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Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film this year, adding another feather in the cap of Pixar founder John Lasseter, who served a critical role in introducing American audiences to this mega-blockbuster movie from Japan.
Produced by creative genius Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away is the journey of 10-year-old Chihiro, a Japanese girl, who finds herself in a kind of surreal fantasy world of the type seen before in Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, and Pinocchio as she grows from a pouty girl to a brave young woman. Chihiro meets strange characters like Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette), a bizarre witch who runs a hot-springs bathhouse for Japanese gods and spirits, and Kamaji, a six-armed boiler room-tender voiced by David Ogden Stiers during her quest to break a spell and retrieve her parents, who have been turned in to gluttonous pigs.
As the audience, we watch rapt as Chihiro grows from a pouty young girl into a strong and brave young woman during her incredible journey. If you've seen any of Miyazaki's previous works such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), you know that the complexity of story and skill of animation put this movie several miles above your ordinary Saturday morning cartoon.
The story opens with Chihiro sitting sullenly in the back seat of a sedan driven by her father, and being scolded by her mother for sulking so much. This 10-year-old has good reason; she has had to leave her friends behind to start life in a new village. Taking a wrong turn, the parents decide to keep going up a dirt road through a forest. At the end of the road is what looks like an unused train station, and against Chihiro's wishes, the parents insist on walking into the building. Chihiro follows leerily, as they all discover what looks like an abandoned amusement park on the other side... except for the food stalls, which are overflowing with delicious food. Famished, the parents sit down for a feast at an unmanned stall, while Chihiro decides to poke around. Feeling frightened, Chihiro returns to the food stall, only to find that her parents have turned into pigs.
A young man named Haku comes to her aid, explaining to Chihiro that the sorceress Yubaba will try to steal her name, and thus her identity. Haku takes Chihiro to the heart of a hot-springs bathhouse, telling her that she must find work to avoid being turned into an animal by Yubaba. Soon enough, however, Yubaba casts a spell to steal Chihiro's name. Newly renamed "Sen," Chihiro must find a way to regain her full name and identity back, as well as convert her porcine parents back into human form. Like Pinocchio, Dorothy and Alice before her, Sen's journey through her fantastic world is as spiritual as it is physical.
If you have not yet seen this film because you missed it in theaters or you have preconceived notions about Japanese "anime," now is your chance. John Lasseter and his team at Pixar/Disney have done a stunning job of Americanizingand Disneyfyingthis very fantastical yet traditional tale that sprang forth from the creative fountains of Hayao Miyazaki.
Pixar and the Spiriting Away of Miyazaki
John Lasseter brought the magic and beauty of Miyazaki's Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi to the American audience in the form of Spirited Away. Is Spirited Away the same movie as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi? Yes and no, in the way that Chihiro and Sen are both the same girl, in a different world.
For audiences who are not intimidated by subtitles, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi opened in some U.S. theaters last year with the original Japanese soundtrack. The bulk of theaters, however, chose to screen the dubbed version, with such familiar voices as Daveigh Chase (Lilo from Lilo & Stitch) and John Ratzenberger (Cheers, and every other Pixar feature movie).
Lasseter and his team went through painstaking steps to make sure the English translation stuck to the original Japanese script, with added embellishments that helped bridge cultural differences for American audiences. Even then, however, for those who are bilingual in both English and Japanese, there are a few oddities that either go unexplained, or are interpreted in an unusual way that may cause such an audience to snicker. Overall, however, there are no noticeable language gaffes; a noble task considering none of the goodies on the DVD indicate that the script writers Cindy and Donald Hewitt are bilingual, or understood the nuances of Japanese language and culture.
One trick Disney used in dubbing, which is far more noticeableto an irritating levelin Castle in the Sky (also reviewed here), is to stuff extra lines of dialogue into a scene any time the characters have their backs turned to the audience. This allows the English speaker to catch up on explanations and descriptions (for example, of cultural differences) that are taken for granted by the Japanese-speaking audience. One experiment you can try is to listen to the Japanese audio track, and turn on the English closed-captioning subtitles. The subtitles are true to the English script, and you will notice moments where lines flash on the screen when there is no verbal dialogue in the scene.
The English dub also infuses considerably more humor into the script. One such example happens in a scene where a holographic image of Zeniba (Yubaba's sister) is destroyed when a paper cut-out of a figure is torn. While Zeniba proclaims, "Oh, a paper cut!" in English, the original Japanese script had her whisper, "Yudan shita," which basically translates to, "I wasn't careful" (having a moment of vulnerability). The English version is a pun, and adds a touch of humor in an otherwise very dramatic moment.
One notable disadvantage for American audiences is that the characters' Japanese names all reflect their personalities in one way or another. The "No Face" spirit is the only one whose Japanese name is translated into English, and it is a good example of how the name should indicate what that character is. To lose one's name or one's identity is to lose one's face to the world. And this is illustrated by No Face, who has no name or identity, and is lost without the acceptance of others.
"Kamaji," for example, literally means "old man of the furnace," while "Haku" means "white" and "Boh" means "young boy."
One rather significant explanation lost in the translation is what happens to Chihiro when Yubaba steals her name. In the name-stealing scene, Chihiro spells out "Ogino Chihiro," her surname and given name, in Japanese kanji characters. The kanji for "Chihiro" uses two characters meaning "a thousand fathoms" indicating her tremendous depth of character. When Yubaba robs the second part of her name ("fathoms"), all Chihiro is left with is the character for "thousand": She has been converted from one of depth, to one that is scattered and confused, amid a swirl of a thousand broken pieces.
Finally, it was almost impossible for the translators to sufficiently explain the critical importance of the seal, and the significance of its theft. In traditional Japanese society (and even today to a certain extent), contracts and letters were never signed with a signature, but with a family's official seal. To steal another person's seal was to steal his very identity, not at all unlike modern-day identity theft where a hacker opens credit cards in a victim's name. Official seals were etched out by master carvers, and the little nicks and strokes were scrutinized just as fingerprints are today whenever there was a dispute as to the legitimacy of a contract authorized by the stamp of a seal. The translators instead did what they could, to refer to the seal as a "golden seal," thereby giving it the value of a family heirloom treasure.
There are two things I wish Disney did in this DVD release; one is a personal preference, while the other is for the benefit of everyone else:
1) Daveigh Chase has a very sweetbut unfortunately, very recognizable and signaturevoice. I cannot get past seeing Lilo (from Lilo & Stitch) every time I hear her voice in Spirited Away. That by itself is enough for me to prefer listening to the Japanese-language version. I really wish they found a differentand slightly olderactress. Watching scenes of her with Haku (who is dubbed by an older actor than the original Japanese actor) made me feel uncomfortable; I should not be watching a scene where a Lilo-aged girl coos to her newfound (and, in the American version, much older) love.
2) It is obvious Disney put in quite an effort to add interesting goodies in this edition. How much more difficult would it have been to have found a Japanese cultural expert (perhaps from a university OK I would have volunteered for the task) to provide an audio commentary track that discussed all of the various cultural points in the movie? It would have been enlightening for an audience interested in learning not just about the movie itself (and the changes Lasseter's team made in the script), but about the beautiful spiritual world and culture of Japan.
Overall, the Americanization of Spirited Away is commendable. Lasseter made the right decision to have the characters speak conversational American English although the same cannot be said for the stilted "Oriental" accent that they used to dub over some of the Japanese interviews in the goodies portion of the DVD, which I found somewhat irritating and unnecessary. Is there a reason they could not find a native English speaker? (I refuse to believe the translator faked the accent)
What culture is lost in the translation is a small price to pay for a wonderful interpretation of the film. It's not quite the same as looking into a mirror, but Lasseter's Spirited Away is a looking-glass view of Miyazaki's spirit, and that's what counts here.
This special edition edition has a decent number of extras, but they are by no measure overwhelming. Nor interesting, in most cases. The best extra in the set is a one-hour episode of a Japanese news show that told the story of the hurried production schedule for Spirited Away (about half the regular time was given). Particularly interesting was the footage of the Japanese voice actors doing their thing in a converted screening room. The other featurette on the discs is The Art of Spirited Away and provides some interesting detail but is otherwise bland.
Comprehensive collections of trailers may make sense if you are making any effort towards a scholastic or historic approach to presenting a film. But that is certainly not the case here and only the most stalwart viewer is going to sit through 30 minutes as the same, nearly identical trailer repeats twenty times. The storyboard comparison is brief enough that it is worth watching, but as I mention in the other review below, I don't really understand interest in animation storyboards - you already knew they had drawn everything out first.
There is one hidden item in this set. On disc one, if you select Bonus Features and then use the up arrow when the John Lasseter introduction is selected, a new item will appear. You can then watch a brief interview with John Lasseter and Hiyao Miayazaki.
The Video, Audio and Interface
The transfer of this film appears to be top notch when viewed on my, admittedly inadequate, system at home. Audio quality is excellent as well, for both the English dub and the Japanese track. Thankfully, the English dub still uses the original soundtrack, which is very good and never intrudes into the film.
The movement between screens on the menus involves a serveral-second-long cut scene from the movie, but they are short enough not to intrude too much.
The Final Evaluation
Spirited Away is one of the top five animated films over the last 20 years and has a place in any collection, regardless of the accompanying extras. This isn't a very special "special edition" but the movie doesn't need any support. I, personally, will probably never listen to the English dub in its entirety, preferring Japanese with subtitles. But that obviously isn't an option for households with young children and Pixar has done an excellent job dubbing it, so you can watch with your kids without the pain that accompanies a bad dub.
The recent resurgance of Hiyao Miyazaki in the United States (with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) is actually his second push into the American market. Back in the '80s, considerable home video success was had with My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). With this new visibility, Disney doubtless thought it was the perfect time to make some money off the older titles to which they hold distribution rights. Since Fox owns the rights to Totoro, that means we get two-disc special editions of Kiki's Delivery Service and the more obscure Castle in the Sky.
Both films are very good, at least on par with Disney's output over the last 15 years, but they are also much more "childish" than you might expect having seen Mononoke or Spirited Away.
Castle in the Sky is a somewhat typical adventure film as a young boy and girl are thrown into a quest for a lost city while simultaneously being pursued by various bad guys and a lovable-on-the-inside pirate family. The Miyazaki touch, however, is that pretty much everything takes place in the sky. Showing a strong Victorian science fiction influence (somewhat similar to that seen in Treasure Planet), there is a strange mix of advanced technologies that allow floating cities, and 19th-century mechanics to drive them all. The visuals in the film are wonderful; consider the combining of common Miyazaki themes and flying ships become submarines fighting in the "sea" of clouds.
While not nearly as intense as Princess Mononoke, or even Spirited Away, there are several scenes that might be frightening for younger children. And while there are no graphic deaths, there are several scenes involving the mass deaths of nameless, faceless henchmen.
Kiki's Delivery Service is much more focused on children and should be pretty safe for just about any age or temperament. If there is one theme that resonates throughout chiildren's films, it is the fish out of water tale. Just about everybody, at some point in their life, knows the feeling of not fitting in. And it would be hard to fit in when you are a 13-year-old witch, essentially doing a witch-school project by spending a year operating an airborne delivery service... using her broom as her delivery truck.
The fish can't get much farther out of the water than that. And it is all done with the expected Miyazaki flair for the visual and unexpected.
For two-disc special editions, the offerings here are pretty slim. Even worse than the Spirited Away set. On the first disc of both, you get an introduction from John Lasseter telling you what a wonderful choice you've made to be watching whichever movie you are watching. It is only a minute long, but there is a certain glow that accompanies affirmation from such an exalted individual.
Then you also get a selection of original Japanese trailers for the movie. This is one goody where you can be glad it isn't as extensive as with Spirited Away. Each disc only has a few trailers and last only several minutes in total. And the final offering (ignoring the trailers for the other two movies when you load the DVD) is a "Behind the Microphone" documentary, lasting about 5 minutes and giving the English voice-over cast an opportunity to talk about their joy at being involved in such a fine project. The only real surprise in these is that Anna Paquin does not appear in the one for Castle in the Sky even though she is one of the two leads. It highlights how standard this type of documentary is that the one for Kiki was made at least 10 years ago and still fits in completely with the other two.
The second disc for both films contains just one goody. It is nice, but simply does not justify the extra disc or the extra couple dollars you're going to pay. Some people find storyboards fascinating, and I can understand that for a live action film. To see just how thoroughly things were thought out beforehand, how the director and created a complete mental picture before even building a set, is an interesting idea. For animated films, however, it is pretty obvious that this is going to have to happen, and seeing the rough drafts just doesn't appeal much. For both films, you can watch the entire movie as storyboards, with the English or Japanese language tracks playing over it (I have no idea why they didn't just go ahead and put the Spanish dubs on as well).
So, the goodies aren't bad, but they aren't anything you're going to watch twice and they don't really add anything of value.
The Video, Audio and Interface
Both of these discs present good transfers of their films, presented in the proper aspect ratio. However, it doesn't appear that much work was done to improve either film prior to transfer and both end up looking like the 15-year-old films they are. Castle in the Sky, in particular, ends up looking a bit grainy and dark.
The audio, however, is very good for Castle in the Sky as the English dub received the same Pixar treatment as Spirited Away. All three discs also have a good quality transfer of the original Japanese track. As mentioned for Spirited Away, the translation by Pixar for City in the Sky is very good, but includes several lengthy periods of added dialogue. In some places it was clearly to explain something that might otherwise have been confusing, but generally it just seemed to be there avoid silence. If you're watching either language track with the subtitles off, then it won't make any difference. But if you are watching the Japanese audio track with English subtitles, then it will annoy the Japanese speakers a bit (as entire sentences are changed) and confuse the English speakers (as there are subtitles for stretches where there is no dialogue. This isn't a big issue, but it does highlight the difficulty of doing foreign language dubs.
I did experience one glitch, but do not know if it is common or limited to my copy. Subtitles disappeared for the final 8 minutes of the movie and then returned with the closing credits.
Kiki's Delivery Service did not get a new dub for this DVD release, but the one done for the laser disc was almost as well done. I'm not a big fan of celebrity voices in animated movies as they tend to distract me, but Kirsten Dunst blends in as Kiki, and Phil Hartman isn't too distracting as Kiki's familiar, Gigi.
None of the menus on any of these sets is particularly interesting, but they are quick and unobtrusive. No trailers are forced on you, though if you don't hit the menu button on your remote, they will play automatically.
The Final Evaluation
Miyazaki should play a big role in the collection of any fan of animation, and these two films are both very good in their own right. That said, if there were non-special editions available, for a few bucks less, it would be our recommendation that you buy those.
Castle in the Sky
Kiki's Delivery Service
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