“Spirited Away” vs. “Toy Story 4”: Time Traveling Cinema and Nostalgia

It’s been a few weeks since this happened, and I cannot deny how fascinated I am by the occurrence. I’ve never really heard of anything like this happening before, and the fact that the results wound up being the way they are is both unsurprising but also equally intriguing. Let me break it down for you:

Two weeks ago, the latest Pixar film, “Toy Story 4,” was released both here in the States and abroad. In the case of China, it made for a weekend of international animated films, for that same weekend, the Studio Ghibli film, “Spirited Away,” was also released in theaters for the very first time. “Spirited Away” – a film that originally came out 18 years ago.

Despite the nearly two-decade different in initial releases for these two films, that didn’t stop the latter from topping China’s box office that weekend. “Spirited Away” wound up making $28 million, whereas “Toy Story 4” only made about half as much.

While signs can point to how “Spirited Away” was released in more theaters than “Toy Story 4,” in part due to growing political tensions between the States and China over the trade war, it still is quite remarkable to see this occur. Not to say that it’s unusual to see a film from the past on the big screen in the modern day, for there are special screenings for that all the time. But to give a film its long overdue release in an era vastly different from the time it was made, for to go head-to-head with a more recent film, is so unheard of. It’s almost like time travel in a way.

It should be no surprise that the reason for the delayed release of “Spirited Away” in China is due to the political tensions between them and Japan in 2001. However, like any geek ever, that didn’t stop Chinese fans from finding a way, thanks in part by pirated DVDs and streams. Until now, fans of the film only had memories made in part by illegal yet necessary means, for China still refuses to let up on its ridiculous need to censor everything. Now that the film is at last in theaters, these fans can make new memories from experiencing it the way it was always meant to be: on the big screen and legally.

I believe it’s wise to note that there’s more to fulfilling one’s nostalgia for this film. As Forbes described, “Spirited Away” (or really any film from Studio Ghibli for that matter) has a much different style of storytelling from the Hollywood blockbusters we are used to. The film touches on themes that, while still relevant today and are even seen woven into “Toy Story 4,” goes about them in different ways than what the typical movie goer is used to. It’s an experience that, no matter how advanced movie-making technology has become over the last 18 years, can never be properly replicated.

I saw “Toy Story 4” a few days after it came out. While I did like it, I can’t bring myself to love it as much as I love “Spirited Away.” “Toy Story 4” is the fourth (and likely final) film of a saga that has been spanning for nearly a quarter of a century. It’s a film that I don’t think many of us would be too bummed out over had it never been made (remember how surprised everyone was when word first got out that a fourth was in the works?).

But “Spirited Away” is something else. As I’ve written three years ago in time for the film’s 15th anniversary, while it may share similarities between the likes of “Alice in Wonderland,” the film truly is an original. It’s breathtaking the first time watching it, and just as much so every other time after, especially as you get older. It’s a timeless tale that, as many fans of Studio Ghibli can surely agree, is not just a Japanese animated film; it’s an experience.

So with that said, I commend China for finally giving “Spirited Away” a proper theatrical release. I just wish that those in power will see and understand the results from people wanting to see it, and reconsider its whole censorship shenanigans once and for all. I doubt that’s going to happen, but one only can always dream.

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