Friday, August 24, 2012

Spirited Away: A Personal Journey

So, this post is kind of unrelated to Oscar nominated animated shorts, but it is about an Oscar winning piece of animation, so it's got more in common than the one post that has the most views on this blog: the top 5 animated nuclear explosions.

Anyways, my favorite movie of all time turned 10 last year. It's a pretty significant milestone, and I celebrated it by watching the film (although I missed the actual anniversary by a couple of days.) I didn't do any writing about it, probably because I wanted to get back to playing Tales of Symphonia. However, now is the time that is a much more significant anniversary for me personally: the 10th anniversary of the first time I watched the film. Now that this anniversary has arrived, I think it's a good time to look back on my experiences with the movie.

So what movie am I talking about? Well, it's in the title, but just for the heck of it, it's 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), better known in the United States as Spirited Away.

So a little history. I've always thought that anime can be split into two distinct entities: series anime with a certain number of episodes, or film animation, a distinct entity whether it's a feature film or a short film. (Of course you've got OVAs - Original Video Animation - which can either have several episodes like a series anime, or be a single entity like film animation. Then again the term OVA is really just referring to the method of delivery to the audience.) I am personally more of a film anime person. To date I've probably seen several times more film anime than series anime*.

*Heck, I can probably name all of the series I've seen from beginning to end right now. There's Future Boy Conan, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nekojiru Gekijou, Excel Saga, Sister Princess, Sister Princess RePure, Noir, Azumanga Daioh...I think that's it. I also watched about 100 episodes of Pokemon, until I got tired of their portrayal of Misty.

And when it comes to film anime, there is one name that stands out miles above the rest: Hayao Miyazaki. Sure, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) have done some fine work, but nobody has been more popular in both his native Japan and America as Miyazaki. His directorial career has spanned over 30 years and includes some of the absolute classics. And in fact, these classics were among the first anime I've ever watched. I saw Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki's Delivery Service) at my grandmother's house in Taiwan in 1995 (feeling kind of guilty about it because of the stuff that the Japanese did to the Chinese in World War II.) I also tried watching Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), but I found that to be boring. I did thoroughly enjoy Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky). Later that year I saw Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) at a friend's house.

With the exception of Nausicaa, I enjoyed all of the films. However, I didn't really get into the anime scene. Miyazaki released his next film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) in 1997, and I didn't even know about it until Disney brought it stateside under the Miramax label two years later. At least that was earlier than my sister, who didn't find out about it until she saw it at a friend's house in 2000. However, she fell in love with the film instantly. I didn't really care for it. I found it to be boring like Nausicaa. So I went on with my life, playing The Sims and picking up Heart-Melters while the newest Miyazaki film came out in Japan, setting the country into an unprecedented box office frenzy. I didn't find out about Spirited Away until I went back to Taiwan in summer of 2002. This happened to be about the time that his latest blockbuster came out on DVD in Taiwan. We went to a department store in Taipei and was surrounded by advertisements for the new release. I remembered how much I enjoyed Miyazaki's other films, and got curious. I knew my sister was a big fan of Mononoke Hime, so I tried to convince her to ask for it as a birthday gift. She really didn't have anything else she wanted, so she ended up getting that as a gift.

Of course, I left Taiwan early so that I can stop by to tour some universities, as it was the year before my senior year. So I couldn't watch the film until my sisters came back from Taiwan in late July. And after they got back I didn't watch the film immediately. I didn't watch the film until late in August, although I can't remember the exact date. I decided it was finally time, so I went down to the basement and played the DVD on my computer. And for the next two hours I was spirited away to a world of magic and wonder. It was nothing like anything else that I've seen before. The beautiful music by Joe Hisaishi and the beautiful animation hooked me instantly. The sensational and distinctly Asian imagery and the wonderfully quirky characters drew me deeper into the story. And the brilliant storyline, full of dramatic tension* and situational humor, helped the movie reach a transcendent level in my eyes. It as absolutely breathtaking, and I immediately wanted to watch the film again.

*The best part of the film I felt was the scene when Chihiro finds out that her parents became pigs. My sister says that people discussing the movie talked about it, but I completely forgot it so I didn't anticipate it until I saw it in the film. I was completely drawn into the surprise as well as Chihiro's stirring emotion afterward. The scene gave me chills. Then again, several scenes gave me chills, but that was the first dramatic moment. Even today when giving a general plot introduction I try to leave that part out so people would get the same effect, but it usually doesn't work out that way because they hear it from somewhere else. Oh well

There are some people that are satisfied with watching a movie once, no matter how much they enjoyed it. I am not one of those people. In 1998, I fell in love with West Side Story, and watched it nine more times before the year was done. Only a year later, I watched Mewtwo Strikes Back, the first Pokemon movie, 13 times; 11 times in the original Japanese and twice in theaters. I shattered those records with Spirited Away. I didn't restart the film after finishing it for the first time, but through the end of the year there were several instances where I'd watch the film and immediately restarted it. Of course, it's one of those films that is packed with so much detail that you can find something new when you watch it for the 10th, 20th, or even 30th time. By the time the year was done, I had seen the movie twenty times! Which means that there was much more details to notice in 2003. One thing that helped was that in In January I decided to take a screenshot for every distinct shot in the film using the screenshot option on PowerDVD. It was an arduous task that took me three days.

The next year was the second year of the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars. It was a foregone conclusion that Spirited Away would be nominated, but when the nominations were announced and it was among the nominees, I celebrated by watching the movie again. However, getting nominated and actually winning were completely different stories. There were dozens of instances when some of the greatest films of all time lost to an inferior film. (How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, anyone?) I wrote about the tension earlier in the 2002 review, so I don't need to rehash it here. Needless to say, that was my favorite Oscar memory of all time.

And then came a memory that I'd rather forget. A few days after the Oscar win, my father took my sister and me to the first annual Cherry Blossom Festival Anime Marathon at the Smithsonian, where we watched Catnapped!, Metropolis, and Escaflowne. The fourth and final film was kept a secret, but many of the people in attendance guessed that it would be Spirited Away. Lo and behold, that was revealed as the final film. I was excited, as I never did go and see the film on the big screen. Why spend money when I can watch it on DVD at home? However, my excitement quickly turned into disappointment when it was revealed that Disney stipulated to the Smithsonian that they must show the English dub. The dub vs. sub war has heated parties on both sides. I am personally entrenched in the sub half of the argument. Then again, I love watching any movie in the original language, even European films. However, they usually spare European films and live action Japanese films from Kurosawa and Mizoguchi from dubs, but anime movies don't get that special treatment. Nevertheless we were at the front of the line and got seats near the front. And the movie started.

One issue I have with dubs is that many voice actors just read the lines. They don't have the expressiveness of the original. Some films don't have that problem. I watched The Cat Returns dubbed at Katsucon in 2005 and was okay with it, mostly because people like Anne Hathaway and Tim Curry knew how to act with their voices. Spirited Away didn't have that. I found the dub voices to be dull and flat, much like Billy Crudup in the Princess Mononoke dub. Daveigh Chase had emotion, but she didn't have the subtlety of Rumi Hiiragi, the original Chihiro. But I can live with that. What I couldn't live with, however, was the extra jokes. Then again, with Pixar writers doing the translation I can't say I was surprised. I like Pixar's storylines, but I can't stand their humor. I find the humor in their films to be forced and to put it quite simply, stupid.* There are lots of extra throw-in comments and lines being changed just for humor's sake. The most egregious was when Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba, who was transferring her image holoscopically through a paper bird, had the paper bird smashed. As she fades away, in the original Japanese version she says something along the line of "I didn't foresee that." In the dub, the changed the line to "Oh, a paper cut." Get it? Yeah, I wanted to throw up inside too. After that debacle I decided to stay away from the dub as much as I possibly could.

*Finding Nemo was the worst transgressor for me. The film is stocked from beginning to end with Pixar jokes, and I found them all to be stupid. Touch the butt? *rolleyes* Shark Anonymous group? Um, no.  Fart joke with pelicans? *slaps forehead* Mt. Wannahockaloogie? Ugh. Speaking whale? Yeah...right. I just don't get their brand of comedy.

Even though we already owned a copy of the DVD, when the Region 1 DVD came out in April I went and bought a copy (as well as a copy of Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky). The primary reason was because by then it was revealed that the Asian DVDs had an extra red tint that they took out of the US release. It became extra obvious after I did the screenshot project with the US DVD. (You can compare this screenshot with the screenshot from earlier. Even though the scene is dark the red tint is still visible.) It was extra tough as I tried to get it to match the original screenshot to the exact frame. It took me three months instead of three days to get it done.

Once I went off to college in August of 2003 (around the first anniversary of watching the film for the first time), I watched the film far less frequently. There is a theater at the student center at the University of Virginia, and early on in my college career I found out that there would be a showing of Spirited Away. I was excited to go, but I knew that it would be dubbed. However, I knew a way around it. I had a rip of the Japanese audio, and I borrowed an iPod from somebody in my same dorm. (It was one of those early iPod models that still had the wheel.) I put the Japanese audio on the iPod, so when I got to the theater I parked myself at the front and listened to the Japanese audio on full blast. I didn't even notice that the sound went out due to a thunderstorm.

I would do the same thing eight years this past January. I was at the Angelika Dallas watching The Artist when I saw a poster for showings of the new 35mm print for Studio Ghibli movies. They had Spirited Away, but to my dismay it was dubbed, and it was the next day. I really wanted to watch this new print, but didn't want to deal with the dub. Yet I did not have the Japanese audio anymore. So I had to drive two hours back to Longview, and rip the Japanese audio. The next morning I took the finished product and put it on my iPod. Then I drove two hours back to the Angelika Dallas so I can watch the new print. I even invited my friend to come over from Fort Worth. When the showing started I marveled at how crisp and clear everything looked. Yet to my horror the audio was not completely synched to the soundtrack on the print. The print was faster so eventually the audio on my iPod was behind and I can hear the *shudder* dub. I had to jump ahead in the Japanese audio. I'd have to do this once every two reels. The first time I did it I had to look at it, but even on the darkest setting my iPod screen was still bright, and people had to tell me it was bothering them. I eventually trained myself to do it without looking so I can adjust the synching using my jacket to cover the light. It worked well and there were no more complaints.

Anyways, going back in time again, in autumn of 2003 I underwent my most ambitious task. I began taking Japanese in my first semester, and I decided to train my Japanese skills in the dumbest way possible: by transcribing my favorite film in Japanese. I wanted to do something like that before then when I knew no Japanese by taking screenshots of the Japanese subtitles, but that was too long and arduous. Especially since I quickly found out that the subtitles don't always match the lines. I found out from a mentor on the old Wingsee forums, dballred, that the Japanese film comic contained the lines that matched what was said, so I spent money to import those. It made it a lot easier as I can just copy the lines in the book and confirm it in the movie. And then I'd send it over to dballred who would check my romanization. It still took a long time. I was still 20 minutes in when I went to Taiwan in December of 2003*. And I didn't finish until March of 2004, only because I spent a lot of time working on it during my spring break. One of my sisters was gracious enough to put it on her Dropbox. You can access it here.

*That was around when my Region 1 DVD disappeared. I'd but another copy four years later, but I lent it to somebody and never got it back. Last week I went and bought a third copy. I hope I'll keep this copy around for a while.

Anyways, I was pretty fatigued once I finished the project, and that probably contributed a lot to me watching the film less often. After that I'd probably watch it maybe three to four times a year instead of close to 20, but if I'm watching it it'll be for something special, such as that time I watched it at the Angelika, or when my friends and I watched it for my 25th birthday.  And there was that time in 2009 when I spent $300 to buy the Spirited Away Collector's Edition from Japan. This massive box set contains not only the movie, but also a model of the bathhouse, a book on the film that was presented at the Berlin Film Festival, a rice ball figurine, and a trio of posters for the movie.

I've lost count of how many times I've seen the movie in the ten years since I watched it for the first time, especially since I don't know whether or not to count the times I don't necessarily watch the movie but watched bits and pieces as I worked on my screenshot project or my transcription project. Even so, I estimate that I've seen the movie close to 60 times. By now not only can I watch the film in Japanese raw (without subtitles), but I can even quote many of the lines, albeit with major grammatical and pronunciation issues. Sadly I no longer get the feeling of wonder that I had the first times I saw the movie back in 2002. Still, the excellent storyline, beautiful music, well-rounded characters etc. helps to keep this firmly as my favorite movie of all time. I don't think it'll relinquish that spot anytime soon.

Oh, and


  1. My introduction to this film came courtesy of a fansubbed VHS tape a friend sent me back around '01 or so. I also saw the English dub on the big screen a year later. Pretty much that. I still favor his earlier work myself such as with Nausicaa.

  2. The person who wrote this article comes off as a massive stick in the mud with no sense of humor.