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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/15/03

Spirited Away
(a.k.a. Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi)

2001 (2003) Studio Ghibli/Tokuma Shoten (Buena Vista/Disney)

review by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Spirited Away

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
125 min, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.0:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, video introduction by John Lasseter (4x3, English DD 2.0), The Art of Spirited Away featurette (4x3, English DD 2.0), 8 preview trailers (for Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, Finding Nemo, Atlantis: Milo's Return, Stitch! The Movie, Bionicle: Mask of Light, The Lion King and Disney Interactive), Meet Hayao Miyazaki Easter egg featurette, insert booklet with liner notes, animated film-themed menu screens with sound and music, scene access (16 chapters), languages: Japanese and English (DD 5.1), French (DD 2.0) subtitles: English and English for the hearing impaired, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Supplemental Materials
Behind the Microphone featurette (4x3, English DD 2.0), The Making of Spirited Away Nippon Television special (4x3, Japanese DD 2.0 with English subtitles), selected storyboard-to-film comparisons (16x9, English and Japanese DD 2.0), original Japanese trailers (4x3, Japanese DD 2.0 with English subtitles), animated film-themed menu screens with sound and music, languages: see featurette details above, subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

It's about time, after close to 20 years of making feature animation that puts current Disney output to shame, that legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki won a long-deserved Oscar. And now the film that won him the award, Spirited Away, has been released in the U.S. on DVD.

So who is Hayao Miyazaki, and why should you care? What makes the movies he directs so much better than the feature animation we see in the U.S.? Most Hollywood animation is produced according to what has become "The Disney Formula". That usually boils down to the story being a buddy comedy, populated with one or more cute animal sidekicks, and coupled with rousing, Broadway-style musical numbers. What Hayao Miyazaki makes, on the other hand, are FILMS - the kind Walt Disney himself used to make. Miyazaki's imagination stretches beyond reality, to create stunning and beautiful vistas that would be virtually impossible to film in the real world. His films are epic in scope, and unlike anything you've ever seen. They're not just designed to sell action figures and happy meals... they're glorious pieces of cinema that can be appreciated by young and old alike.

Spirited Away tells the story of a young girl named Chihiro (pronounced CHEEhee-RO). Saddened that her family is moving to another city, Chihiro spends most of the drive to her new home pouting and complaining. But when her father decides to take a shortcut through the woods, they discover that the road ends at the entrance to a mysterious temple. Through this magical portal, lies a traditional-style Japanese town. There are stores and restaurants piled with food... but not a soul to be found. Chihiro's parents decide to eat while their daughter explores. As the sun sets in the distance, a boy suddenly appears to warn Chihiro of danger. Ghosts and spirits begin to appear as darkness falls over the village streets. Chihiro runs back to her parents afraid... and discovers that they've turned into gluttonous pigs as they eat! What will happen to Chihiro in this dangerous new world? Who is this boy who tries to warn her? Will she be able to save her parents and find the way home? Thus begins Spirited Away... an intriguing (and visually stunning) tale of danger, mystery and wondrous happenings.

Having enjoyed the official Region 3 DVD release of Spirited Away since last summer, I was looking forward to seeing what Disney would do with the Region 1 release. The R3 edition's video was hampered by an infamous "red tint", that was added by the DP to compensate for perceived deficiencies in LCD televisions. Unfortunately, while the R1 release has been properly color corrected, the anamorphic transfer is still somewhat disappointing. While the transfer on the R3 disc is rock solid and razor sharp, and presumably taken directly from the digital master on Ghibli's computers, the R1 release appears to have been telecined from a film print with minor damage in a few places. Overall, the entire film appears soft and, to someone who has been used to the Asian transfer, this is quite distracting. If I had to guess, I'd say that transferring directly from the original digital master was a much more expensive solution than a straight-up telecine, so Disney took the cheap route with their now Oscar-winning property. It certainly doesn't help that there are some 30 minutes of trailers for other Disney titles on Disc One, which take up valuable disc space that could have been used for higher bitrate video on the feature. Now mind you, this is NOT a bad transfer. The compression is well done, colors are bright and lines are solid. But the film could definitely have looked better.

The audio for the film is provided in both the original Japanese, as well as dubbed English, both in Dolby Digital 5.1. While the 5.1 Japanese track is crisp and clear, it seems to lack some of the sparkle and ambience, especially when it comes to the sound design and Joe Hisaishi's haunting score. As with Princess Mononoke, the English dub track suffers from inferior mixing and overall just general indifference in the sound design. The original Japanese is definitely the way to experience this film sonically. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this DVD audio-wise, is the lack of a DTS track, which the original R3 DVD included.

Sadly, there are other ways the R1 disc fails to equal its R3 counterpart. The Asian release featured gorgeous watercolor menu images, presumably done by Miyazaki himself. For the Region 1 release, not only do we miss out on the charming Studio Ghibli intro animation, we get overcompressed footage from the film itself. The Asian releases were mastered in the U.S., so why the original material wasn't used is a mystery.

The extras on Disc One are, as we've said before, largely promotional material for other Disney properties. When you start the disc, you get a series of over-compressed trailers for other titles, which play automatically. Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky (a.k.a. Laputa) and Kiki's Delivery Service are among them. But for a title of this magnitude, for Disney to have forced preview trailers is a shame (thankfully, you can skip past them). Once you get to the main menu, there are at least a couple of things worth seeing.

First of all, Toy Story director John Lassetter has recorded a video introduction to the film. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Lassetter for rescuing the Ghibli library from the slot right next to the Lost Ark in the Disney vault. Had it not for his cheerleading of Miyazaki, and personally overseeing the release of these films in the U.S., they probably would have remained lost forever. Lassetter gets about a minute of screen time to tell you what a genius his good friend Hayao Miyazaki is, and what a lucky lucky person you are you get to see his films (he's right on both counts). There's a brief Easter egg hidden Disc One, which is a cute video interview of Lassetter and Miyazaki kidding around together. And there's a fluffy, EPK-style featurette on the film, called The Art of Spirited Away. It includes some interesting interview clips, but there's not much art in it. And it would have been better included on Disc Two, so as to not steal bitspace from the film itself. Poor DVD production indeed.

Disc Two includes another EPK-type piece, called Behind the Microphone, where we learn about the process of creating the English dub. There are also storyboard-to-scene comparisons for a few select scenes from the film (you can listen to the audio in English or the original Japanese). This is cool, but also disappointing, as the new DVDs for Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service include the complete storyboards for the entire film as an alternate video angle during the film itself. There's also a video of a few of the original Japanese trailers and TV spots for the film (in Japanese with English subtitles).

The best of the extras on Disc Two (and indeed the entire set) us the Nippon TV special, original shown in Japan, on the making of Spirited Away. The piece runs about 40 minutes in all. You're shown almost every aspect of production on the film: Miyazaki discussing the origins of the story, work on the key animation, the elaborate voice casting and recording sessions, the soundtrack scoring work and more. When you compare the time and effort spent by Miyazaki and his voice actors on getting the dialogue and emotional inflection just right, to the work done by the English dub team, I think you'll gain a new appreciation for why these films MUST seen in their original language. The TV special even allows you to see Miyazaki cooking dinner for his animators (a tradition at the studio - the various staff members take turns cooking and even the director isn't exempt).

Notably missing from this DVD release is ANY sense of the cultural background and context of the film. Something I feel was sorely missing from this package is a featurette (or text piece) explaining the role of bath houses in Japanese culture, and the Japanese traditions upon which so much of Spirited Away, and Miyazaki's other work, rests. Traditionally, bathing is a communal activity - whole families, and even neighborhoods, relax in the same bathhouses. It's a tie that binds the community together. People travel for hundreds of miles to visit "onsen" (or hot spring) resorts, whose waters are said to be the most soothing or medicinal. And like the resort depicted in Spirited Away, the finest food and lodging are associated with the best waters. In Shinto Buddhism, the most prominent religion in Japan, every living thing and part of nature has its own spirit - every tree, every river, every bush, even the earth under our feet. These things have thoughts and feelings, just like we do, and they too need some time to relax (as we seem them do in the film). Of course, there's much more context to this film than I can give you in a DVD review. Suffice it to say that more background material should have been included on this set.

For that matter, where are the artwork-based extras? Where are the galleries of production art? Where are the character design sketches? Where are the still images of the backgrounds and locations? Where's the scouting photos and video that the creative team took when they were researching the film? The point is, some of this should have been included here, on these DVDs.

Spirited Away is an important animated film. Not only is it the first Japanese film to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, it could also be considered Miyazaki's masterpiece. That said, it's a shame that Disney didn't put more effort into really making this a landmark DVD release, of the same quality as their previous Toy Story, Tarzan and Bug's Life multi-disc editions. It would at least have been nice if the special edition materials and quality equalled the original Japanese DVD release. Hopefully, the studio will take the hint and really go all out on a deluxe edition in the future. In any case, while this DVD isn't as good as we might have wanted it to be, it's at least serviceable. And the film is a triumph.

One last word of warning for parents: while this film was given a PG rating by the MPAA, I'd personally would be a little wary of showing it to very young children, as there are some scary, intense moments. Give the little kids Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky on DVD instead, and put Spirited Away on the shelf for a few years. Of course, no one's saying you parents have to wait that long...

Jeff Kleist
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