Despite its growing legion of fans on this continent, Japanese fantasy animation, or Anime, remains a niche genre. But with Disney billing the imported “Spirited Away” as its own, this foreign style may soon burst onto the mainstream stage.
If you’re expecting typical Disney family fare, you’ll be surprised — this is not “Mulan.” Combining mythical Japanese folklore and innovative animation, director Hayao Miyazaki crafts a coming-of-age fable about a young girl estranged in a mystical land. Surreal characters and illogical fancy abound in the film, resulting in a Japanese cross between “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Spirited Away,” set in modern-day Japan, follows 10-year-old Chichiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase of “Lilo and Stitch”), who travels with her parents to their new home. Chichiro’s father takes a wrong turn, leading them to a seemingly abandoned theme park — actually a bathhouse resort for spirits. In classic fable fashion, when Chichiro’s parents gorge themselves on a mysterious feast, they turn into grotesque swine.
Finding herself alone in this surreal parallel dimension, Chichiro falls into alternating bouts of shock and hysteria. Luckily, she encounters a sullen, shape-shifting boy, Haku (Jason Marsden), who comes to her aid. According to Haku, in order to rescue her parents and return home, Chichiro must take a job as an attendant at the bathhouse under the evil rule of Yubaba the witch. The remainder of the film relates the girl’s quest to find and release her parents from their pig-skin bondage.
During her quest, Chichiro encounters an array of surreal, phantasmagoric characters that could have inspired Dali. For example, Yubaba, the frightening witch who, with her oversized, freakish head makes Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” look tame. Then there’s her gargantuan infant son Boh, who plods around like an enormous sumo wrestler. The coal man Kamaji has eight limbs and round, dark glasses that make him look like a hipster beatnik. Oh, and don’t miss the walrus-like “Radish Spirit,” and a trio of green, goateed heads that roll about, muttering in Yubaba’s chambers.
In spite of its affiliation with Disney, “Spirited Away” remains un-Disneyfied and retains its genuine Japanese nature. This is largely due to the dialogue — written by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt — which was synchronized with the Japanese lip movements. John Lasseter (“Toy Story”) is responsible for the Americanized dubbing, and he succeeds in staying true to the distinctive, staccato speech patterns characteristic of the Anime genre.
What most distinguishes this film, however, is its rich, painterly visual style. Typical Hollywood computer generated animation falls lifeless next to the lush colors and minute detail that Miyazaki offers in the film. Miyazaki’s drawing style, reminiscent of classical Japanese graphic art, incorporates nuanced use of color, crisp line, and fantastical painted backdrops.
Though it is directed at a child audience and ties up neatly like a good fairy tale should, “Spirited Away” includes many grotesque elements that sometimes makes it hard to watch. The terrible fate that befalls Chichiro (as a slave girl in the bathhouse) is shocking, and many of the characters she encounters breed disgust. Though the film casually teaches lessons about love, friendship and identity, Miyazaki seems to make another, subtler statement about the balance between the beautiful and the grotesque in Japanese society. Under its guise as a didactic fairy tale, “Spirited Away” seems to be a film about prostitution in modern Japan. By setting the story in a bathhouse and following the young girl who is lured into serving such “monsters,” Miyazaki makes a comment about the excessively young age of the girls lured into the business.
So the question remains, will this film break through into the American mainstream? It is a box-office smash in Japan. It snatched the coveted Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and won Best Picture at the Nippon Academy Awards. Yet despite the innovative animation and a spunky heroine to rival Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” “Spirited Away” left me feeling unaffected and even indifferent. Perhaps it is because Miyazaki, in characteristic Anime convention, refers constantly to ancient Japanese folklore, that the film is inaccessible to mainstream viewers. Or maybe I just don’t “get” Anime.