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Spirited Away  rating

Review: written 2007

Intelligent and imaginative Japanese animation

Writing as someone who has never watched anime before, this animated feature is an incredibly imaginative superior production with an intelligent story.

Chihiro is on her way with her parents to a new home - on the way they stop to explore a strange tunnel, which takes them into another world. In this world, through gluttony, her parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro is rescued by Haku, a young boy. She finds work in the centrepiece of this world, the bathhouse for spirits, in which she has many adventures which gradually change her from sullen and spoiled to helpful and kind.

The ideas are complex, and the animation suitably layered as well. The bathhouse creatures are weird and wonderful creations - neither heroes nor bad guys, good nor bad - just fascinating multilayered characters. All of the main storylines involve layers of identity, nothing being what it first seems, and the animation style lends itself to this incredibly well. There is the slime monster who everyone cannot bear the smell of, who, with a little kindness reveals a more benevolent and powerful spirit. Or the `No-face', sort of a walking `Scream' portrait, who changes his identity through loneliness, but returns once kindness and friendship are given. And of course Haku, who takes many forms before being redeemed when reminded of his true identity.

Though the animation on one level may appear simplified compared to modern cgi `toons', in fact the colours and rhythm of events are richer than most, and although I am writing this after one viewing, one suspects that there is much more to be seen on multiple viewings.

Amongst the almost universally glowing reviews however, it is worth remembering that this is a Japanese film. This is both an asset and a detraction. The asset is clear - this movie has more imagination in one scene than most current animated Western features have in their whole length, both in animation and story. However, while Hollywood sometimes falls prey to too much schmaltz, the absence of a sweetener to the tale here means that it is difficult to be absorbed on more than an intellectual level. Animated features work because you become passionate about the characters or the outcome - not easy when all you are doing is thinking how wonderful all the ideas are.

Having said that, the tale is a complete one, the experience rich, and the moral positive. Perhaps younger children will find this a little scary in places, and perhaps also a little complicated, but it's a small quibble with so much to warrant the Oscar (Best Animated Feature, 2002) it won. Recommended, as long as you are comfortable with something a little bit different, and prepared for not so much sugar with your dessert.

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