Should I Watch..? 'Spirited Away'
What's the big deal?
Spirited Away is an animation fantasy film released in 2001 and was written and directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. The film follows a 10-year-old girl's unwitting journey to an alternative realm ruled by witches, spirits, monsters and demons and her attempts to rescue her parents and escape. The film's Japanese voice cast stars Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara and Yoomi Tamai. The film was released to universal praise from critics and overtook Titanic as the most successful film in Japanese history, a record the film still holds. The film was translated into English and distributed for Western audiences via Disney which helped the film to a global total of $347 million. The film is still frequently cited as one of the greatest animation films ever made and won numerous awards including the Best Animated Feature Oscar - to date, the only hand-drawn and foreign language film to do so.
What's it about?
Chihiro is a ten-year-old girl travelling with her parents to their new home and frankly, she's not that enthused by the prospect. After her dad decides to take a shortcut, they end up travelling down a dirt road through a forest before emerging in front of a narrow tunnel, apparently leading into an abandoned theme park. Although initially reluctant to walk through the tunnel, Chihiro follows her mum and dad through and discover a rural idyll and a small town nearby. Further investigation leads them to a series of restaurants, one of which is open. Despite nobody apparently being about, Chihiro's parents begin tucking in while Chihiro herself decides to explore a bit more.
Eventually, Chihiro stumbles across an ornate bathhouse but is warned away by a young boy named Haku. As Chihiro retraces her steps back to the restaurants, the coming darkness of the night reveals that the town is populated by ghostly spirits and her parents have been transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba, who rules the bathhouse thanks to an army of strange creatures. Realising that she's now trapped, Chihiro must learn to understand this strange new world if she ever hopes to return herself and her family to normal.
Main Cast (Japanese)
Yubaba / Zeniba
Aniyaku, the assistant manager
Release Date (UK)
12th September, 2003
Adventure, Animation, Fantasy
Best Animated Feature
What's to like?
Having recently watched Studio Ghibli's sublime My Neighbour Totoro, I was struck at the quality of that film - both in terms of the visual splendor and the imaginative narrative. But Spirited Away is another league ahead in every conceivable facet. The animation - all of it hand illustrated, remember - fills the screen with colour and detail that stuns you into submission. It's the little things that impress the most - as Chihiro and her parents are driven to their new home, the car stops at a junction before they turn in themselves which allows the other traffic to pass. There's no need for this to be in the film but of course, it helps make the film feel grounded in some sort of reality despite the fantastical nature of the narrative. And once the story begins, the film suddenly becomes home to such a wide and varied cast of background characters and creatures the likes of which we have never seen before. It's like wandering through the cantina at Mos Eisley in Star Wars for the very first time, leaving you bewildered but intrigued at the same time.
I am not exaggerating. The film feels like a wander through the mind of MIyazaki himself, a world which feels quite alien and especially to western audiences. Many of the film's characters are based on Shinto folklore and to anyone unused to this, the film overpowers you with its depth and sheer originality. The film is also darker in tone than Totoro with many sights feeling disturbing to younger viewers such as Yubaba and her enormous head, the giant baby concealing his development from his mother or the repugnant stink spirit requiring the mother of all bath times. It reminds me of another Ghibli classic Princess Mononoke which is still viable children's entertainment but with a required amount of parental attention, just for a few moments.
There is no doubt in my mind that Spirited Away is one of the greatest animated fantasy films of all time, a sweeping exploration of a dreamy plane of reality that it is equal to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. The film is also the first Ghibli film I've watched both with subtitles (my prefered option) and with an English dub and while the dub struggles to full explain everything that's going on at times, the Japanese version offered a smidge more context which probably went over my head. What I will say is despite the chaos of the world we are currently in, I was completely immersed in this lavish and lush spectacle to such an extent that I forgot about global pandemics and my own period of self-isolation and quarantine. And if that isn't the mark of a great film then I don't know what is.
- At one point in the movie, Chihiro is lead down a path through a forest by a bouncing street lamp. This is a reference to Pixar's famous logo, even down to the sound effect used in the film. Miyazaki is a friend of Pixar animator John Lasseter, who was largely responsible for getting the film translated into English by Disney for Western audiences.
- The film marks the second appearance in a Studio Ghibli film of the susuwatari or 'soot sprites' after their appearance in My Neighbour Totoro. They are seen working in Kamaji's boiler-room and apparently have a fondness for Konpeitō, traditional Japanese star-shaped candy which I can testify are very tasty indeed!
- The character's names in the film reflect their personalities - Boh means 'little boy' or 'son', Kamaji means 'old boiler man', Yubaba means 'bathhouse witch' and Chihiro means 'a thousand fathoms or searches'.
- Miyazaki was considering retirement after Princess Mononoke but was inspired by a friend's sullen 10-year-old daughter. Miyazaki expressly made the heroine a character that young girls could look up to and be inspired by. The use of a bathhouse as the predominant setting sprung from Miyazaki's use of one in his hometown where a small door was next to the bath and Miyazaki wondered what was behind it.
What's not to like?
As you might have gathered, I'm a massive fan of this film which might possibly be Studio Ghibli's best picture to date. Having said that, I will say that I enjoyed My Neighbour Totoro a little bit more. There are moments in Spirited Away that charm you and win you over but there are also scenes where things suddenly get very dark and even frightening, especially if you're not used to some of the more odd characters developed by Miyazaki over the years. If you thought that the Catbus in Totoro was just too weird then this will blow you away with its brazenly bizarre nature. It's hard to explain without giving too much away but one theme of the film is of people and characters not appearing to be as they seem. Perhaps the most chilling creation is Kamaji, an old man with spider-like limbs that stretch and contort in nightmarish ways.
Such is Miyazaki's mastery of his craft that the film is tailored to the exact age group he originally intended. The film might be too disturbing for very young children but perfect for kids aged ten or over who will easily identify with the character of Chihiro, who starts out being overlooked or even ignored but ends up finding her voice and learns to fight for herself. I'd also point out that the film is better suited to Shinto worshippers than popcorn-munching audiences in the West but nevertheless, the experience is one that will never leave you. It will confuse, enchant and amaze in equal measure and what more can you ask for?
Should I watch it?
It's no surprise that Spirited Away was the first film to earn more than $200 million before it opened in the US - the film is a triumphant smash, a dizzying and almost experimental assault on the senses that cannot help but affect you. It might be a little odd for some but the sheer level of imagination, originality and effort that has gone into the film as apparent from the start and it only grows more impressive the longer the film goes on. Without question, it's one of the best films this side of the Millennium and one of the outstanding works of art Japan has produced for generations. It really is unmissable.
Great For: lovers of animation, Studio Ghibli fans, Miyazaki's legacy, Japanophiles
Not So Great For: the under 10s, the easily spooked, non-Shinto worshippers
What else should I watch?
While Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are fairly synonymous with each other, the animation studio based in Koganei, Tokyo is home to other animators who are just as talented. Released on a double bill alongside My Neighbour Totoro, Isao Takahata's debut for the studio was Grave Of The Fireflies - a moving and powerful account of siblings trying to survive in the aftermath of the mass firebombing of Kobe at the end of the Second World War. More recently, Hiromasa Yonebayashi made his directorial debut with an adaptation of The Borrowers called Arrietty which was released to critical acclaim.
However, Miyazaki remains the heart and soul of the studio and while fans of his wait patiently for his long-awaited return How Do You Live?, we can console ourselves with some of the most spectacular and original anime films ever seen. Where else can you find films about a trainee witch using her broomstick to start a business (Kiki's Delivery Service), an Italian World War I flying ace transformed into an anthropomorphic pig (Porco Rosso) or a goldfish befriending a young boy and wishing to become a human girl (Ponyo)? Looks like I'm glued to a certain streaming service for the near future and not just because I'm quarantined right now.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox