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Japan falls under blockbuster movie's spell

chihiro picture
Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro, who is cast adrift in a spirit world when her parents are turned into pigs  

By CNN's Alex Frew McMillan in Hong Kong

TOKYO, Japan -- While the fairytale cartoon Shrek fills movie screens worldwide, Japan is caught under another celluloid spell.

Spirited Away, the latest movie from famed animator Hayao Miyazaki, has blown out box office records there since it opened on July 20.

The cartoon had the biggest opening weekend in history for a movie in Japan. And sales haven't slowed much, falling just 2 percent last weekend.

If the pace continues, the science-fiction fantasy is on track to beat Titanic as Japan's highest-grossing movie. So far, 4.3 million people have flocked to see it.

A secret spirit world

Movie buffs say the success of Spirited Away is remarkable. It took four years to make and has been both critically and publicly acclaimed.

The movie is known as 'Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi' in Japan, literally 'the spiriting away of Sen and Chihiro.' It's the story of a 10-year old girl, Chihiro.

As the film starts, sulky Chihiro is on vacation with her parents when they happen on a secret world. Chihiro is left to fend for herself when her parents are transformed into pigs.

Over the movie's two hours, she happens on numerous strange spirits, including a river god and the sorceress Yubaba. She runs the hot-spring bath house where the gods go to relax.

Chihiro has to work and give up her name in her struggle to get home. Critics have compared it to a lavishly drawn Alice in Wonderland.

A $37 million tally so far

The director devoted Spirited Away to 10-year-old girls like the lead character, and "the people who are going to be 10 years old."

Though the movie is aimed at a young audience, Miyazaki's lush animation and well-developed storylines are popular with adults.

Many Japanese people feel they've grown up with Miyazaki's films. They say his movies remind them of the beauties of childhood.

Through Monday, Spirited Away had taken in $37.0 million (4.6 billion yen) in Japan. That's 75 percent more than the previous record for a Japanese movie.

Titanic brought in $205 million (25.5 billion yen), according to box-office tracking company Kogyo Tsushinsha. That passed the previous record holder -- another Miyazaki movie, Princess Mononoke.

Cult status with anime fans

Miyazaki achieved worldwide fame with 1997's Princess Mononoke, the story of a wolf princess and a young warrior set in ancient Japan.

The film is still Japan's biggest home-grown flick, raking in 19.3 billion yen. It also achieved decent success overseas.

Disney's Miramax made it the first Japanese cartoon to get theatrical release in the United States. It still has cult status with fans of Japanese cartoons, or anime.

But the three-year process of creating Princess Mononoke wore Miyazaki out. The director, who helps draw his own films at his animation house Studio Ghibli, promised to retire. He hasn't made a feature since.

Anticipation has been building in Japan for two years after Miyazaki, now 60, held a news conference to say he wouldn't hanging up his pencil and was instead working on Spirited Away.

The movie's distributor, Tohu, started selling tickets as early as March for this summer's release.

Some critics faulted Princess Mononoke for its goriness. The film carried an ecological message and was aimed at teens and adults.

Spirited Away has broader appeal, though some say it is preachy.

Still, it is outpacing the other summer blockbusters in Japan - the big budget movies Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park III and AI. Japan is the No. 2 market for Hollywood movies.

Spirited Away worth the wait

Titanic set the record for movie sales in Japan with sustained sales rather than a fast pace. So movie trackers say Spirited Away still has to prove its legs.

Miyazaki's movies have also caught on elsewhere in Asia and in other countries such as France. Overseas audiences will have to wait, though.

Disney has committed to release it toward the end of the year in France and will likely roll it out worldwide. Studio Ghibli says it is mulling offers from distributors.

Critics say Spirited Away is likely worth the wait. Many rate Miyazaki's Mononoke among their top-five animated films.

"Where does he rank among Japanese animators? He's probably the greatest in Japan," said Freddie Wong, president of the Hong Kong film critics' society.

While Japanese animation often has stunning visuals, it can fall down on the storyline, Wong said. Miyazaki's plots are very strong, Wong said.

Miyazaki even draws on some of Japan's greatest live-action directors, such as Akira Kurosawa.

"Maybe this is another breakthrough for him," Wong said. "As far as designing visual style [goes], he's the master."

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