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Spirited Away

Japan (2002), 125 minutes
Reviewer: Vance Aandahl
Genre: Animation
Rating: 4
When watching anime, one should remember that they fall loosely into two main categories: the ultra violent, gore-drenched, pornographic variety designed for warped sickos such as the perpetrator of this web site and the author of this review; and the wholesome variety designed for little children and their parents. Hayao Miyazaki has created six feature-length anime since 1986, all of which fall more or less into the latter category, and in the process he has become Japan’s most popular film-maker and won worldwide acclaim.Earlier this year, his latest creation, Spirited Away, won the grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival and thereby became, I believe, the only animated flick ever to win the top award at a major film festival. American critics have been unanimous in their praise of Spirited Away, but when Little Deuteronomy and I saw it at the Mayan, I was not overly impressed.
My favorite Miyazaki movies are My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). These films are quiet, unpretentious, leisurely paced, magical, and completely charming. But when Princess Mononoke came out in 1997, I sensed that something had gone awry with Miyazaki’s artistic vision. Princess Mononoke has some wonderful moments (for example, the scenes with the brothel women), and I admire its moral complexity (when the animals and gods of the primeval forest battle with the humans who are encroaching upon their world, it’s impossible to say that one side is “good” and the other “evil” – how refreshingly different from the typical Disney movie!), but the story is so ambitious, so grandiose, so philosophical, so ostentatiously epic, that the viewer is likely to feel buried alive under the weight of it all. Gone are the gentleness, delicacy, and lovely humor of Miyazaki’s earlier films.

And now Spirited Away comes strutting onto the screen. I won’t spoil your viewing pleasure by taking you through the plot (the way so many idiot reviewers do); I will simply say that Spirited Away can best be described as a Shinto version of Disney’s Alice In Wonderland, although it also bears considerable resemblance to My Neighbor Totoro. But this is not the quietly engaging Totoro; this is Totoro writ large, Totoro on a gigantic scale, Totoro speeded up to a hyper-kinetic blur, a great-bedizened psychedelic leviathan Totoro.

It’s hard to believe, but as I staggered out of the theater, I had to admit that Spirited Away is even more spectacular, awesome, prodigious, elaborate, showy, and portentous than Princess Mononoke. Apparently Miyazaki is one of those artists who feel obligated to outdo themselves with each new creation. I shudder to think what wretched excess he’ll come up with next.So Spirited Away is not my cup of tea, but to be fair I must report that Little Deuteronomy loved it and told me to give it a rating of 6. Sigh… Maybe I’m just an old grouch.

Read Silman’s review of Miyazaki and his films.