Sunday, November 9, 2014

2. Spirited Away (2001)

Code-name: Haku

Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Type: Fantasy Japanese Animation

Chihiro- Daveigh Chase
Haku- Jason Marsden
Yubaka/Zeniba- Suzanne Plushette (RIP 2008)
Lin- Susan Egan
Kamajii- David Ogden Stiers
The Baby- Tara Strong

Notable Award:

OSCAR- Best Animated Film


First Impression: Oscar Hate

At the 2003 Oscars, "Spirited Away" was one of five movies nominated for "Best Animated Film."

Others included:

  • Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
  • Treasure Planet
  • Lilo & Stitch
  • Ice Age
At this point, I believe I'd seen all of these movies. Or I had at least HEARD of them.
Ages before my blow-ups over "Brokeback Mountain" and "Avatar" losing, I was extremely vocal over "Spirited Away" beating out all these other movies...Now in hindsight, I don't think if I'd have considered "Treasure Planet" Oscar-worthy. And while the original was great, the sequels have diminished my opinion of "Ice Age."

But this was the skinny:
I'd heard of all these movies BUT the movie that wound up winning... and I didn't like that at all. Plus the one scene they showed struck me as very strange (which, again in hindsight, was the tip of the iceberg)

So I guess part of me did want to see if the hype was worthy.
Again, this was one of those life-changing moments...and my skepticism was immediately erased... and replaced with... well, all the words below for starters.
"I was enchanted to meet [all of] you"
I'm still trying to put together a visual display to go with my favorite Taylor Swift song "Enchanted"... but for now, this lyric fits this movie perfectly.
Some Spoilers...But Not All

So many enchanting moments and spell-binding characters. It truly felt like I'd crossed over into another world and saw something new, exciting and, more of all, special. This movie was just special. When we rented it from Blockbuster, I had to see it twice and I bought myself a copy not long after that.The first time in, for those not familiar with Japanese animation (aka animé), can be disorienting. I'd file this under "just go with what you see" because chances are few things, outside our main characters, get any sort of explanation. So it helps to have compelling characters you can count on to get you through it.
John Lasseter of Pixar Studios is a HUGE Miyazaki-phile so he gives introductions before all these movies. "Spirited Away," he believes to be his masterpiece... and I agree with him :P obviously (or I'd be discussing some other film right now)

We're introduced to Chihiro and her parents while they make the trip to their new home. She's... not your ideal protagonist... she's spoiled, apathetic and somewhat of a brat.
But that's the thing about starting at the bottom: the only way to go is up and the growth Chihiro experiences throughout this movie is staggering.
They stop by what happens to be an abandoned fairground. Chihiro's parents help themselves to the food while she goes off on her own. She encounters a mysterious boy who warns her to leave before night falls.
She returns to find that her parents have been transformed into pigs and the fairground overrun with spirits and other strange creatures.
Haku helps Chihiro get into the bathhouse (think of it as a spa for the spirits) where she needs to get a job to stay in this world until she's able to help her parents.
She meets the six-armed boiler man, Kamajii. He doesn't need any more workers (those animated balls of soots are to-die-for cute!!), but he asks [Chihiro's future bathhouse bestie] Lin to take her to the witch Yubaba.
Yubaba, with some convincing, agrees to give Chihiro a job and takes her name: henceforth calling her "Sen."

Chihiro's dependence on Haku begins from the fact he's her one connection to helping her parents. But over time, she goes grow to care about him, despite Lin trying to convince her otherwise. (We get a brief glimpse of the way she perceives him shortly after Chihiro gets her new name).
Likewise, the other characters (Lin, Kamajii, even Yubaba) grow fond of Chihiro as she does them.

After the Prologue (which introduces us to the main characters), the movie falls into two distinct parts.
Part One of the movie is Chihiro learning how to work in the bathhouse
And Part Two takes her from her main objective (saving her parents) to another-- saving Haku after he's made ill by a cursed seal he stole.


...right off the top, I'll say this. I don't remember much of my first impression until this point, but if I still had any reservations or skepticism about this movie winning the Oscar, they vanished the moment Haku appeared the first time.
As a teenager, I was very boy-crazy... both animated and in reality... and yeah, by animated standards, he was a good looking young man of 12-13 (I was 16 at the time).
But in the animé art form, a character is only as strong as their voice actor. I gave up on several animated series when the casts changed (one included my longest-standing animated crush).
The one time I tried watching "Spirited Away" in its original language, I gave up immediately after Haku opened his mouth... and the voice of a boy came out. Sounded like someone between the age of 5 and 9. Miyu Irino (who was also the original Sora in the "Kingdom Hearts" series pre-American translation) may have been the same age of Haku at the time but that's irrelevant.
Nor does it matter to me that Jason Marsden is twice Haku's age. I'd previously seen him as DJ's rebound boyfriend Nelson on "Full House." The fact he was rich did nothing for me. Really I didn't think much of him (other than the fact he was not Steve #DJandSteve4Ever), but after "Spirited Away," I had a change of heart. [btw, kudos to him for continuing to do voiceovers!] I cannot stress enough how crucial the perfect voice is for animé characters because they define the line of make and break.I mean, think about it. Haku had been in the spirit world, working as Yubaba's henchman for a long time. He knows this world like the back of his hand and is Chihiro's guide at the beginning of her character arc when everything is frightening and unfamiliar. That's something that requires a sense of maturity and knowledge.

As for the questions surrounding his character, whether he's all good or bad. Why he agreed to be Yubaba's henchman. Why he stole Zeniba's solid gold seal. If I had the time and energy, I could spin a couple theories to explain all that. (Never thought to do so, but maybe I should sometime)
But for now, I'll settle for this: Despite the hearsay abut him, questionable things he'd done, the sudden change in attitude he had after Chihiro became Sen (and went back to normal as if nothing happened the next morning)... there was not a single moment where I doubted him. You could say it was me being naïve, but with all that he'd done for Chihiro up to this point, how could he be bad?
And the ultimate pay-off is that Chihiro and I were right about him ;)


Easily the most eccentric character is Kamajii. When we first meet him, he seems a little strange and a little harsh, but deep down, he has a good heart. He asks Lin to take Chihiro to see Yubaba, claiming she's his granddaughter. He also comes through in a big way when Haku gets himself into trouble, giving Chihiro what she needs to help him.
He may not be her real grandfather, but he certainly fit the bill of the grandfather figure: authoritative but very kind.

Maybe it was because I was very much into Yu-Gi-Oh! at the time, but Lin immediately reminded me of Mai Valentine. Both are very strong female characters chock full of sarcasm. Looks aside, Lin surpasses Mai because she's not completely self-absorbed or materialistic.
They don't get off on the right foot at the beginning (although most of it is Lin complaining about escorting a human to Yubaba's loft... the bathhouse workers look human to me so I don't really get the distinction), but Lin is so impressed Chihiro got hired that she offers to help her with anything she needs.
The two of them make a pretty good team. Such an great friendship.
The witch who rules the bathhouse... for starters, she is UGLY. And in this striking animation style, she can be pretty intimidating  I mean, she can be downright scary when she's angry. And her magic makes it even worse.
But like all classic bad guys, she does have her weakness. Search me how a woman her age has a baby (nevermind that this baby is HUGE), but she's willing to do anything to keep her baby safe and happy. Including giving Chihiro the employment contract so she'll stop yelling (the same yelling that woke the crying baby).


Otherwise known as Yubaba's twin sister... yeah, I found that plot a little bit of a stretch, but just go with me on it. She sends her shikigami [I first learned this term in the animé series InuYasha] after Haku after he steals her seal. Within the same scene, she also transforms the baby and some other creatures in Yubaba's loft into different forms.
Initially, she appears as intimidating as her sister, but when Chihiro officially meets her (previously, it was a hologram projected by the shikigami), she winds up being the opposite. The "good" sister, if you will. As they get to know each other, she asks Chihiro to call her "Granny" and she really does come off that way (although, personally, I think they write this into the English translation to match the lip-flaps better).
Suzanne Plushette did the voice of both sisters so well (giving Zeniba a softer touch). My first encounter with her was "Lion King II: Simba's Pride" where she played evil lioness Zira.
(Strangely enough, I did NOT pick up the fact Jason Marsden did Kovu's voice until after seeing this movie)..

Easily the most mysterious character in this movie (yeah, even though Haku is full of surprises, I still stand by this because Haku does some explanation).
Chihiro encounters him a number of times early in the film. He's this dark cloaked (at times even transparent) being whose face is his most distinct feature. Likely, he was dubbed after the Noh masks used in a form of ancient Japanese theater. He appears to appear at random, but after Chihiro lets him into the bathhouse (it was raining outside), a sense of Hell winds up breaking loose.
The workers are enamored by him because he can produce gold, but things quickly escalate. He gets large in size after eating all the food offered to him. He ends up eating a couple people. Because he only speaks a few lines (after eating the anthropomorphic frog... who might have been a human Yubaba transformed.. I don't know), his motives are never fully explained. Chihiro finds a way to fix the situation and he's able to get back to his normal self.
And it's nice that he gets his own happy ending towards the end.
Aftermath and After-Effects

I didn't have time to go into this before, but yeah... this is a very strange film. As is the case with a lot of animé, it's best to have a capacity to accept things as they are. Thinking too much about what's chaotic and what doesn't make sense mid-film only leads to headaches.
[My parents claim all of it was drug-induced as they always do with things that can't be fully explained]
I also didn't want to give all of the secrets away because it's worth experiencing visually.

I watched a lot of 4Kids animé series those days... Pokémon, Sailor Moon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, CardCaptors... and since a couple of my friends were into animé (and were no longer into any of the above), I was curious to brush up as well... but we fell out of touch before we could start a dialogue on them.
I credit those friendships with the reason I checked into my college's animé club (which got me some lifelong friendships and to Comic-Con where I met my favorite voice actress).
"Spirited Away" not only introduced me to the genius Japanese animation writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, but instilled in me a tolerance for the weird/unusual that helped me through most of the series we watched at the club.
There were still exceptions, of course. (Off the top of my head, Gantz, Abenobashi and Ninja Scroll... Fooly Cooly was part of that club as well, but repeated viewings have since conditioned me to that uniquely enjoyable brand of insanity).

The strangest parts in this movie, aside from Chihiro's parents becoming pigs...
1) the scene with the "stink spirit"
2) the three green bouncing heads that move as one entity, one of Yubaba's companions... that was never explained.. they're weird and they're just... there

I'd since seen 3 other Miyazaki films. (4 if you included 50-60% of "Princess Mononoke"... the excess commercials on Cartoon Network ruined it for me... been meaning to revisit for years).
Nauscaa in the Valley of the Wind was our first animé club film (I remember enjoying it but little else)
Kiki's Delivery Service (by far the "tamest" and another animé film I LOVE)
Howl's Moving Castle (great up until the 3rd act that surpasses even my limits for absurdity...again, an explanation would have been nice here).

Lastly, this movie receives my #2 for one very special reason:
It was the final piece to a story idea I'd been incubating in my head for some time. The idea of a classic good vs. evil story that featured mythical creatures... all that was missing was my hero.

In a way, "Nina and The Voice in the Wind" was my answer to the one question I had in my head after the movie ended:
Would Chihiro and Haku meet again?

Jonas is the culmination of many sources of inspiration. The most important being the pale blue eyes my 10th grade crush had. But what I got from Haku was a character misunderstood by those around him... and all it took was the right person to unravel the mystery.

The afternoon after I saw the movie, I penned what became my story's prologue. An evil sorcerer took control of two natural elements, threatening to throw the ancient world into chaos and is thwarted by an angel.
Jonas is that angel incarnated and by the end of my story, he fulfills his destiny...only this time, he has help.

After that story, I wrote a couple more. All in the fantasy/romance (ergo: romantasy) genre.
As if overnight, I went from being a fanfiction writer to someone with original fantasy work.
[from 2003-2008... then from 2009-present, I've managed one short story a year... no longer in the fantasy department, at least not in the general sense]

I'd spent the past 10 years with my first story writing, revising and trying to get it published with zero luck.
It's gotten to the point now where I feel like I need to start from scratch... which may well mean my title needs to change.
The whole "voice in the wind" concept was very vague to begin with and if you want to get technical, that was another "Spirited Away" allusion.
It's bad enough the way my two characters come together might be dubbed a "Twilight"-rip-off (even though I finished my first draft in 2005 predates it by 3 years)... and Mai Valentine practically makes an appearance as one of Nina's new friends (although technically a combination between her and Lin).

I put together a soundtrack and my writer's blog for the sake of promoting this story.

[ which I hadn't updated in forever and the last time I did was for a non-fantasy/romance story]
I don't want to give up on it after all this, but I gotta admit, there's a lot about that doesn't quite work.

[Edit: I've started work on a different version of it... giving Nina a little more of a back story than just her being the one person Jonas needs to be his friend]

I also used the name "Chihiro" for my heroine in an InuYasha fanfiction I wrote (and have since been trying to transition to something original because she's one of my favorite creations).

Coming Soon

My #1 favorite movie of all time...

And a review of "Mockingjay" whenever we go see it.

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