LOS ANGELES, April 14 (UPI) -- In 1997, animator Hayao Miyazaki, the George Lucas of Japan, broke his nation's box office record with "Princess Mononoke," a "Lord of the Rings"-style adventure epic. After "Titanic" beat his mark, Miyazaki came out of retirement to retake the top spot with 2001's "Spirited Away," an intensely Japanese reimagining of the basic "Alice in Wonderland" dreamworld plot -- or, perhaps more accurately, non-plot.
After carefully dubbing it into English, Disney released this beautiful but befuddling animated feature in American theaters, where it bombed. That didn't keep it from winning the animation Oscar, though. It will be out Tuesday on a two-disk DVD set ($29.99 list) and VHS ($19.99).
Chihiro is a sullen, timid 10-year-old girl who blunders into what appears to be an abandoned theme park. She soon discovers she's trapped in a vacation resort for the countless gods of the Shinto religion. Her only hope is to get a job working at the old-fashioned bathhouse, a spa for the spirits.
At a time of globalized homogeneity, it's refreshing to see such a resolutely Japanese work of art, one intended to reacquaint Japanese children with both their ancient myths and Japan's late 19th-century style of life.
"In an era of no borders, people who do not have a place to stand will be treated unseriously," Miyazaki commented. "A place is the past and history. A people who have forgotten their past will ... be turned into chickens to keep laying eggs until they are eaten," said the great animator, who clearly has a vivid imagination.
On the other hand, non-Japanese are likely to be baffled by his story. Furthermore, many of Miyazaki's visualizations will seem to Americans more bemusing than amusing.
In numerous scenes, for example, three bodiless heads bounce around in the witch-entrepreneur's office, but they don't seem to have anything to do other than to look cool. Imagine how Walt Disney would have forced his staff to develop this rudimentary idea: "So, what are their personalities? Their jobs? Their names? Their old grudges? Do they sing? How can they support the main plot?"
Japan, with its pervasively visual culture, is probably the most cartoon-saturated country on earth. Salarymen riding the train to work devour thick comic books called "manga." In recent years, Japanese "anime" TV shows such as "Pokemon," "Dragonball Z," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" have grabbed a huge share of the U.S. pre-pubescent male audience.
Older American fans have developed a strong cult around manga/anime and swear by its superiority over Disney cartoons. That's ironic because the father of Japanimation, Ozama Tezuka, closely modeled his style on Disney's. That's why Japanese characters all look Eurasian, with big, round Disneyesque eyes.
Unfortunately, most of the "anime" that has made it to America has been a disgrace to Japan's tradition of visual elegance. "Spirited Away," however, is perhaps the most gorgeous animated film since the 1992 American-Japanese production "Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland." Sadly, that dream-logic movie flopped in America, and, as I feared, "Spirited Away," for all its visual virtues, did as well.
The truth is, that from biblical times through Freud and Jung, dreaming has been vastly overrated. The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov rightly complained of dreams' "mental mediocrity."
In his "Alice" books, Lewis Carroll exploited the most notable feature of dreams -- that insidious sense that you must be grossly violating social norms that you can't quite remember -- by confronting Alice with the huffy certitude of bizarre creatures each armed with its own lunatic code of manners, like a Victorian episode of "Seinfeld."
The struggle to fit in is also a theme in Miyazaki's take-off on Carroll. Politeness is central to Japanese society because formal codes of conduct allow shy people to work together so well in vast businesses.
In fact, Miyazaki says the movie is partly about a child's worries about starting work at a big firm: "Joining an organization, finding your own place, and being recognized there requires a lot of effort," he told an interviewer.
The heroine's bathhouse is run by the supposedly wicked witch Yubaba, who looks like Baba Yaga, the girl-eating crone of Russian fairy tales. "The scary woman, Yubaba, who looks like a bad guy in this film, is actually the manager of the bathhouse where the heroine works," Miyazaki explained. "She's having a hard time managing the bathhouse; she has many employees, a son, and her own desires, and she is suffering because of those things. So I don't intend to portray her as a simple villain."
Unfortunately, the dreamy randomness of Miyazaki's one-thing-after-another plot saps dramatic momentum, which isn't good in a children's movie more than two hours long. I lost interest in how the heroine would resolve her problems because it soon became evident that anything could happen. My 13-year-old, an anime fan, commented, "The movie seemed unfinished."
For his next movie, Miyazaki, like Lucas, should forget that he's a genius and hire a real screenwriter.
Rated PG for some scary moments.