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The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 1

The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 1

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Greetings fellow JimHillMedia readers. I hope this little story will be enjoyable for you, as it is something that has been turning over and over in my head since the summer of 2002. With it, I hope you will learn a bit more about the film "Spirited Away."

Hayao Miyazaki. This name is known by several as one of the most revered animation directors alive today. His achievements have been widely reputed in Japan and in various parts of the world. How many other directors could you name who write/produce/direct AND draw much of the animation line art that goes into a film's production.

Miyazaki is one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli, his studio that has produced some of the most creative endeavors ever. All his films were leading up to 1997, when his 5-year endeavor called "Mononoke Hiime" (or "Princess Mononoke" to you and me), became the most successful Japanese feature of all time. It's box-office precedence in Japan was soon 'iced over' a few months after when James Cameron's "Titanic" came sailing into Japan's theatres (ok, I apologize for the ice and ship jokes, put down the clubs).

After "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki had announced that he would retire, citing several physical conditions that made it difficult to keep up with the pace of the filmmaking. But even promises can be broken. Miyazaki's head was filled with ideas that he could do for films. An interview that was translated and posted at the site Nausicaa.net cites that he focused on several projects, and thought he had a winner with the story "Rin and the Chimney Painter." He proposed this story but it was rejected. His producer/friend Toshio Suzuki suggested they head in a different direction. Rin was basically a bit older than most of Miyazaki's heroines, and Suzuki felt that story directed towards younger girls might prove interesting.

Miyazaki found his inspiration on an outing with some friends and their daughters. While spending time with the family, Miyazaki noticed that the girls read manga (the Japanese equivalent of comic books). What he found though made him a bit concerned. Of the manga that was available to these young girls, the large majority of manga seemed to focus on just romantic relationships, with very little substance at all. He also noted that his friend's daughter seemed a little 'listless' about life. Looking at the young girl's attitude and the manga she and her friends were reading, Miyazaki asked himself "Is there possibly more that we can offer the young girls of this country?" His thoughts could almost be seen as parallel to Walt Disney's thoughts when he sat on that park bench watching his daughters play. But whereas Walt took that experience and created a theme park, Miyazaki took the experience on his trip to create a story that he felt could captivate the 10-year-old girls that he had met on that trip, and out of that, he began to formulate the story.

Working with storyboard panels, he began to work out a story featuring a 10-year-old girl on a journey with her parents. Taking a wrong turn, the girl and her parents end up in a strange world of spirits where the young heroine must find the will to live, and save her parents who have been transformed into pigs. The original scriptment that Miyazaki proposed to his friend Toshio Suzuki originally ran over 3 hours. While the idea of a 3-hour film may appeal to Miyazaki's fans, there's something a bit unfeasible about a 3-hour animated film when you think of the larger audiences out there. Taking his friend's advice, Miyazaki pared down the storyboard scripment to a 2-hour feature.

The film went into production in 2000, and was titled "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushii." Translated it means "The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro," but for the American translation, it was simply called "Spirited Away." The film was made with a budget of 1.9 billion yen (or as calculated in US dollars: $15 million). At the time, the Walt Disney Studios had just entered into their deal with the Tokuma Company, to bring Miyazaki's films to the US for distribution. As part of that contract, they agreed to finance 10% of "Spirited Away's" production costs.

In his last feature, "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki and his staff had experimented a bit more with the process of computer technology. Equipping themselves with more computers and programs like Softimage, the Studio Ghibli staff began to learn the software, but keeping the technology at a level to enhance the story, not steal the show. All the characters were largely animated by hand, with Miyazaki working alongside his animators to see that they were getting it just right (one special in Japan chronicled animators trying to get down such subtle nuances as the character Chihiro rubbing her eyes, or her father slurping up food). The Studio Ghibli staff worked all the way up to the film's debut occurred on July 20, 2001. Some had expected the film to perform marginally well, but what happened next almost no one could anticipate.

Even with a marginally large population, Japan does not have as many movie screens as the US does. But even so, none could have predicted what happened next. By the spring of 2002, the film would go on to shatter the previous record held by "Titanic" at the Japanese box-office. "Spirited Away's" $235 million not only sunk "Titanic," but also set the film as the first non-American film to make $200 million outside of the US. ("Princess Mononoke" grossed $155 million back in 1997.)

With such an incredible feat undertaken, some wondered what would happen next for Miyazaki's latest achievement. The 25th annual Nippon Awards, and the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival were about to become the first steps on a path that not even "Spirited Away's" heroine Chihiro could imagine.

Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli decided to enter their film in the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival. This would be the film's first screening outside of Asia, and soon "Spirited Away" found itself competing alongside such films as "Gosford Park" and "A Beautiful Mind." Miyazaki and his staff must surely have hoped their film would be well received, but what happened next would shock them and the press at large.

On February 17, 2002, the press was cautioned about releasing the information on who had won the film festival's top honor: the Golden Bear. However, a German radio station had chosen to jump the gun and announced that the Golden Bear award had ended in a tie. The tie was between the Irish drama "Bloody Sunday" ... and "Spirited Away." The press was agog: How could an animated feature actually have tied for top honors in a festival where the large majority of films were live action? Some cried foul, some felt that there had been something going on behind the scenes. The very idea of a "cartoon" winning the Golden Bear seemed to rile some.

But even so, it was probably no more of an upset than those who cried foul when Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" became the first animated feature to be nominated in the Academy Award's Best Picture category in 1991.

Still, the press and critics may have overlooked one little item that almost 50 years before, an animated feature had won the Golden Bear back in 1951. Back when the Berlin Festival had categories for musical, documentary and more, the 1951 Golden Bear for Best Musical had been awarded to Walt Disney's "Cinderella." (Also of interest, the film was nominated in 1960 for the Golden Bear as well, but failed to win that year.)

After the success in Berlin, the next stop for Miyazaki was the Japanese Academy Awards. Miyazaki was no stranger here. His previous film "Princess Mononoke" had won for Best Film in 1997. And this time around, he garnered not only a Best Picture Award for "Spirited Away," but a Lifetime Achievement Award.

A month later, the Hong Kong Film Awards awarded "Spirited Away" as the Best Asian Film, as the film beat out contenders from South Korea, China, and Taiwan.

With all these accolades in hand, and an incredible box-office tabulation, "Spirited Away" was ready to try and find its way. The first major release outside of Japan was in France on April 10, 2002. The film opened with a major ad push, which closely resembled the marketing push that had been in effect when "Princess Mononoke" played there. Images of the lead character Chihiro clad in an outfit from the film's bathhouse was seen on street corners and even decorated the side of several buildings

The film performed commendably in France, and word was soon spreading across the globe. There were some in the United States who saw this as a major step in the now stalled deal between Disney and Tokuma. For years fans had been clamoring to see Miyazaki's films succeed in one of the largest marketplaces in the world: The United States of America. There was only one major problem: some of Disney's executives weren't at all ecstatic about this latest film.

Do you want to buy this great DVD as well as help support JimHillMedia.com? Then order your copy of "Spirited Away" from Amazon.com by clicking the link to the right.

Your cost will (unfortunately) remain the same (though it is currently 25% off!) But - if you go there through us - we get a tiny cut of what you spend. So if you're planning on picking up the DVD, help keep Jim Hill behind the computer where he belongs and order a copy of "Spirited Away" or the three-pack featuring "Spirited Away," "Castle in the Sky," and "Kiki's Delivery Service" (at 29% off!) through the link to the right.

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