I have a confession to make: I haven’t watched nearly enough Hayao Miyazaki films. Like, at all. Childhood deficiency, you could say?
So this year, I’m correcting that issue. I started my Studio Ghibli marathon with one of the classics, which happens to be the highest-grossing film in Japan to date: Spirited Away.
A young girl named Chihiro travels with her parents to a new neighborhood, where she’s unhappy to be when she’s leaving behind all her friends. However, a detour to a mysterious theme park leaves her parents turned into pigs, and the theme park is revealed to be a bathhouse for the spirit world. Chihiro is forced into service at the bathhouse, so that its owner Yubaba will free her parents. She even gives up her name, becoming “Sen,” and befriending other spirits like Lin and Haku. Her exploits at the bathhouse turn the status quo on its head, as Sen tries to adapt to her new world and reclaim her identity in the old one.
Our protagonist Chihiro is a young girl who, to her credit, reacts very believably to all the weirdness happening around her. She misses her parents, she feels overwhelmed, and she’s surprised at every strange denizen of the bathhouse she meets. But her determination is inspiring, and I liked seeing her friendship with her coworker Lin develop.
The pacing of the film is fascinating in and of itself. The first 5 to 10 minutes are excellent at building up the atmosphere of the film, not to mention dropping hints about what’s to come in the Spirit World. I’ll admit that I did spend a few of those minutes questioning why Chihiro’s dad would be so quick to explore a strange set of fake ruins when his family’s new home is just over the next hill (I mean, do you have a death wish?). After the 10-minute mark, the energy of the movie picks up like crazy, and it’s easy to get lost in the splendor of the surreal animation.
The spirits are all well-designed and quite logical when you consider their own quirky rules and beliefs. I wasn’t entirely sure at times where some of the more human-looking staffers like Lin fit in, but I appreciated the diversity they added to the lineup of frogs and other wacky spirits. Yubaba the witch certainly takes the cake in her facial and flying animations, and No-Face goes through some wonderful eerie poses and transformations, too.
Honestly, No-Face sold this movie for me (the page image should have made that obvious). Everything from his first appearance to his monstrous changes to his secret pleasant side kept me captivated. All the stuff about Haku, the power of love, and feuding magical sisters was good for the overall story, but just seeing that spirit and how he connected with Sen was icing on the cake.
I can see now why Spirited Away has such a widespread appeal, both in Japan and across international markets. It has plenty of adventure, comedy, horror, romance, and magic, almost infused frame by frame. The style is enchanting to the eye, and the story has a little something for everyone.
The English dub of Spirited Away is available through Disney Movies.
Bibliography: Spirited Away (English dub). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger. Studio Ghibli. Walt Disney Company (US distributor). Original release date: July 20, 2001.