Spirited Away/The Cat Returns (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001/Hioyuki Morita, 2002) Disney’s ongoing commitment to releasing all of the Studio Ghibli films in glorious Blu-ray has finally paid off. Sure, we already have some classics like Princess Mononoke to ogle in pretty HD, but the big boy that we (and by “we” I mean “I”) have been waiting for has finally arrived. Yep, Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece of childhood surrealism Spirited Away is finally here and the results are indeed glorious. This isn’t just a Ghibli masterpiece or one of the great hand drawn animated films, it’s simply one of the most wondrous works of cinematic imagination to ever flicker across screens and the beautiful transfer that Disney has provided ensures that the Oscar-winning classic was well worth the wait. Yep, it’s a great day for those who have yet to give up on physical media. Plus The Cat Returns has also arrived in HD, as a cute lil’ bonus.
For those who have never seen Spirited Away (and seriously, if that’s true what are you thinking?), it’s the tale of a little girl and her parents who stumble into a mysterious village that transforms the adults into gluttonous pigs and thrusts the girl into a nightmare dreamscape of ghosts, witches, and hunky dragon boys. Essentially it’s Miyazaki’s take on Alice In Wonderland, a surreal adventure that unfolds not just from the mind of a child, but also from their playfully magical point of view. The nature of the spirits is very specific to the cultural representations of such visions in Japan. For those familiar with such Japanese tales and legends, the representations and symbols will be familiar. Yet for those who have never delved into such cultural mythology, the film still works wonderfully.
There’s a constant, thrilling drive to Miyazaki’s vision and a dream logic all it’s own. Understanding what everything is supposed to mean almost isn’t the point. Spirited Away functions primarily as a purely emotional and visceral experience and the filmmaker sweeps up any and all audiences with some of the most beautiful and bizarre images of his entire career. If the filmmaker was never born, the movie certainly wouldn’t exist. Had he not built one of the most reliable and skilled animation studios of all time, executing a vision this extraordinarily would have been impossible. Spirited Away represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s prestigious output and as a result, it’s also one of the finest animated films that’s ever been produced. With Pixar head John Lasseter in charge of the English translation and recording, it’s even one of the few Ghibli films that plays just as well in English as Japanese. There’s absolutely nothing negative to be said about the film. It’s one of the true cinematic masterpieces of the 21st century.
The Cat Returns was Ghibli’s follow up to that instant classic and while it’s a perfectly charming film in it’s own right, the title inevitably suffers in comparison. The plot involves a young girl saving a cat and finding herself thrust into a world of cats where she’ll need to use her good heart and cunning to survive. The set up is superficially similar to Spirited Away, but the execution is far more simplistic. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t beautiful to look at, entertaining, and strapped with a strong (yet mercifully unpreachy) moral core. It’s certainly a delightful little movie in its own right and one worth seeking out for Studio Ghibli obsessives. There’s just no denying that this is lesser Ghibli and more of a cute kids movie than a glorious cinematic achievement. Still compared to most children’s films, The Cat Returns is a highly imaginative and artistically accomplished little fable well worth your time.
Both films look and sound absolutely wonderful on Blu-ray. As with all of Disney’s Ghibli releases the transfers are nearly flawless, with the bold colors and striking designs from the Japanese animation studio bursting off the screen. Spirited Away is in particular a wonder to behold as it’s a stunning visual triumph in any format and it’s a joy to finally have in HD. English and Japanese soundmixes are provided for both films and both are crisp, clear, and deep. As with the previous Ghibli/Disney Blus, the special features are limited entirely to repurposed DVD content and there’s not much of it, but Spirited Away at least comes with an old Japanese TV documentary about the production that delves a little deeper than the bonuses tacked on to most of these discs. Still, you’re going to want to upgrade these titles for the transfers anyways, not the features. Thankfully, both discs deliver in that department and finally having Spirited Away on Blu is good enough news that the release date should have been made a national holiday.