find a way to convince the greedy witch that runs the health spa to turn them back. But that may not proove so easy.

I withhold any further comments as not to spoil the film for those who still want to see it. It's magical and I recommend it to everyone. Even if it won't be playing in your area of the world, there should be a japanese DVD release sometime this year, and so far, all releases by Studio Ghibli have featured english subtitles.

UPDATE: The film has received the golden bear (first prize) in the german movie awards, the Berlinale. It is the first time ever for an animated feature to do so, and was entirely unexpected by the press. This should prove beneficial for the international release schedule. And in other news, the movie also won the first Academy Award (Oscar) for animated feature films. So now there's another paperweight to be shown in the Ghibli Museum.

UPDATE #2: The japanese DVD release is now just a week old, and it has brought us another 2-disc set, with all kinds of special features, and one major bug: Somehow, the colours are misaligned, so that all whites become pinkish, and blue and green are too light. This can be regulated out with good TV's, but most of us will suffer an inferior picture. Official comments about a possible replacement have not yet been issued, and it seems that Buena Vista Japan wants to present this bug as a feature, saying this is how it was supposed to be from the beginning. Pity, as the film is excellent and would have deserved a much better transfer than this...

Update #3: Yep, they came out and said this is how it was supposed to come out. There is a noticable red tint in the picture, which makes all whites pinkish, and changes the other colors as well. However, the degree of the tint seems to be dependent on the sytems with which the DVD's are viewed. While some reported a really strong tint, others didn't even notice it. When I saw the DVD, I did notice the tint, but wasn't really disturbed that much. It made the picture slightly warmer on my set. Still would have preferred a perfect version, though...

Update #4: Rejoice, american fans, for the US-release is immanent. Just like Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki's previous work, Sen will be released in the states by Buena Vista Entertainment aka Disney. Sadly, as with Mononoke, there is next to no advertisement for the film: No theatre trailers before other Disney features, no mention in Disney's TV shows, and so on. Also, as with Sen, it will be a limited release at first, so if you want the film to succeed in the box office, go see it soon after it starts, and see it often, bring your friends, drive hours to see it, etc. Maybe after that, there will be a larger release following close behind the arthouse release. Oh, before I forget, there is a short trailer at: quicktime.apple.com. More info is available on the official website: http://spiritedaway.net. Check it out!

Update #5: It's out! Go see it, bring the kids! Although only a limited release, it is spread better, and Lo and Behold, some theatres are even showing the sub and dub in some theatres at different times. So go out to see it now! This movie is magic, more so than any other movie in the last few years...

Update #6:

A group of customers in Japan has just filed a case against Buena Vista Japan, because of the red tint. The claim the product is defective and demand 10.000 Yen and a replacement disc without the defect. I tend to agree... Maybe there will be an exchange program after all...

This little fairy tale is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. The title says exactly what it is. The movie spirits you away as gently as a Spring breeze and drops you just as delicately onto the grass at the end, enraptured, dazed, hoping for a sequel that somehow violates all cinematic rules of form by being just as good as this one - a sequel that will never come, and probably should not come, since I remember roughly the same feeling after watching Princess Mononoke. And Spirited Away is much, much better than Princess Mononoke. This movie is transcendent.

You know there's going to be magic, and epic fights and witches and spirits and things, because that's what there always is. So you start watching, and after only a few minutes you see the strange town and the strange shrines and the "short-cut", and you say "A-ha! Short-cut! Now the magic will start!" And the characters walk through a tunnel, and since you've read your Campbell you know that this time for sure, absolutely positively, the magic will start. But it doesn't. Or maybe it does. Or maybe it started five minutes ago. Time moves differently in this place.

And then there are spirits, and dire warnings, and everything that was in the old fairy stories - not the Disney garbage, not the endless flood of tawdry adventure stories pathetically mimicking Tolkien, but the real old stories. And you feel that other worlds, all the other worlds, are so close you can almost hear their music - but it isn't the modern urban fantasy "I am the last Princess of the Sidhe, and I live incognito working in a New York coffee shop where everybody digs my accent, never knowing how close they are to the darkly glittering Other World which I have forsaken" kind of thing, but a story from the old times when people didn't believe in fairies any more except they still left out offerings for them. A true story from a place that isn't there any more, and never really existed at all except as a vision in the mind of an elderly Japanese genius of animation.

People say he is the Japanese Walt Disney. This is a horrible insult. Miyazaki is not Disney. He is Salvador Dali and Georgia O'Keefe and Neil Gaiman and Joseph Campbell, Lord Dunsany and Melville, Seamus Heaney and J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas and Akira Kurosawa. And Disney. He's all that and an entire crisps factory.

I don't use the word genius lightly. Hardly any of the artists we commonly label geniuses really are. Miyazaki is.

And Disney wasted the American distribution rights to this masterpiece with the bare minimum of advertising, an extremely limited theatrical release and a DVD release that hardly anybody noticed. Two years late. While disposable product like "Pirates of the Caribbean" - movies based on Disneyworld rides, now there's a wonderful high-concept artistic premise - get splashed into every theatre in America, with promotional campaigns that could fund the entire world's deep-sea exploration programs for the next two years. There is no justice.

But you can buy the DVD and forget about all that. And go back the next day to buy one for your mother, because even though it's been twenty-odd years since she bought you "The Hobbit", you know she remembers reading it to you, and it's high time you returned the favour.

I am not exaggerating. It's that good. I want to watch this movie again and again, only I don't want to get used to it. I want every time I see it to be just as much of a magical surprise. Like "The Hobbit", I want to look at it on the shelf every once in a while and smiling-whisper, "I'll come back to you soon. With a new friend." Yes, I want to spread the gospel.

If you think I am exaggerating, you may be annoyed by the introduction Disney tacked on to the American DVD version. It features John Lasseter, head of Pixar and producer of the American translation, rambling on and on like me for about five minutes, and it certainly annoyed me the first time I saw it. But then I saw the movie, and now I know how John Lasseter feels. As an animator himself, he must feel - far more deeply than me - moved by this amazing work. Moved, uplifted, and spirited away.

A word of warning. Due to the efforts to produce an English dub that matches the characters' mouth movements, the dialogue in the English-speaking version has been altered. For the most part, the difference is minor. Sometimes, however, the English soundtrack and the English subtitles diverge into completely different dialogues. Being in the habit of watching movies on a very low volume with subtitles, so I don't wake my daughter up*, I discovered that it's quite distracting to watch the movie in English with English subtitles. The subtitles, of course, are translated directly from the Japanese, and I suppose that if you want to know EXACTLY what Miyazaki had in mind, subtitles are the way to go. However, the American voice acting is excellent, so if you're not used to reading subtitles I think you will have a fine experience listening to the dubbed version. The story is essentially the same.

* - note that this is not a movie to watch with toddlers, no matter how sweet and innocent the packaging seems. There are several frightening transformations and assorted other scary scenes. I would say that it's probably fine for most school-aged kids to watch, but not for the very small ones. This isn't Disney. The old fairy stories weren't meant for little children, either.

Spirited Away is an actual family anime - no fan service, no convoluted plotline, no blood and guts and robots.

It is a good, solid story that shows a whiny annoying kid begin to take responsibility for herself and her actions - something kids need to see more of. Everything is concluded nicely by the roll of the credits, and you can actually feel like you've just had a complete experience, and not a "tune in when the next episode comes out".

The visuals are nothing short of astounding. The colors are especially rich, and they're supported by complex textures and movement. For the most part, the motion isn't as fluid as it could have been, but the individual characters do have a nice flow to them. CGI intrusion is minimized for the most part, except for one scene of the characters running through flowers - very obvious CGI work that disturbed my suspension of disbelief.

The characters are well developed, and it turns out that the characters you made first impressions about are not what they appear. The old multi-armed boiler tender isn't as menacing as he appeared in the beginning, and No Face turns out to be a monster, who then turns out to be just a lonely creature.

Perhaps the best part of the story is the transitions that Chihiro, the little girl, goes through. She started as a brat, bitching about every little thing, and she ends up becoming a stronger person who looks out for others. The path that she follows brings her further along in her maturity, and when she finally returns to the real world, you can see and hear the marked change in her manners and her voice.

I watched this anime with my three kids, and the younger ones were very scared when No Face started going nuts. When Chihiro finally made amends with No Face, my kids actually started talking about how only the greedy ones were suffering, and how it's not a good thing to be greedy. That point showed me how powerful a movie Spirited Away really is. It did have several positive messages that kids could pick up without being in-your-face about it. My kids all ask to watch it over and over, and it's my 9 year old son's favorite movie "of all time in the whole world".

Hmmm, a Japanese anime, with positive messages, beautiful and haunting images, and a great plot. How can you beat that?

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