Spirited Away (Mania.com)

By:Chris Meadows
Review Date: Friday, May 02, 2003
Release Date: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

The Review!

I'm not really qualified to comment on higher-end audio due to the low-end nature of my setup; however, it sounded good to me. I listened to the English and Japanese versions for the review.


Here we have a clear case of "The good, the bad, and the ugly":

The good: No trace of the red tint that dogged the Japanese release! (Legions of fans rejoice.) The picture seems to be decently high quality, certainly better than all the DivX copies that have been floating around the Internet in the last few months.

The bad: Buena Vista apparently used a film print, rather than the digital original, to make this DVD. Oh well. It's still at least a thousand times better than no DVD at all.

The ugly: This DVD, like the other two new Ghibli releases, and _Princess Mononoke_ before it, has alternate-angle opening and closing credit sequences, so that the original Japanese title footage is seen when playing the Japanese track, and English versions when playing the English. However, that feature on this disc seems to have some "issues"--to wit, it is very difficult on many DVD players (including the Windows DVDStation on which I tested it) to get the Japanese title cards to come up when watching either the English or the Japanese version. (I had few such problems under Linux.) In the end, what I had to do to make it work properly in Windows was start watching the movie, go back to the menu, go to setup and change the sound to Japanese, go to scene selection and start over from the beginning of the movie, and manually activate the subtitles (as turning them on from the setup menu didn't do any good).

This is a relatively minor glitch, true, and would not matter so much except for another interesting glitch. This was first noticed by fans doing a shot-for-shot comparison of one particular scene with other versions of the movie DVDs--the scene where Chihiro's parents' car drives up the ramp and the title appears. It seemed that the American version of the disc cropped the picture noticeably compared to other regions' DVDs. For a while, fans were anxious that the entire disc was slightly zoomed in this way.

However, a little follow-up research soon indicated that this crop happened only in the _English_ version of the opening credit sequence--if watching the original Japanese version, the scene was identical to other regions' discs. I did some further research, taking and comparing screen captures from the English & Japanese versions of other parts of the film, and soon discovered that this cropping occurs only where it was necessary to replace Japanese title elements with English title elements: the Totoro logo at the beginning of the film, the scene with the _Spirited Away_ title element at the beginning, and the closing credits at the end. Also, in comparison to the Japanese version, the color in the English version of the closing credits seems slightly washed out. Why this happened, I really can't say.

A final note about the video: like the other two new Miyazaki DVD releases (but unlike _Princess Mononoke_), the _Spirited Away_ disc features not only anamorphic _letterboxing_, but also some vertical black bars to the left and right of the picture. Apparently, this "windowboxing" is normal for some Japanese DVDs (though this is the first time I have ever seen it on an American release), and is intended to prevent loss of picture on the edges due to TV set overscan. However, it is slightly unnerving when watching it on a computer monitor; to people who don't know why it is there, I imagine it might lead them to wonder if something is wrong with their DVD player (as letterboxing has been known to do).


Plastic 2-disc keepcase: Disc 1 is on a hinged plastic plate in the center, Disc 2 in the "normal" DVD disc position in the right face of the case. The front cover has the standard Chihiro poster image, with three awards listed (none of them the Academy Award, since the DVD cover was printed too late for that). Inside the package is a simple single-folded insert with disc content lists and a few trivia notes, and a $2 off cash register coupon for buying another Miyazaki movie, expiring 11/30/03. Nothing hideously bad, nothing mind-numbingly great either.


First of all, Disney's up to their usual tricks in that they've included two "Now available on video & DVD" trailers--for _Kiki_ and _Laputa_--that play before the menu. To their credit, however, a notice that they can be skipped by pressing "menu" (they can also be skipped with the next chapter button) appears before they air. And they are at least appropriate to show with this movie in that they are both Miyazaki films. In fact, even the FBI warnings that come at the start of the disc can be skipped by pressing next chapter.

The menus themselves are nothing to write home about. On Disc 1, the main menu is a somewhat artifacted animation loop of Chihiro riding Haku through the air; the bonus features menu is a loop of animation from the train ride; the other menus are stills, and the menu transition is the clip of Haku and Chihiro zooming through the ventilation duct to the boiler room. I could personally do without it, but it's not too annoying as transitions go. There are short musical loops that play to accompany each menu panel. The main menu on Disc 2 is a loop of other train-ride footage.

To tie in with my remarks on video, above, the setup portion of the disc has a slight problem in selecting the correct multiple-angle version of the title cards. Finally, though it is laudable that Disney has included both English captions for the hearing impaired and English subtitles on the disc (as many companies leave the captions in the closed-capton track, and it's hard to find a software DVD player that will decode closed captions), the caption/subtitle menu could be confusing for people who don't know the difference. (And also, choosing the English subtitle option often doesn't work, so that they have to be turned on manually while watching the movie.)


Hallelujah! This disc had almost everything I could have hoped for in the extras department--plenty of stuff I had wanted, and some stuff that I didn't care about one way or the other but had no objection to its inclusion.

To begin with, on Disc 1 is Pixar exec and dub Executive Producer John Lasseter's introduction to the film, which can be viewed either tagged onto the film or separately. It is slightly fanboyish, and perhaps gives some of the story away through exposition and film clips, but I don't mind it too much; it can be chapter-skipped easily enough, and this way it will be seen by people who just rent a movie and watch it without exploring other disc features.

Also included is _The Art of Spirited Away_, a 15-minute documentary hosted by Jason Marsden, the American voice actor for Haku, which talks about the movie's background and interviews American voice actors and production staff. While mostly fluff, and not as through or detailed as the Japanese TV documentary on disc 2, it does have some interesting moments, particularly Miyazaki being interviewed directly through a translator.

The most amusing extra on Disc 1, however, is the Easter Egg--accessible through the bonus features menu (I won't spoil exactly how, but it's easy to find for those who know the ways of eggs). This egg features a few minutes of Lasseter and Miyazaki (with a translator standing just off-screen) clowning around in an interview.

Also on the first disc, though I'm not sure they count as real "extras" per se, are trailers for about a dozen Miyazaki or other Disney films. I doubt I'll be watching them much, and I suppose one could argue that leaving them out would have provided space to encode the movie at a better bitrate, but I doubt at that rate it would have made much difference.

On the second disc are a brief _Behind the Microphone_ segment highlighting the performances of most of the English voice cast--interesting so far as it goes--and the real gem of the disc, a 40-minute Japanese TV documentary, with English subtitles, that provides a fascinating sneak peek into the way Studio Ghibli operates, and also goes into great depth about how the film was made. There are some truly hilarious moments in this segment, relating to the lengths to which the Japanese animators will go to capture Miyazaki's vision, and Studio Ghibli's culinary habits. Oddly enough, the English subtitles in this documentary are displayed at the _top_ of the screen rather than the bottom (which would technically make them supertitles?); I suppose that's because there are some Japanese subtitles and captions that display at bottom and they didn't want to cover them up.

Rounding out the second disc are about thirty minutes of Japanese trailers for Spirited Away (many of which seem to be identical to each other, or nearly so), and a set of ten minute excerpts from the storyboards of the film set to either English or Japanese soundtrack. Many fans are annoyed that only an excerpt was included, and not the entire set of storyboards (as was done with _Kiki_ and _Laputa_), but frankly, I'd rather have the TV documentary as it is more interesting and tells me more than the storyboards in many cases. I'd never get around to watching a movie-length set of storyboards anyway. Now thirty minutes of Japanese trailers, on the other hand, does seem just a bit excessive.

As far as I'm concerned, the only other things I could have wished for were on this disc were an audio commentary, separated score, and perhaps a still-store art gallery. This is the class of extras I would have loved to see on _Princess Mononoke_, and I wish the ones on _Kiki's Delivery Service_ and _Laputa_ were more like these.


(Contains minor spoilers for the movie.)

Though he works exclusively in the medium of animation, Hayao Miyazaki stands out as one of the greatest filmmakers of _any_ medium that Japan has ever known. Every one of his films is a masterpiece of storytelling. When Miyazaki made _Princess Mononoke_, fans were disheartened to hear that it was to be his last film. How fortunate for us that he changed his mind, and made _Sen and Chihiro: Spirited Away_.

_Spirited Away_ is literally the highest-grossing movie ever in Japan (it made $230 million, in a nation with 1/10 America's theater screens), knocking _Titanic_ out of the top slot?which in turn knocked _Princess Mononoke_ ($159 million) out of the top slot a couple of years before. Despite its high Japanese gross, _Mononoke_ made less than $3 million in the American box office; as a result, Disney nearly didn't option _Spirited Away_ for American distribution.

Fortunately, they saw the light. The American run of _Spirited Away_ opened in limited venues in late September, 2002. Both subtitled and dubbed prints of the movie were available to theaters. Unfortunately, it had very little advertising and only played on 151 screens at its peak, making a little over five million dollars in this arthouse theatrical run. However, all hope was not lost?this theatrical run qualified it for nomination for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and against all expectations (but not all hope), it very-deservedly won this award. Thus it was rereleased to 750 theaters in late march, with a big advertising push, and did respectably well in the three to four weeks it was again in theaters, reaching nearly $10 million in all?and the DVD was released on April 15, along with discs for _Castle in the Sky_ (nee _Laputa_) and _Kiki's Delivery Service_.

The differences between original language and dub, for those who care about such things, are mostly minor. A few lines are changed, one or two things are added, but by and large it remains true to the spirit of the original. And, unlike many anime dubs, the voice acting was first-rate. In particular, Daveigh Chase did a yeoman job in the role of Chihiro, starting out appropriately whiny and maturing nicely as she grew stronger over the course of the film. Michael Chiklis was excellently smarmy in his role as the father, too?though I could be prejudiced since I did enjoy The Commish. The only dissonant moments came after some of the long periods of silence in the film, when I was subconsciously expecting to hear the characters speak in Japanese instead of English (due to having watched the Japanese version many times before, courtesy of region 2 DVD).

For those who remember _Princess Mononoke_, whose brilliance was mitigated by its violence, the first question _Spirited Away_ might evoke is, "Is it kid-friendly?" The answer is unabashedly _yes_. _Spirited Away_ is one of that rare breed of movie that is made for children but without pandering or condescending to them?so it can be enjoyed by children of _all_ ages, whether young in body or young at heart. There are some scary moments (that may be too intense for the _very_ young) and a little bit of blood, which is why it is rated PG, but there are no deaths and very little violence. Disney is putting its own name and logo at the beginning of the movie, and Disney would not endanger its own family-friendly reputation.

In _Spirited Away_, Miyazaki revisits the world he first explored in _My Neighbor Totoro_, and later touched upon in _Princess Mononoke_: the realm of Shinto nature-spirits hiding just out of sight behind the ordinary world.

The story begins as a young girl named Chihiro is sulking in the back of her parents' car, unhappy about being taken away from all her friends, as they drive to their new home in the suburbs. Her father takes a wrong turn, and they end up in what seems to be an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro thinks the place is creepy and doesn't want any part of it. Despite her protests, her father and mother decide to explore the decrepit village across a dry riverbed, and Chihiro comes along rather than be left behind alone.

Chihiro's premonitions are not unfounded?for after nightfall, the village is a very different place. Under the lit lamps, shadowy spirits walk the streets. The dry riverbed is a mile-wide flood, plied by a riverboat that carries gods and spirits across the water. Customers of all different shapes and sizes cross the great arched bridge into the palatial bathhouse that surmounts the village. Before she fully understands what has happened, Chihiro's parents have been turned into pigs, and she has been forced to work as a bath attendant for Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse. Chihiro?or "Sen," as she is called after Yubaba steals most of her name?must make her way in that strange world, so she can free her parents and return home.

_Spirited Away_ is an exciting and fascinating movie. Like all of Miyazaki's films, you come to care for and empathize with the protagonist and the other characters?even the witch Yubaba, who is not so much _evil_ as she is greedy and self-centered. You keep watching because you want to find out what happens next, and how the characters learn, grow, and deal with their problems. Contrast an early scene with Chihiro inching down a staircase one terrified step at a time to a later scene which has her running on a decrepit, collapsing pipe, leaping to safety just as it finally gives way. You get so caught up in these developments that before you know it, the movie is over.

The story of _Spirited Away_ is inspired by many sources?most notably Japanese Shinto folklore, which holds that everything in nature has a spirit or god living within it (for the purpose of this story, the Japanese terms for "spirit" and "god" are roughly interchangeable), and Lewis Carroll's _Alice in Wonderland_, which tells the story of a girl's journey through a strange and sometimes frightening fantasy world. In fact, _Spirited Away_ has most often been compared to _Alice_, though taken as a whole, the resemblance is only superficial. The movie also harks back to some of Miyazaki's earlier movies, revisiting the funny-looking nature spirits of _My Neighbor Totoro_, the young girl making her way in a strange world of _Kiki's Delivery Service_, and the vulnerability of gods to man-made corruption of _Princess Mononoke_.

In _Spirited Away_, the main themes are finding one's inner strength, and the value of friendship over coercion?themes found in many of his other works as well. The message is to be true to oneself?that even if one does not _change_ the world, she can still survive it. There are also mild pokes at the consumerism that is especially rampant in modern Japan, and at man's tendency to pollute his environment. Miyazaki often uses his work for gentle preaching of this kind, but the marvel is that it is so subdued?showing by example, rather than by broad exposition?that the method of delivery does not prejudice against the message.

Miyazaki doesn't simply create movies, he creates entire visualized _worlds_. Every scene has the sort of attention to detail that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen?even the dim corners of each scene are populated by _things_?pipes, valves, gauges, a sink with a towel hanging over it on a clotheshanger on the wall of a machine room, or characters running this way and that. One memorably well-composed shot shows Chihiro inching out of a door at the left of the screen, while at the right, numerous strange creatures pass back and forth over the bridge in the distance. Every one of those creatures is unique?there's no recycling or looping of cels because they don't think you'll be paying attention. And there are dozens and dozens of unique spirits and monsters, many of whom can be seen repeatedly in the background throughout the movie if you only look for them. Miyazaki's films are a feast for the eyes, fun to watch over and over again simply so you can see the little details you missed before.

Miyazaki's movies have always been amazing roller-coaster rides that thrill and delight almost anyone who sees them; _Spirited Away_ is no exception. Much more accessible and family-friendly than _Princess Mononoke_, this is the perfect DVD for almost anyone age six and up (and perhaps for some even younger).

Review Equipment
Homebuilt computer: Celeron 300A/450, Windows 2000 & Debian Linux, Sigma Designs Netstream 2000 DVD decoder card/DVD Station & Linux beta players, Samsung 19" Syncmaster monitor, Altec Lansing stereo speakers w/ subwoofer

Mania Grade: A+
Audio Rating: N/A
Video Rating: B
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: C
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 12 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MSRP: 29.99
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 2.0:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Spirited Away