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Entering Strange Realms

Hayao Miyazaki's style is a hit in Japan and among animators. Will U.S. audiences finally catch on?

September 08, 2002|CHARLES SOLOMON

His name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, but to American animators, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki is a hero on a par with Walt Disney, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.

"He is one of the great filmmakers of our time and has been a tremendous inspiration to our generation of animators," says John Lasseter, the Academy Award-winning director of the "Toy Story" films. "At Pixar, when we have a problem that we can't seem to solve, we often look at one of Miyazaki's films."

Eric Goldberg, animation director of "The Looney Tunes Movie: Back in Action" at Warner Bros., adds: "Miyazaki's films never fail to amaze: He takes everyday situations and links them to extraordinary circumstances. That he does so with such visual grace, economy, and passion for the joys and fears of childhood is constantly astonishing."

In recent years, American animated features have become increasingly realistic as filmmakers have turned to computer graphics for three-dimensional settings and effects. Miyazaki reasserts the power of drawn animation to create fantasies, offering an alternate reality that is refreshingly free of overarticulated details. Instead of rendering thousands of individual blades of grass bending in the wind, he suggests a breeze passing over a grassy hillside by moving a rippling line of color over a painted background. The result is poetic rather than literal. American directors use MTV-style cutting and endless tracking shots; Miyazaki allows quiet moments to play out, telling the story visually rather than through dialogue or songs.

Since founding Studio Ghibli with his friend and former mentor Isao Takahata in 1985, he's created a string of critical and box office successes in Japan: "Castle in the Sky" (1986), "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989), "Porco Rosso: The Crimson Pig" (1992), "Princess Mononoke" (1997) and "Spirited Away" (2001).

Until now, animated Japanese features have been box office duds here, but Disney is hoping to change that when it releases "Spirited Away" ("Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi") in the U.S. on Sept. 20. The film was a blockbuster in Japan, earning more than $234 million in a country with less than half the population and a fraction of the screens of the U.S. and dethroning "Titanic" as the highest-grossing film in Japanese box office history. Earlier this year, it became the first animated feature to win the prestigious Golden Bear Award, the top honor at the Berlin Film Festival, where critics and audiences were stunned by the film's remarkable visual style.

Although Americans spend more than half a billion dollars on anime (Japanese animation) on video and DVD annually, Japanese features have failed to attract large audiences to U.S. theaters. Despite considerable press attention, "Metropolis," based on a manga (graphic novel) by Osamu Tezuka, earned a mere $253,000 in a limited U.S. release earlier this year. Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke," which earned a then-record-breaking $154 million in Japan, made only $2.4 million when Miramax released it theatrically in the U.S. in 1999.

Disney and Pixar executives, along with members of the animation community who have seen the film, think "Spirited Away" could be the 61-year-old Miyazaki's breakthrough in America. It's opening in 10 cities and will build to a nationwide release, according to Disney, which is planning a major advertising campaign.

Lasseter, who served as executive producer on the English version of "Spirited Away," says that like classic Disney films, " 'Spirited Away' has humor, heart and tremendous character growth. It's a bit scary at times, a bit strange--and wonderful: It sucks you in at the beginning, and you forget about everything until it's over."

Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase, Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch"), the main character, starts out as a whiny adolescent sulking in the back seat of her parents' car. When they get lost on the way to their new home, the family blunders into what seems to be an abandoned theme park but is actually a resort for traditional Japanese gods and spirits. Guided by the mysterious, confident boy Haku (Jason Marsden), Chihiro demands a job from Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the flamboyant, grasping witch who runs the spa.

Although Yubaba assigns her hard, dirty jobs, Chihiro remains immune to the corruption and greed that permeate Yubaba's realm. She aids a variety of fantastic characters, including a river god suffering from the effects of human pollution and the diaphanous No-Face. She befriends Zeniba (Pleshette again), Yubaba's grandmotherly twin, and repays Haku's kindness by helping him obtain his freedom. The strength, courage and love she discovers within herself enable Chihiro to rescue her parents and escape from the fantasy world.

The bizarre world Chihiro discovers evokes Japanese traditions that are vanishing before the onslaught of a jejune media culture Miyazaki dislikes.

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