Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’ bests Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 4’ in China
The Chinese mainland box office has been quite cool this June unlike the hot temperatures the month has experience. Not a single film managed to break the 1 billion yuan ($146 million) mark, a far cry from the sensation Avengers: Endgame caused in April and May and The Wandering Earth achieved in February and March.
Two imported animated films that both debuted on June 21 have been going headto-head to attract Chinese moviegoers: Spirited Away from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and US animation studio Pixar’s Toy Story 4.
Chinese audiences are immensely familiar with Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s representative work in which a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro Ogino unexpectedly enters a mysterious world from which she has to escape and rescue her parents who have been turned into pigs. Although the film didn’t come to the Chinese mainland when it debuted in 2001, it has earned millions of fans in the region over the years. It ranks among the top 10 movies on the top 250 film list on Chinese media review platform Douban with a score of 9.3/10.
After a nine-year break, Toy Story 4 is the latest sequel in the animation franchise that first got its start in 1995,
as such Chinese audiences are very familiar with the characters and world of the film. Opening simultaneously in China and North America, the film had a very successful opening in North America but was ambushed by Spirited Away in the Chinese mainland. The opening weekend box office for the Japanese animation was 193 million yuan, more than double Toy Story 4’s 91.11 million yuan take. As of Monday morning, after 11 days in the theater, the gap between the two films remains large, with Spirited Away sitting at 379 million and Toy Story 4 at 169 million. Self-exploration
In reviews on Douban, many Chinese netizens noted that while they felt 2010’s Toy Story 3 provided the perfect ending to the animation series, the new sequel was still able to surprise them. Toy Story 4 sees pullstring cowboy Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) head out on a road trip with Forky, a new toy who is experiencing an identity crisis since he was made from trash.
Unlike the previous movies in which the toys try to find happiness by bringing joy to children, this sequel permits the toys to think about their independence and what they actually want and encourages them to follow their inner voices. This self-exploration is also similar to the themes Spirited Away tackles with. For example, one character Nigihayami Kohakunushi loses his freedom because he forgets his name, people who are turned into animals and forget they are human and a faceless man is rich, but feels a void inside since he doesn’t know who he is and where he comes from.
The two films both feature stories of adventure and selfexploration, but the depth of thoughts and the reactions of the main characters are very different.
Veteran film critic Lin Xi told the Global Times that Spirited Away reveals the complexity of humanity and strikes at audiences’ hearts with plain appearances.
“Some character represent people who wear masks. Some character represents mercenaries. It questions who people are and what their souls are like. People who can truly understand this animation must have a lot of life experiences,” Lin noted, adding that for this reason the film is able to capture the hearts of adults as well as children.
Toy Story 4, on the contrary, is more relaxing and entertaining. The franchise is especially suitable for children because it teaches them how to cooperate with others and help them. Although the current film has begun exploring philosophical questions, it is not as intensive as Spirited Away.
“It’s parents looking to go to the cinema with their kids that choose Toy Story 4. The audience base is smaller than that of Spirited Away,” Lin noted.
Although the characters in both movies are going on adventures, they react quite differently. According to Lin, the characters in Spirited Away are focused on exerting and escalating their inner power in response to a hideous environment.
The characters in Spirited Away don’t talk a lot but they manage to use their determination to change their situations. For example, Chihiro, the heroine, become a courageous girl and overcome all the challenges she is presented with although she appears weak in the beginning of the film. This reflects the restricted characteristics of Asian people, who emphasize the power of the mind, which makes Chinese audiences easily relate to the film. The characters in Toy Story 4, however, are different. When they come across a problem, they discuss things and come up with strategies together. The film also has a major focus on comedy. This direct way of solving problems and their open attitudes, with the characters sometimes voicing what they are thinking, are common features of Hollywood animations. One of the reasons Chinese audiences have flocked to see Spirited Away is the art style. According to reports, Miyazaki drew tens of thousands of frames by hand for the film. This type of animation is still alive and well in Asia due to its popularity, while Hollywood films like Toy Story 4, have already moved on to all computer animation.
Promotional material for Spirited Away Below: Promotional material for Toy Story 4