Spirited Away finally on Blu-ray.

July 2, 2015

While Disney has issued several Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki features on Blu-ray over the past few years, until now the missing masterpiece has been 2001’s Spirited Away — a film which should be as revered and beloved as any of Disney’s Golden Age cartoons.

I’ll admit to have been a bit skeptical of the film when it arrived in the Americas — it was not the first Studio Ghibli film to arrive on these shores heralded by a truckload of hype. In 1999, we were told that Miyakai’s Princess Mononoke would change the way Americans think of movies and bust down the gates for a flood of precisely detailed, weirdly dazzling animated features for adults.

51tniyOSHLL-1Despite the glowing reviews, most Americans were underwhelmed by Princess Mononoke. I thought it bit slow and preachy. I didn’t hate it; I could see the possibilities, but I wondered what all the fuss was about.

But Spirited Away was my real gateway drug into Miyazaki’s universe. It is not just one of the best animated films of this century, it’s one of the best films period,filled with haunting imagery, subtly rendered characters and an emotional core absent from most anime. Spirited Away is a rich cinematic experience, a story that reads like a direct translation of the director’s dream. At times it feels like we’ve fallen into Miyazaki’s head. We’re immersed in a world with a consistent if alien logic, where weightless and timeless things coexist with buckets and mops.

It is kind of Alice in Wonderland story about a sulky little girl named Chihiro (her English voice supplied by Daveigh Chase from Lilo & Stitch — though I prefer the subtitled version, Disney took unusual care with the dubbing) who, with her parents, stumbles across what looks like an abandoned theme park. But soon her parents fall under a spell — brought on, perhaps, by their lack of character — and when night falls the park becomes overrun by denizens of the spirit world. With the help of mysterious Haku (Jason Marsden), Chihiro takes refuge as a worker in a bathhouse where the spirits come to relax.

Chihiro’s witch boss Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) is a difficult taskmaster, but the child overcomes her timidity and struggles to escape this alternative universe and escape back to her “reality.”

It would be glib to describe Spirited Away as a kind of acid trip of a movie, although no doubt some will find their viewing experience enhanced by self-medication. But you needn’t have fond memories of Pink Floyd laser shows to marvel at the hallucinatory magic of Miyazaki’s bizarre old world. Spirited Away is a movie of rare depth and texture, full of strange and wonderful creatures with appetites and neuroses and the sort of fantastic intensity that evokes nightmares.

Miyazaki has said he made this movie for children, to reassure them about the future. But Spirited Away is not a really children’s film — the American film it most closely resembles is Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, another film about pushing through the assumptive limits of human experience, about vacating the physical world for the phantom realm. Miyazaki’s dream is different than Linklater’s, but no less potent or mature.

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