written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
opens Sept. 20 at Neptune
Those freaky saucer-sized eyes; those chimplike button noses; those plots that never quite make sense—anime has always creeped me out, and the reasons go deeper than any bad childhood memories of Speed Racer. Anime is like a cult you have to join, made by geeks for geeks. So why do these anime titles keep crossing the Pacific to be marketed to hapless, uncomprehending American children? Three years ago, Hayao Miyazaki's 1997 Princess Mononoke got a big U.S. launch, with Claire Danes and others dubbing the picture into English. It was a flop.
So what does Disney do? It imports Miyazaki's latest, Spirited Away, dubs it with cheaper B-list talent—e.g., Suzanne Pleshette of The Bob Newhart Show (couldn't they get Marcia Wallace?)—and gives it the same big push. It's unlikely to do better, despite being billed as possibly Miyazaki's final work (an old threat). The movie is never less than lovely to watch, but beautiful renderings can only overcome so much narrative incoherence.
A huge hit in Japan (never a phrase that inspires confidence), the movie is essentially a kids' fairy tale, rich in enchantment and shape changing, with a dreamy never-never land setting. While moving to their new home in the country, 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble upon a spirit-haunted abandoned amusement park; soon her folks are turned into pigs, leaving Chihiro to fend for herself and search for ways to break the spell.
Gradually, Chihiro ingratiates herself at a kind of vacation bathhouse for the Shinto spirit world, a resort of sorts for the amorphous genius loci figures associated with Japan's dwindling natural realm (streams, forests, etc.). They often resemble escapees from Ghostbusters, and they're not much better behaved. Much time is spent eating one another, then vomiting each other back up again; then there's all the to-do about boiling, scrubbing, and herbal baths.
CROSS-CULTURAL understanding is great, but why anyone would pay money to take a bath with a bunch of strangers is likely to remain a mystery to your kids. Little girls may get why Chihiro is sweet on Haku—a dashing boyish spirit with a Prince Valiant haircut—but then he suddenly changes into a phallic river dragon that's like a cross between a dachshund, a ferret, and a carp. Eeew! Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron this is not. (The ghouls also confusingly shift from hostile to friendly and back again.)
As Chihiro gathers her wits and courage to free her powerless porcine parents, there are many magical "tests" she must duly master, forcing her to shake off her sulky timidity. Yet this parable of growing up has less to do with mature self-realization than sternly enforced obedience. A somewhat spoiled, whiny city girl, Chihiro has to learn her place while obediently pouring baths and serving tea for her paranormal employers. (She's renamed "Sen" once on the job.) "You're a lazy spoiled crybaby, and you humans have no manners," Chihiro's told by Yubaba, the witch with the oversized noggin—and bizarrely Occidental features—who runs the joint. This company's a union shop, and Chihiro's treated like a scab. (Humans smell bad, we're repeatedly told.)
Are there no child-labor laws or OSHA regs in the spirit world? When Chihiro has to scrub down a lumbering shit- covered "Stink Spirit," it's like one of those gross-out kiddie shows on Nickelodeon, except without the cheering peer-group audience in support. She's all alone, and her waifish google-eyed pathos turns Spirited into kitsch.
STILL, I DID LIKE the charming little soot blobs who help stoke the boilers beneath the bathhouse; when Chihiro tries to help them, they promptly go on strike! Later, two minor characters get turned into a funny hamsterlike thing and a flying gnat. Recalling both Disney's Fantasia and Beauty and the Beast, a solitary light pole galumphs along on its pedestal to light Chihiro's way through a scary swamp. I especially loved a partially submerged railroad track on which the spirit commuter train rides like a boat. Foregrounds are sometimes drawn softly to convey depth of focus. Tiny flowers sprout between cobblestones—and this is in background cels!
At such moments, Miyazaki's visual artistry is undeniable. The details are amazing, and any one individual cel from Spirited would look great on a gallery wall (as at the Henry's "Superflat" show last fall). But even when anime is fascinating to look at, it's unconvincing as a movie. Of course, grown-up geeks won't care, and they're probably already watching this movie at home on Region 3 DVD. Kids, sensibly, will just wonder what all the fuss is about.