The Sunday Review: Spirited Away

Sunday 20 August (2006)

spirited away

I remember when Spirited Away first became noticed in the West, and everyone started going mental about it. “Why, it’s truly magical!”, “One of the best animated movies I’ve ever seen!” etc. I didn’t buy it. Who the hell were these people to suddenly decide that this was some incredible feat of Japanimation just because Disney had taken hold of it to dub it over with English language and then told them it was so good? I’d never watched a Japanese animated movie before, and this one wasn’t going to suddenly make me – and I was firm in my belief that this was probably not even in the top ten Japanese animes really, just that it had been fortunate enough to be embraced by the West. So, I didn’t watch it.

Of course it has been established numerous times on this site that I am an idiot. With nothing to do a few weeks ago and a whole host of DVDs available, I decided to give Spirited Away a go. And I loved it.

The story is at once complex and straightforward, and this is a movie of many depths. At its simplest, Spirited Away is about a little girl called Chihiro – her family are moving house to a new town, and she is sad to be moving, and afraid of starting a new life. However, on the journey to the new house the family get lost and find themselves in what they presume to be an abandoned theme park. Here, Chihiro’s parents gorge themselves on food which they find in an empty restaurant, whilst Chihiro explores the place further. As she does so she realises that in the centre of the ‘theme park’ there is a working bath house. She meets a boy called Haku, who tells her she has to leave immediately – so she returns to her parents, who have now been turned into pigs. This is only the beginning of the adventure for Chihiro, as we find out that the ‘theme park’ is actually a realm of the spirits, and the bath house is where they come to relax. In order to survive in this strange new world, Chihiro is forced to get a job in the bath house, which is operated by a bizarre witch named Yubaba.

This spirit realm is as imaginative and exciting as you would expect it to be, and the audience discover it through Chihiro (now renamed Sen by Yubaba; the name-taking a spell which prevents her from escaping back to the real world) as she works in the bath house. She meets several characters on her journey – the boilerman, who operates the furnace in the basement with multiple limbs which extend and retract at will, giving him the appearance of a spider; Lin, another young girl who acts as an older-sister figure for Chihiro; and Haku, the boy who helped her when she first arrived, and who has secrets of his own.

I won’t describe the story any further, partly because no words can really do it justice, and partly because you really have to see it for yourself. The animation is simply breathtaking, and I’d advise you watch a dubbed version (and the director, Miyazaki, is of the same opinion here) just so that you can enjoy the artwork without having to look away to read the dialogue. I don’t know if the imagery and themes covered in this film are products of Miyazaki’s mind or part of Japanese tradition, but it truly is unlike anything ever filmed by a Western director. This, obviously, makes it remarkably original to someone like me, who constantly moans that I’ve ‘seen this before, and done better.’

I think the core idea of this film is to do with growing up, and the fear of change. Over the course of the movie, Chihiro is forced to get a job and work for a living, and to adapt to a strange new world. That she succeeds so admirabily is due to her attitude and generosity – she rarely thinks of herself, instead choosing to help others. Like the characters around her, the audience warm to Chihiro, and truly want her to find a way to save her parents and return to the real world. As such, the power this film has to captivate you; suck you in and really believe in it, makes it one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen.

Not just a classic of animation, but a classic for all time – Spirited Away is a stunning masterpiece.

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One Response to “The Sunday Review: Spirited Away”

  1. Cara Russell Says:

    I am really glad you gave it a chance!!


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