Far more Americans saw the clips from Spirited Away shown just before its Academy Award was announced than will ever see the movie. Despite anime’s extreme popularity in certain US markets, anime films have almost universally underwhelmed at US box offices and receive little general exposure in the states. What did it take for Spirited Away to attain its relative prominence in the American market and, if any, what effect has its story tell us about the possibilities for wide scale US distribution of anime films in the States?
The Story of Spirited Away
Spirited Away was a wild domestic success by any metric. Released in Japan in July of 2001 to a remarkably positive reception, by 2002 a sixth of the Japanese population had seen the film. A favorite among parents and children alike, it went on to gross approximately $250 million in Japan, b
reaking the domestic box office record snagged from Miyazaki in 1997 by Titanic and making that fabled director the country’s most successful to date by the numbers.[i] Many attributed the success to the admittedly exaggerated rumors of Miyazaki’s immanent retirement.
Not just a popular blockbuster, Spirited Away also went on to garner international critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 96%, and among the site’s “Top Critics,” the score is 100%.
It is also well decorated with many international awards from film festivals and critical organizations. Among its most notable awards are the
Best Picture from Japan’s Academy Awards, a Golden Bear – Berlin International Film Festival’s all-around top
prize – and the second Oscar ever awarded for Best Animated Feature. That Oscar made Spirited Away the first anime film to win an American Academy Award and it is still the only non-English speaking animation film to do so.
In September of 2002, Disney finally released a dubbed – and otherwise uncut – version of the film in the US. At this point, Spirited Away was the first film ever to make $200 million before being released in US theaters. Under the personal supervision of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who directed Toy Story and has since produced almost all of Pixar’s biggest hits, there was some hope that Spirited Away might take off in the states.
Those hopes were dashed. Disney opened the film in about 100 theaters, most of which were art houses. By comparison, most first-tier Disney films will open in 3000+ theaters. Initially hopeful sales quickly weakened, and the film never caught on. While the surprise Oscar nod provided the opportunity of a medium-scale, 700-theater distribution, people did not turn out. Ultimately the film only grossed a disappointing $10 million in the US despite a long run of about a full year.