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I hate Anime. I sorta have to get that disclaimer automatically out of the way before I review any Anime film. The closest I ever got to liking Anime was the early “Transformers”, and that was probably mostly because I was a kid and they were big robots with guns. Plus you can’t ever discount Casey Kasem. But in general, I hate Anime. It’s all “Dragon Ball Z” to me. Please don’t send me e-mails lauding the virtues of something like Akira or its ilk, insisting that I just haven’t watched enough. I’ve watched enough. I’ve seen it. Over and over and over again. I hate Anime, and you should too.
With those hearty, slightly bitter thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at the latest anime offering from famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi. Or, as it’s translated for us poor English speakers, Spirited Away. I hate Anime. I did not hate Spirited Away. I don’t hate it, because instead of being an overbearing pig of Anime convolution, it’s an over the top “Alice in Wonderland” rip-off, and a darn good one too.
In the middle of her family’s move to the suburbs, 10-year old Chihiro falls down a rabbit hole… wait scratch that, she wanders down a tunnel and into a world filled with powerful and mostly crazy Japanese spirits. In the spirit world, humans are turned into pigs and eaten for breakfast, and so are Chihiro’s parents. Alone and afraid, she’s left wandering through a creatively animated wonderland (ehem) filled with fantastically outlandish and strongly Japanese creatures.
What Spirited Away does for me, that so few other Anime pop ups even attempt, is to portray it’s characters is a more personal and intimate way. One of the big problems I always have with Anime, is that so often the characters come off more like set pieces than real, breathing people. Spirited Away, for all it’s insanity and typically over the top anime mysticism, is quietly intimate. That pays huge dividends in letting the audience sit down and care enough about Chihiro to want to watch her.
Guided by a boy named Haku, who appears as her guide, the film develops slowly, letting us get to know Chihiro as she explores and faces the dangers of this fantasyland. A sort of “rejuvenation center/bathhouse” for earthly spirits, she finds work among the elite, cleaning, and washing and consorting with evil witch queens and spirit kings. As such, Spirited Away presents plenty of opportunities for Miyazaki to let his visual imagination run wild, and run wild it does. One thing I’ll say about Japanese animators is that they’re never short of new ideas, even if I personally don’t often like what they come up with. But as all Anime does, Miyazaki’s vision runs high on visual creativity, but low on visual clarity. The animation style is archaic, as again, all Anime is. Filled with the typically over-exagerrated body types and otherwise almost gritty realism, Spirited dips from the bizarre to the right at home. That’s not so bad, except as always, none of it is particularly slick. I’m all for traditional animation, I hope that in the face of recent cgi revolutions, the art form can stay alive. I know that Miyazaki and his brethren put tons of man-hours into their animation, a labor of love no less. But I can’t stand it. For all the creative ideas thrown into it, the style it is drawn in is the same old same old that we’ve seen from every Anime effort, starting with crap like Pokemon and working its way on up. There are real flashes of animated brilliance, that go hand in hand with some of the brilliant visual ideas thrown up on the screen. Some really beautiful shots thrown into the film that shadow and shiver and blow you away. But that beauty isn’t consistently there, as it generally falls back into that typical Anime style.
Spirited Away is a fanciful, yet up close and personal story that just about anyone should find in some way enjoyable. For me though, it never quite broke free of all the usual Anime snares, which in Anime’s defense are probably grating against me because I’m simply not Japanese. Those of you who think you are, go ahead and enjoy, for the rest of us, this is probably one of the least painful Anime outings in recent memories. Taking a page from “Alice In Wonderland” seems to have helped.