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The Secret Behind Spirited Away’s Oscar Win
It’s a great movie — but its big 2003 Academy win had more to do with campaigning than craftsmanship.
The surprise sweep of the Oscars by Everything Everywhere All at Once last week delighted moviegoers generally and Asian Americans in particular. But this month also happens to mark the anniversary of another massive triumph for an Asian filmmaker. Twenty years ago on March 23, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won Best Animated Film at the Academy Awards, putting a locally-revered creator on the global stage. Spirited Away would go on to become Japan’s top-grossing film of all time, until archrival Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name dethroned it thirteen years later.
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But Spirited Away’s win was about much more than personal prestige and financial success. It was an inflection point for the mainstreaming of Japanese artistic sensibilities into the American zeitgeist. Until this point, the average American, if they even thought about anime, viewed it through one of two lenses: condescension or outrage. “Campy” (God, I despise that word) Speed Racer, with its admittedly quirky voice dubbing, or Voltron and Transformers and Saturday morning cartoon fare, thirty-minute commercials produced by Japanese toy companies to brainwash American kids like me. (Spoiler alert: it worked.) And let us not forget the late-Nineties panic over Pokémon, which Time described as a “pestilential ponzi scheme.”
The Oscar changed all that. Suddenly anime was a new category in the annals of the moving image. American tastemakers of all kinds began incorporating Japanese pop motifs directly into their works. Quentin Tarantino commissioned a brutal anime interlude for Kill Bill Vol. 1. Linkin Park hired the same animator to produce a music video for them, while Gwen Stefani launched her Harajuku Girls schtick. Booker Prize winner Peter Carey wrote a terrible and aptly-named book about Japanese pop culture for Knopf. Anime was no longer subculture. It was culture writ large.
But something’s always bugged me about Miyazaki’s big score. If this was some long-deserved recognition of anime culture by America’s creative class, then why did the Aughts anime boom fizzle out just a few years later? Why has the Academy failed to recognize any other anime since? And why was this the film that would establish an entirely new category in global culture? Spirited Away isn’t even Miyazaki’s first classic. That would be My Neighbor Totoro, released 1988, way back when anime was so underground the only American company who’d touch it was the B-movie shlockmeister Troma Films. Yes: for a brief moment, Totoro’s neighbor was The Toxic Avenger.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Spirited Away is an excellent film, true art that can be appreciated on multiple levels. You can simply enjoy it for its immersive grandeur, the wild imagination of it all. Yet its plot is also steeped in Japanese spiritual and cultural idioms that aren’t easily decipherable by foreign audiences. These things are true of many of his films: Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind was my jam growing up (man, that air battle scene! And the God Soldier scene, animated by Hideaki Anno, later of Evangelion fame.) But as everyone who follows the Oscars knows, quality doesn’t necessarily carry the day. While Spirited Away was definitely good, even great, nothing about it particularly screamed Oscar material when I first saw it in the theater in Japan. Why would it? I know this is pistols-at-dawn type stuff, but everyone knows that his Princess Mononoke is by far the superior film (One word: kodama.) San, you were robbed! (There’s probably an essay to be written about why Americans might prefer the story of Chihiro, a schoolgirl trying to rescue her parents, over the ferociously feral San, whose jihad against humanity doesn’t neatly slot into established girl-power narratives.)
All of this brings me to the matter at hand: how Spirited Away became a pawn in the Hollywood machine. When it comes to the Oscars, big studios don’t put out their films and hope for the best. They actively court the Academy, lobbying for their products, taking out ads, holding screeners and parties, even launching whisper campaigns against the competition. They do this for a very specific reason: because Oscar wins bestow real clout, which translates into more money for power players and chances for creative souls to get their pet projects greenlit. These campaigns cost huge sums to pull off. In 2020, Netflix spent seventy million on theirs.
If this all sounds like something in which the notoriously curmudgeonly Miyazaki would never deign to take part, you’re right. He didn’t even bother showing up at the Oscars that year! Cameron Diaz, of all people who you’d least expect to play a role in anime history, had to accept it on his behalf. Later, Miyazaki would explain that his absence was a silent protest against the Gulf War, but I suspect it was equally because, to put it mildly, the Oscars just aren’t his scene. He doesn’t need or want Hollywood clout. He doesn’t need or want Japanese clout. He wears his politics on his sleeve, anti-consumerism, anti-corporation, anti-nuclear, anti-everything, even the anime industry itself. He’s quit “for good” at least eight times. (His latest film is due out this year.) As an aside, I actually think a big part of Miyazaki’s popularity abroad is because you never see him or his Studio Ghibli actively campaigning anywhere but in Japan, and even then, it often feels like they’re doing it under duress (ads for the new Ghibli Park in Aichi prefecture featured the tagline “no need to hurry coming here.”) It makes him feel all the more authentic as a grumpy craftsman with a heart of gold. Miyazaki, like anime in all its forms from kiddie fare to tentacle porn, disrupts. That is his and its raison d’etre. It is why we, and angsty teens in particular, love it. And him.
From this standpoint, Spirited Away is quite possibly the safest anime choice one can make. Still. We have an artsy, cerebral foreign-language film made by a guy who pretty much hates everything Hollywood stands for – why would Disney decide to devote so much time and money to a movie they didn’t even make, let alone his? There’s a hint in its slate of animated features that year, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. They simply weren’t strong enough to compete with Dreamworks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which was racking up critical acclaim and widely expected to win. And there’s something else: a legendary rivalry, bordering on blood feud, between Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner and Dreamworks’ co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, his former right hand man. In fact, Dreamworks snagged the first-ever Best Animated Film Oscar in 2002 with Shrek, its epic troll of all things Disney. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Disney threw its weight behind Spirited Away to deny Dreamworks another shot at glory. Plus, as the American distributor of the movie, they’d profit off the buzz anyway. Double win for Disney.
Miyazaki doesn’t seem to have played any role in the campaigning, but he certainly understood what was going on. In a discussion with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki described Pixar’s then-CEO John Lasseter as a “human bulldozer” for his efforts to get Spirited Away released abroad.
Still, no matter how it played out, there’s no question that the cultural impact of Spirited Away is very real; a 2016 BBC survey ranked it fourth on a list of the 21st Century’s Greatest Films, vaulting Miyazaki into the leagues of Wong Kar-wai and David Lynch. And anime really did change the dialogue over the long run. Today it’s more than a product, or even a form of pop culture. For fans, it’s an identity. The “fantasy-delivery devices” I wrote about in Pure Invention – karaoke machines, kawaii culture, Walkmans, video game systems, all of that – represented hugely successful products. But anime was the first cultural product out of Japan in the postwar era that offered a vibrant alternative to Western culture itself.
Whether he likes it or not, the spread of anime fandom, and Japanese sensibilities with it, is due in no small part to the efforts of craftspeople like Miyazaki. The irony is that despite all the love anime gets, and despite how it has emerged as the cornerstone of a massive multinational streaming industry, the animators themselves are struggling through an entrenched crisis over low wages and mistreatment – but that’s another topic for later. Stay tuned!