TL;DR – Miyazaki’s seminal work that is an “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” journey set in traditional Japanese culture.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Chihiro is moving house and she is not happy about it. Clutching a farewell bouquet of flowers from her friends, she lies in the back seat of the family sedan forlornly wishing to return to the familiar surrounds of her hometown.
As they journey on, the father makes a wrong turn that leads to a dirt road winding into a mountain forest. Thinking that it is a shortcut, he forges on, and Chihiro spies discarded stone shrines and moss-covered statues. They eventually arrive to the entrance of a long tunnel. Chihiro gets the creeps, noting that the wind is going in the tunnel as if trying to draw things into it. She protests that they should drive back, but her father is curious. Clinging to her mother’s arm, Chihiro reluctantly traverses the tunnel with her parents.
Upon exiting, they see an empty village, which the father believes are the remnants of an abandoned theme park. Crossing a dried riverbed, they enter the village as delicious smells waft in the air, and the parents discover a restaurant laden with food. They call out but no one responds. Chihiro appears to be the only one with common sense as she tells her parents they should leave and not eat the food. But the smells are too tempting, and the father says he has his credit card and cash and can pay for their meals later. The parents sit down and start gorging on the food, stuffing themselves silly because everything is delectable.
Chihiro leaves them to explore the rest of the village and finds a bridge leading to a giant bathhouse. There she meets a boy named Haku who is surprised to see her. He tells her she shouldn’t be here and urges her to cross back over the river before nightfall. With the sun setting, Chihiro rushes back into the village as lights begin to illuminate and shadows of spirits start forming in the restaurants. She finds her parents still pigging out only to horrifically discover that they have turned into pigs literally. This would understandably freak out any ten-year-old child and Chihiro races through the village calling out for her parents. She reaches the river but is unable to cross as it has now become full of water. In the distance she sees a large boat filled with lights approaching. From the boat, spirits and gods exit to enter the village and the bathhouse.
Thus begins Chihiro’s adventure into the spirit world where she will gain employment within the bathhouse and attempt to pay off her parents’ debt (they ate food of the gods) and have them changed back to humans. Along the way she meets all manner of characters that seek to either help or hinder her.
Spirited Away became the first non-English hand-drawn animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and has received numerous accolades worldwide. It is considered by many to be Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film.
While the messages in this film include environmentalism and consumerism (messages often ingrained in Miyazaki’s films), at its heart Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story of a young girl set against the backdrop of traditional Japanese folklore.
The highlight of the film for me was when a sludge monster spirit arrives at the bathhouse. Cinematic storytelling at its finest, the sludge monster oozes decay and stink causing most of the employees to flee. But Chihiro sticks it out and discovers the sludge spirit is actually a river spirit that has become so polluted that it has corrupted into sludge. Through Chihiro’s bravery, she manages to dislodge the handle of a bicycle which in turn unplugs a torrent of rubbish and turning the river spirit back to its original form. This animation sequence is pure Miyazaki magic.
There are so many wonderful characters including Haku, who is also a river spirit and water dragon; Kamaji, the six-armed boiler room operator; the insanely large headed Yubaba, the primary antagonist and owner of the bathhouse; and No-Face, a lonely spirit that can take on the characteristics of other spirits that it swallows. Chihiro encounters all these and more in her quest to save her parents and return to the human world.
Chihiro’s transformation is subtle. She starts off not even capable of descending a long flight of stairs attached to the side of the bathhouse (admittedly, there is no railing and if she falls, she will almost certainly die) to gaining the courage to face Yubaba and saving not only her parents but also Haku.
There is much to love about Spirited Away and it is deserving of all its accolades. Yet, I have been spoiled for I have seen virtually all of Miyazaki’s films leading up to Spirited Away’s release.
In truth, I would rate Tonari no Totoro, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and The Castle of Cagliostro above this movie. All these films are very different, so to compare them is an exercise in futility. But in terms of pure enjoyment, those four movies would rate higher than Spirited Away because I enjoyed the story and adventure of those four far more. It’s splitting hairs, but I have to split them somewhere, and in terms of ranking the monumental body of work Miyazaki has created, I will stand by what my heart tells me.
8 out of 10