Spirited Away (2001)

One of the big ones to come out of Studio Ghibli and with good reason, Spirited Away follows protagonist Chihiro who finds herself in the spirit world where her parents have been turned into pigs. Chihiro must work under the ruthless Yubaba in a bathhouse for spirits where she is forced to take care of the visiting spirits, including the mysterious No-Face. With the help of a young boy called Haku, Chihiro navigates her way around the land of spirits and eventually learns more about herself and what she is capable of in order to return to the human world with her parents. This is commonly seen as Miyazaki’s opus as it brought international acclaim the studio hadn’t experienced before as well as a slew of awards such as the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The story of identity and place is one that resonated with the critical commercial audiences and has made Spirited Away an instant classic. In true Miyazaki style, the film is enjoyable for all ages and can be watched time and time again and still be just as rewarding. The film has you laughing, crying and grimacing as we encounter various characters and are thrust into the unknown. 

Ten year old Chihiro is forced to move away as her dad starts a new job. Unhappy about the move, we are first introduced to her as she sulks in the car with a bouquet gifted by her classmates. Chihiro is soon forced to think beyond her years to navigate a way out of the spirit world with her parents. She is a character who finds her own strength and relies on herself to figure this out. On entering the Bathhouse, Chihiro is overwhelmed by all of the creatures but is soon tasked with carrying out there needs. The Stink Spirit is the breakthrough moment as Chihiro passes the test and understands what the spirit needs. Anothe protagonist is dragon/river spirit Haku, who initially takes form as a boy Chihiro’s age. Haku immediately sees Chihiro and helps disguise her from other spirits before she is given permission to reside in the spirit world. At the top of the bathhouse lives Yubaba, a witch who runs the facilities. After failing Chihiro off, she strips Chihiro off her name and gives her the identity Sen. Soon enough Chihiro becomes Sen and forgets who she is as she is enveloped in the spirit world. By losing herself, she loses sight of the mission to get home. Yubaba is a character who has no motive to act for or against Chihiro and simply allows Chihiro to work in the bathhouse while she goes on her journey of self-discovery.

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The animation is spectacular is on a level that hasn’t been seen before and not really since (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya being another great example). A beautiful mix of Japanese folklore and fantasy, Spirited Away makes use of the scenery and locations. By setting the film in a fantasy universe, it gives the animation team an unlimited scope in design and allows Miyazaki to create a world from scratch. Not only is Miyazaki creating his own version of the spirit world but it also offering an entirely unique perspective on various aspects of Japanese culture. The whole film is crammed full of amazing sequences but among the most iconic in Ghibli history has to be Chihiro running through the garden paths surrounded by rose bushes is simple yet dreamy. It’s only a short moment but the angles and colours are perfect as Chihiro anticipates seeing her parents.  Other brilliantly crafted scenes include the food feast where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs. The satisfying layout of the food contrasts with the disgusting design for both her parents when they’re eating the food and consequently the design of the pigs themselves. The detail of the creases in the skin and the sweat is disgusting but then Ghibli isn’t a studio that glosses over the grotesque.

I can’t review a Ghibli film and not discuss the music. The score from Joe Hisaishi is instantly his most recognisable to date, spanning thousands of covers on YouTube and being a prominent inclusion in his concerts. The soundtrack is nothing less than stunning and totally deserving of its praise. The opening number and the main track associated with the film, “One Summer’s Day”, contains a mix of melancholy and hope. It’s slowness reflects the sadness that Chihiro feels about leaving her old life behind but it’s still uplifting and hopeful at the same time. The piece is soft and pretty and immediately brings you into Chihiro’s world. As soon as we enter the spirit world, the score completely shifts. The peaceful slowness is soon replaced with harsh brass and a quickened pace as Chihiro becomes an outsider in a new place and is forced to hide. Tracks such as “The Dragon Boy” are filled with the grandeur that lives up to Spirited Away’s epic feel. Hisaishi’s score helps to transport the audience into Miyazaki’s universe.

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A film like Spirited Away doesn’t come often with direction and writing that is filled with such love and passion for storytelling. Miyazaki outdid himself with this one and it’s a film that will go down in history. There are an array of supporting characters who all bring significance, even if it’s a small payoff such as Yubaba’s henchmen or her baby. You could watch this film a million times and still find something new. The film opens itself up for interpretation and analysis and has been widely discussed as such. Scenes that I find particularly striking include the attack on Haku as he thrashes into Chihiro’s dorm bloodied and weak and the scene in which Chihiro is sat on the train. The latter is so still and peaceful that it brings a sigh of relief and calm in a film that has brought so much chaos.

Do you love Spirited Away as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below!