The awarding of the best animated feature Oscar to "Spirited Away" represented not only a victory for writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, but also a reflection of the growing popularity and influence of Japanese animation, or anime, in America.
A fantasy-adventure that many critics compared with "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz," "Spirited Away" focuses on 10-year-old Chihiro, who stumbles into an abandoned amusement park that is actually a resort for traditional Japanese nature spirits, run by the rapacious witch Yubaba. The adventures and trials she undergoes transform Chihiro from a sulky, apathetic girl to a lively, resourceful adolescent.
"Spirited Away" delighted animators, although some American artists worried the film that might seem "too foreign" to academy voters: It lacks the upbeat songs, fairy tale setting and familiar references most Americans expect from an animated feature. But Oscar-winning director John Lasseter, who served as creative consultant for the English-language version, counters, "I think it's brilliant to tell the story from the point of view of a modern Japanese girl, who pretty much lives the same kind of life that we live here. She's drawn into this world of ancient Japanese spirits and traditions that's new to her, so we discover it along with her."
Miyazaki ranks as one of the directors admired most by other animators throughout the world. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the co-directors of Disney's "Lilo & Stitch," which was generally considered the strongest rival of "Spirited Away" for the animated feature Oscar, cite his work as an influence.
American critics gave "Spirited Away" ecstatic reviews, and it won virtually every pre-Oscar award for which it was eligible, including best animated film from the New York, Los Angeles and Broadcast Film Critics associations, and appeared on more than 100 critics' "Top 10" lists.
But critics and artists faulted Disney's release of the film -- it played in only 151 theaters during the summer -- and complained that the studio's publicity campaign was inadequate. Although it broke box-office records in Japan, "Spirited Away" has earned only $5.4 million in the U.S.
Within the animation community it was felt that considerably more was riding on this year's contest than studio bragging rights. Animators and animation fans are hoping that the Oscar win will goad Disney into giving "Spirited Away" a wider theatrical release before it appears on DVD in mid-April. They're also hoping that the victory of a traditional film will help to rehabilitate the reputation of drawn animation, which they feel has been unfairly blamed for the poor box-office showing of such recent features as "Treasure Planet," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "The Road to El Dorado." Of the five nominees, only "Ice Age" was completely computer-generated; the others were primarily hand-drawn.