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Spirited Away (2001)

Twenty years later, in many respects, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away remains the pinnacle of the animation legend’s career. Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and The Wind Rises would come out in the following years and be both critical and box-office hits. But somehow none of them could quite reach the universally beloved status of his Oscar winner.

Spirited Away was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Toshio Suzuki, with long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi composing the score. It was originally released in Japan in July of 2001, going on to take ¥31.68 billion ($305 million) and becoming Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time, a position it held onto for nearly 20 years, when it was finally unseated by Demon Slayer Kimetsu No Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train. It was originally released in the United States by Disney in 2002, but the rights (along with almost the entire Studio Ghibli catalogue) are now held by GKIDS Films who have released the film on Blu-Ray disc, DVD and Digital and on streaming via HBO Max. The film was released in the UK by StudioCanal in 2003 and is available streaming globally outside the US, Canada and Japan on Netflix.

The film opens with 10-year old Chihiro travelling with her parents to her new home, leaving her old house and friends behind. Stopping at what they assume to be an abandoned theme park, Chihiro is mortified when her parents start eating food they find there at a restaurant stall. Then things take a real turn as her parents are magically transformed into pigs and she is transported to an unfamiliar world populated by spirits and mysterious creatures. With the help of a kindly young boy named Haku, and friendly local fox-spririt Lin she is able to get a job at the bathhouse owned by the formidable witch Yubaba. While working and living there, she searches for a way to rescue her parents and find their way back to the human world.

Perhaps the reason that Spirited Away found a large international audience in a way that other of Miyazaki’s film did not is that its central concept is easy to grasp. A character magically transported to a strange world (or another time) is a hugely popular trope in fantasy in the west island in Japan. It’s become so prevalent in Japan they even have a specific term - Isekai- for it. Western audiences can easily relate it to classic stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Lion The Witch The Wardrobe and The Wizard Of Oz, so it’s not hard for them to understand.

As our ‘Alice’ in this scenario, Chihiro is an archetypal Miyazaki heroine. She’s determined, brave and good-hearted and with a strong work ethic (definitely a positive for the Japanese audience). But to get to that point she has to go through character growth- at the start of the film she’s a much less confident, shyer young girl. She’s often been labelled as “bratty”, but this has always struck me as a little unfair. Her behaviour early on comes from a place of fear- she’s scared of the idea of moving away to a new unknown life and that’s before even she has to deal with witches, river spirits and dragons. Give the poor girl a break.

Haku is very much in the tradition of noble and selfless Miyazaki male-leads in the Ashitaka (Princess Mononoke’s protagonist) mould. Chihiro and Haku’s strong bond is at the very heart of the film. Their relationship could be seen as potentially romantic (and it often is by some viewers) but its depiction is really much closer to a sibling-like relationship.

Yubaba fills the role of antagonist and appears to be much closer to a straight-up villain than we typically see in a Miyazaki film. However, although she is often a threatening presence, there’s a complexity to her that stops her from being outright evil. Although Chihiro is often in danger, nothing in the spirit world is really depicted as malevolent. With visits to the bathhouse and markets, parallels are drawn with the human world.. Perhaps its a Japanese thing related to their history of folklore and spiritualism and respect for the natural world. The distaste the spirits have for humans seems motivated by fear as much as anything- they just want to get on with their lives (or whatever they call them).

The spirit world is as vibrant and awe-inspiring as any that Miyazaki has ever produced. Beautifully brought to life based on a traditional vision of a nighttime Japan, it’s gorgeous. The world is populated by a veritable menagerie of weird and wonderful beings, inspired partially by Japanese Yokai and partly from Miyazaki’s own imagination. From the Radish Spirits to the Otori-Sama (the big duck-billed things) each one is distinctive and unforgettable, If My Neighbour Totoro offered us a glimpse of the other world, Spirited Away is where Miyazaki got to really explore it.

Most memorable among the spirits is, without a doubt No-Face. His arrival in the film brings chaos to the bathhouse, but once again he’s no mere monster. His attachment to Chihiro comes from a place of loneliness and he cuts quite the tragic figure. Chihiro appears to be the only one who recognises this, and in a way, she senses a kind of kindred spirit (no pun intended).

Parents and guardians might be advised to check out the film before showing it to kids,  as in places it might be a little scary- particularly for the very young or particularly sensitive. Still, it was designed to be enjoyed by children of  Chihiro's age, so kids of around 10 and up should be fine.

As with every film he has made since Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki originally intended for this to be his final film. Perhaps that’s why that more so than any of his other films to date Spirited Away plays like a 'greatest hits' of his pet themes and tropes. 

The parents being turned into pigs comes straight out of Porco Rosso and the Soot Sprites are evolved versions of the ones we saw in Totoro. His trademark flight sequences are present and correct, and the captivating sea-train journey is reminiscent of Mei and Satsuki’s ride on the Catbus, with a similar sense of wonder created. It’s a testament to Miyazaki’s skills as a filmmaker that he can return to familiar ground so often, but somehow never really feels like he’s repeating himself.

As with every Ghibli production (Earwig aside), Spirited Away is an incredible piece of hand-drawn animation. Gorgeously painted backgrounds and fluidly animated characters mean that it looks as beautiful today as it ever has. If you ever get the chance to see the film in a cinema, you absolutely should- you’ll appreciate it even more.

It was made at a time where 2D animation was at a crossroad- the tail end of traditional animation but before digital production became standard. Like Mononoke, digital was used to enhance some elements and made some sequences such as an incredible first-person dash through a bush. It never draws attention to itself though, and if you didn’t know better you might assume it was all animated fully in the old-fashioned way.

ALL IMAGES: © 2001 Studio Ghibli - NDDTM

Although universal in many of its themes, this is culturally a very Japanese film- more so than much of Miyazaki’ past work. There are lots of plot points and specifically Japanese touchstones that the original target audience will understand that outside viewers won’t. At least not without a lot of research. If you’re not Japanese, there are certainly subtle things that will go over your head. It never detracts from the enjoyment though, and just serves to add extra cultural texture and enrich the experience,

The icing on this already delicious cake is another wonderful score from Hisaishi. The maestro wrote some of his most memorable tracks for the film including One Summer’s Day and Parade Of the Spirits.

Had Miyazaki actually finished his career with Spirited Away, it would have been an incredible capper to a phenomenal career. Trying to decide Miyazaki’s best film is a fool’s errand- which one you prefer might vary from day to day. What IS clear though is that Spirited Away is up there as an undisputed classic. Thanks to the advent of streaming, Ghibli’s catalogue is more accessible than ever. If you’ve yet to see this film, do yourself a favour and correct that as soon as you can. 


IN A NUTSHELL: Miyazaki's masterpiece is as magical today as it was the day it was released. Movies don't get better than this.