Visionary legend Hayao Miyazaki was said to be retiring, but instead, he blessed the world with the Oscar winning Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing movie of all time. The smart and evocative children’s story was the first animated feature to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the first movie in history to make $200 million before its North American release, and it even beat Titanic in Japan. Here we’ll take a look at 10 things you never knew about Spirited Away.
A KID BROUGHT MIYAZAKI OUT OF RETIREMENT
The ten-year-old daughter of one of Miyazaki’s associate producers inspired Spirited Away after the filmmaker met her during his annual sabbatical at a mountain cabin, where he often spends time with friends and family. Though he’d announced his retirement from filmmaking in 1997, he felt compelled to make something of worth and substance for kids her age. He wanted to give kids an ordinary girl with no super powers. “Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character,” he told Midnight Eye, “I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it.”
IT WAS MADE WITHOUT A SCRIPT
The fascinating characters, plots, and themes of his movies invite speculation and study for years, yet Miyazaki puts them all together without a screenplay. Instead, the story materializes as he begins drawing storyboards. “It’s not me who makes the film,” he told Midnight Eye, echoing the philosophy of many great artists, filmmakers, and musicians. “The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.”
A SPIRITED SPIRIT GIRL
The young actress who lent her voice to the American version of Spirited Away found herself on the other side of the spirit world when she was cast as Samara, the ghostly killer in The Ring, which was based on the Japanese Ringu franchise, the success of which paved the way for American remakes like The Grudge and Dark Water. The dubbed version of Spirited Away premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002, the same year audiences saw and heard Daveigh Chase in The Ring and as one of the title characters in Lilo & Stitch. Spirited Away and Lilo & Stitch were actually pitted against each other for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Spirited Away took home the Oscar.
FINGER LICKING GOOD
The actress voicing the mother ate KFC as she recorded her lines, in order to simulate the mouth full of food her character had. The American actress who dubbed the mother in the English version did the same thing, but with an apple.
THE REAL LIFE STINK SPIRIT
The “stink spirit” who comes to the bathhouse was inspired by Miyazaki’s real life experience cleaning a river near his home in the countryside. It took ten people to pull a bicycle out of that river with a rope, which inspired that scene.
IT’S BETTER IN JAPANESE
It’s likely true of many foreign language films that they are best understood in their native tongue, but it seems to be particularly important with Spirited Away. Miyazaki once told Collider that, “for the audiences to truly understand my movies, they should all learn Japanese.” There are a lot of nuances with the different names for the characters for example. Some fans point to the significance of many signs and words, adding layers of mystery and atmosphere.
“To those who prefer a dubbed version, I can only say that like screw top wine, it might turn out to be alright,” noted one critic for The Guardian. “But why compromise the pleasure of this film with an error of taste as silly as that?”
REAL LIFE LOCATIONS
There are a few places in the world fans can visit in order to soak up the look and feel of Spirited Away in some sense. The Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum is one source of inspiration for Miyazaki. There’s a town in Taiwan with some similarities to locations in the film. And in that fantastic interview with Midnight Eye, Miyazaki says the bathhouse was inspired by a real place, as well.
THERE ARE GOOD REASONS THEY WENT WITH DISNEY
There were plenty of American movie studios eager to get in business with Studio Ghibli, but there are two big reasons why Disney ultimately beat them all. The Mouse House committed to grabbing all of the films in the catalog and most importantly, they promised not to make any cuts to the films whatsoever.
THERE IS EXTRA DIALOG IN THE ENGLISH VERSION
The English-dubbed version does have some additional dialog, which was put in to help explain certain things an overseas audience may take for granted.
IT WAS THE FIRST ANIME FILM TO WIN AN OSCAR
Spirited Away was the first anime movie to be nominated for an Academy Award, let alone win one. Unfortunately, the Academy hasn’t given the Best Animated Feature to an anime picture since. In 2018, anime fans took to social media to complain about that year’s snubs, which included smart and transcendental films like Mary and the Witch’s Flower, A Silent Voice, and In This Corner of the World.