Hayao Miyazaki’s 'Spirited Away' continues to delight fans and inspire animators 20 years after its US premiere

When Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature “Spirited Away” premiered in the U.S. 20 years ago, most viewers hadn’t seen anything like it.

Disney distributed the film. But as one critic pointed out, “Seeing just 10 minutes of this English version … will quickly disabuse any discerning viewer of the notion that it is a Disney creation.”

It tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro who, when traveling with her parents, stumbles across what appears to be an abandoned theme park. As they explore, the parents are transformed into giant pigs, and Chihiro soon realizes that the park is occupied by strange, supernatural spirits. She ends up working at a bathhouse as she tries to figure out a way to free herself and her parents so they can return home.

The film went on to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Twenty years later, it’s frequently listed as one of the best animated films of all time.

Yet as a scholar of manga and anime studies, I’m often struck by how popular the film became – and how fondly viewers remember it – given that so many of its elements would have been alien to American audiences.

The manga revolution

Many of the first anime films were inspired by manga, or Japanese comics.

Some of the hallmarks of modern manga, such as characters with big eyes, streaks to signal movement and different-sized panels to convey action, character and emotion more effectively, can be traced to the work of Osamu Tezuka, the so-called “God of Manga.”

Tezuka was influenced by his childhood and Japanese culture, but he was also inspired by American movies, television and comics.

When Tezuka was a child, he attended the performances of Takarazuka, an all-female theater group in Tokyo whose actresses tended to have well-lit, expressive eyes. His father also showed him American animation on a Pathe projector, and he was drawn to wide-eyed characters like Betty Boop and Bambi. Together, they inspired the big, expressive eyes that would become characteristic of Tezuka’s work.

Tezuka’s debut manga, titled “New Treasure Island,” was published in 1947 and became a hit with Japanese youth. Soon an entire manga industry sprang up, churning out vibrantly creative and emotionally relatable comics in a wide range of genres.

Miyazaki was 21 years old when Tezuka’s popular manga “Astro Boy” appeared on TV in Japan in 1963. NBC soon picked it up, airing 102 episodes in the U.S. and exposing millions of Americans to Japanese anime for the first time.