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Blu-ray Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away Joins the Shout! Factory

This release leaves a bit to be desired in terms of extras, but the dazzling transfer and beautiful packaging are second to none.

3.5

Spirited Away

The notion of “coming of age” suggests self-transformation, a crystallization of individual identity following a period of instability and discovery. In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, this transformation isn’t only internal for the film’s 10-year-old heroine, Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi), but made ubiquitous in the wondrously surreal, ever-changing world in which she eventually finds herself trapped. When Chihiro ventures from her parents’ car and through an ancient tunnel in the film’s opening sequence, all that’s familiar to her soon morphs into something foreign, ephemeral, or grotesque. Almost instantaneously, the comforts and security of her childhood are shattered as she enters the terrifying, expansive terrain of adulthood, embodied here by the Spirit Realm, a magical world in a state of constant flux, populated by a vast array of gods, demons, and animistic spirits.

The fluidity and inconstancy of this dominion quickly become apparent to Chihiro when she sees her voracious parents turned into pigs after they gorge on a feast left unguarded in the seemingly abandoned town they discover on the other end of the tunnel. Panicked and alone, Chihiro is aided by a young boy, Haku (Miyu Irino), who informs her that she must find a job in order to survive in the Spirit Realm, lest she’s made to disappear by Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the evil witch who owns the town’s prominent bathhouse. And Chihiro’s initial step in navigating this frightening adult world is her first job, and a suitably backbreaking one at that: schlepping coal alongside little soot sprites down in the bathhouse’s boiler room.

The multi-tiered bathhouse, which Yubaba lords over from her luxurious top-floor oasis, serves as a visually rich and thematically potent metaphorical setting, a place whose social and class structures are akin to those of the world Chihiro has just left behind. And as she works her way up from the basement to servicing baths on the main floor, the young girl encounters the ugliness and greed of seemingly good, ordinary people, or, in this case, spirits. Throughout, Miyazaki’s most forceful illustration of adult excess and avarice comes in the mesmerizing scene where No-Face, a blob-like being who unwittingly manifests the desires of those around him, produces a ceaseless supply of gold as dozens of bathhouse workers and guests continue to feed him even while he grows increasingly colossal and monstrous.

Temptation abounds in Spirited Away, and part of what makes Chihiro one of Miyazaki’s most exceptional heroines is the grace and tenacity with which she meets the constant barrage of seductions and challenges that the nefarious Spirit Realm throws her way. As the formerly meek Chihiro becomes empowered through sheer strength of will and principle, Miyazaki builds not to a traditional showdown between good and evil via a dethroning of Yubaba, but rather to Chihiro reclaiming her agency and sense of self from the witch, who earlier stripped the girl of both her memory and name (she’s renamed “Sen” in the Spirit Realm).

Throughout, Miyazaki engages in flamboyant character doubling, from Haku, who’s cursed to intermittently take the form of a dragon, to Yubaba, whose twin sister and rival, Zeniba (Mari Natsuki), is her complete antithesis. The film is a study in dualities, pointing to Chihiro’s newfound ability to see the complexities surrounding her as well as the Spirit Realm’s tendency to mold individuals’ identities by stifling youthful ideals and fostering destructive ones like greed, gluttony, and pride—something she will carry back into the real world.

What makes Chihiro’s train ride to visit Zeniba near the end of Spirited Away so moving isn’t merely the stunning visuals of the train seemingly gliding on water as it approaches the horizon or the selflessness of Chihiro’s journey to save Haku. It’s also in her wordless, melancholic encounter with the faceless shadow spirits sitting around her and the sorrowful impression they leave on her, as she senses she could potentially share their dire fates. Chihiro escapes such a destiny not only through her newfound determination and cleverness, but also through a necessary expansion of her perspective, which allows her to discern what’s true and just in a world full of dangerous illusions, distractions, and hollow duplicates.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer has a clarity and vibrancy that highlights the skill and precision behind the rendering of Spirited Away’s elaborate settings and otherworldly beings. Everything from the shading and rich hues that dominate the film’s palette to the textures of walls and floors is rendered with remarkable exactitude. The audio is equally impressive, not only in the full-bodied mix of Joe Hsaishi’s score, but in the more subtle rendering of ambient natural sounds and background noises that fill out the film’s immersive soundscapes.

Extras

This release of Spirited Away is surprisingly light on extras, especially compared to the studio’s previous collector’s editions of Miyazaki films, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. As with those releases, they’ve included the option to watch the film in storyboard format, thus providing insight into the early stages of Miyazaki’s creative process. The only remaining disc extras are a smattering of original trailers and TV spots, along with a brief featurette, “Behind the Microphone,” in which many of the voice actors for the American dub offer trite sound bites about how excited they are to work on a Miyazaki film. The disc comes packaged in a thick, cardboard case that includes a CD of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack and a 40-page booklet with full-page stills from the film, a statement from Miyazaki, and two essays. In his essay, Leonard Maltin discusses Spirited Away’s box office impact and how the film diverges from the storytelling methods found in American animation, while Kenneth Turan focuses more on its intrepid heroine and Miyazaki’s singular approach to the Japanese fable.

Overall

Shout! Factory collector’s edition of Spirited Away leaves a bit to be desired in terms of extras, but the dazzling transfer and beautiful, sturdy packaging are second to none.

Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Tatsuya Gashûin, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Yumi Tamai, Yô Ôizumi, Koba Hayashi Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2001 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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