Hollywood Flashback: 13 Years Ago, 'Spirited Away' Was an Anime Smash

Hollywood Flashback -  Director Hayao Miyazaki 2002 - Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of GKIDS, INC

Director Hayao Miyazaki's 2002 hit went on to become the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history and Japan's only Oscar entry to ever win for best animated feature.

Hayao Miyazaki has been called the "Walt Disney of Japan" so frequently that a 2003 story in The Hollywood Reporter said the animator "winces whenever he's called the 'Walt Disney of Japan.' "

At 75, he's among the top animators in history and surely the most successful to have come from Japan. His work is treated with a deference few others receive. When Miyazaki's Spirited Away was acquired in 2002 for domestic release by the Walt Disney Co., THR quoted then-Pixar Animation head John Lasseter, who oversaw the release, as saying, "My job will be to act as the guardian of this amazing work."

The animator's partnership with Disney came after a 1985 debacle with New World Pictures over Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. For its U.S. release, the film was renamed and cut by 20 minutes; its environmentalist theme also was diluted. Miyazaki was so upset, he instituted a strict "no cuts" policy over future foreign sales. He was in a better position to enforce it after Spirited Away became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history.

Two other Miyazaki works, Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle, are in the Japanese box-office top 10, but none of his films has done especially well in the U.S. Spirited Away did best, grossing $10 million and becoming the only Japanese entry to win the Academy Award for best animated film — surprising for how quintessentially Japanese and odd it is.

Away tells the story of an unhappy 10-year-old girl who wanders into an abandoned amusement park, where she finds that her parents have been turned into pigs (representing greed during the 1980s Japanese recession) and that the park is inhabited by demons, spirits and evil gods. Somehow, to a Japanese sensibility, this worked as a children's movie — though Miyazaki himself says he's "constantly baffled by the popularity of my work in America."

This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.