Chihiro, a girl who is moving away from her old home, and her family get sidetracked on the way to their new home. They stop in front of a strange building, which leads to a seemingly abandoned theme park. While her parents eat at what appears to be a restaurant, Chihiro goes exploring, and meets a boy named Haku who warns her to leave before sundown. Of course, she can’t, and discovers that her parents have been turned into gluttonous pigs. Strange creatures come out and populate the town, and eventually, Chihiro figures out that she is in the spirit world. Between working for the witch Yubaba, figuring out who Haku is, and avoiding certain death by some of the meaner spirits, Chihiro must find a way to get her parents back to normal and go home.
Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli are legends in the anime business. As one of the few Japanese directors fortunate enough to have gained a solid following overseas, Miyazaki’s style carries a consistent popular appeal. However, much like Steven Spielberg, it doesn’t matter what the subject is – Miyazaki always manages to add his own twist, his own unique interpretation of a story to liven up proceedings. Spirited Away is notable for winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, making it the first anime ever to do so. I’m glad to report that the hype is not undeserved.
The basic story, as is usual with Miyazaki films, centers around the power of innocence and purity. The construct of the journey is a favorite subject of Ghibli, and a vivid rendition of Chihiro’s journey is given in Spirited Away. Our entry into the spirit world is vivid and surreal, though we eventually begin to understand its functions as Chihiro spends more time there. By invoking the imagery of traditional Japanese mythology, Miyazaki creates a distinctly unfamiliar atmosphere. The spirit world is a little like our world, but also slightly misaligned. It generates a sense of wonder, but is also somewhat unsettling.
In order to fit in with the spirit world, Chihiro must find employment at a bath house. This leads to the film’s major encounters, and also establishes the characteristics of the fantasy setting. The main plot thread is Chihiro’s quest to return to the real world and turn her parents back to normal. However, this goal is sometimes ignored in favor of more direct action scenes. I understand that there has to be something to break up the exposition in order to keep the children interested, but some of the scenarios are a little too irrelevant. The subplot with Haku ties in with Chihiro’s back story later on, but this decision doesn’t seem to have much consequence for Chihiro’s quest.
The strength and appeal of Spirited Away is in its moral affirmations. Chihiro’s idealism is treated positively, as can be seen when she confronts the monster No-Face and the stink spirit. The morality is not framed in terms of good combating evil. Instead, the lesson is to draw on the power of the self to overcome adversity. In effect, the film is a demonstration of the importance of identity, perhaps in some way also speaking to the cultural identity of the Japanese. This kind of theme, aside from being relevant in the context of a globalized society, is also a refreshing take on the “magical girl” fantasy genre.
For adults and children alike, this film is an atmospheric, marvelous experience. Despite its two hour run time, there is never a deficit of material or excitement. It enchants, it mesmerizes, and provides precisely the escapist diversion that it should be. Commercial appeasement and artistic expression are so perfectly merged that the blending in itself becomes an art form. For Miyazaki, and for the anime industry as a whole, Spirited Away is a blessing and a necessity.
If there is one thing that holds the film back, it would have to be the erratic quality of its characters. For one, they are almost uniformly simplistic. Chihiro, specifically, approaches her problems the same way each time. While it works for the theme that Miyazaki wants to convey, it saps a bit of excitement from the story. The unknown relationship between Chihiro and Haku provides a bit of intrigue. Her desire to help Haku is a natural extension of her personality, and is a convenient way to increase her involvement in the plot. However, when all is finally revealed, their connection seems rather arbitrary. It provides closure for Haku’s character, but we’re really looking for how it affects Chihiro.
The supporting cast is colorful but equally one-dimensional. Above serving their purposes in the bath house, they do little more than occasionally divulge information about the spirit world. Yubaba, the witch/manager of the bath house, is symbolic of greed. Zeniba, her twin, has all the qualities that Yubaba does not. I found the decision to make the two identical somewhat odd, as it tends to dampen the impact of both characters. You start to empathize with Yubaba, even though she’s supposed to be villainous.
I also had a problem with the use of No-Face, whose rampage is dismissed a little too quickly. Here again is a symbol of greed, but No-Face is used to show that unkind acts can be redeemed. Unfortunately, his role doesn’t get more attention, as he could potentially serve several story purposes. Most of the other cast members are there for comedic effect or no effect at all. And although it helps establish a sense of scale and livelihood for the setting, they don’t do much to deepen the ideas behind Chihiro’s journey.
Spirited Away is and isn’t a movie of self-discovery. It is in the sense that Chihiro discovers the power of her identity, but it isn’t in the sense that she doesn’t learn anything new about herself. She is a static character, and doesn’t grow beyond what isn’t there to begin with. As a result, the work seems dumbed down for the sake of the children in the audience. Although this lack of sophistication doesn’t get in the way of telling the story, it does make the film a little too idealized for grown-up tastes.
Studio Ghibli has never been lacking in this field. The musical score here isn’t very pronounced at all, which in this case focuses the audience absolutely on the plot. The voice acting (I heard the American dub) was rather believable, and much less cheesy and hokey than most anime productions. The sound effects were solid as well, using nice bassy rumbling very effectively.
The visuals are Miyazaki grade, of course. He seems to have some sort of obsession with drawing goo – every opportunity is taken to exploit ooze and goop to the fullest. The scenery is colorful, and the production reeks of creativity. The world itself is very distinct, though not horribly outlandish. At times during the first half of the movie, the whole onscreen experience felt surreal. A master of his craft, Miyazaki is able to transport the audience into his world seamlessly. The character designs are classic Miyazaki as well. Some will adore it, others will be revolted by it. Although the character animations sometimes get noticeably choppy, there was a lot of attention to details here as well, and the visuals give a true atmosphere to the film.[summary score=”8.0″][/summary]