Spirited Away (2001)

Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The wonder of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films are often the marvelous, incredible, astounding worlds in which the stories take place in these films. None is perhaps more famous than the world constructed for Spirited Away, the only Studio Ghibli feature to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. What is even more impressive is the breadth of imagination from the master, as he crafts distinctly different worlds with distinctly different elements for each subsequent film. Miyazaki is uncompromising in his vision, which some may be unsettled by at first, as I was, but which proves to be a very strong attribute for the director of animated films such as these. Miyazaki’s style is that of immersion into the worlds, as opposed to overly long winded setup to settle the viewer into his unique, often very strange worlds.

Spirited Away may be his strangest world yet, creating a place for a large variety of spirits to dwell and take in a hot bath. Chihiro is a little girl whose family is moving, making her fearful of the new adventure in a new neighborhood and new school. But when her family gets lost on their way to their new house, they encounter a mysterious, abandoned place where Chihiro gets swept away into a bath house run by the mean Yubaba, who steals Chihiro’s name, calling her Sen instead. Sen must trust Yubaba’s assistant, Haku in order to make it back to her family, but the strange and unsettling world in which she has found herself may make that task harder than she imagines.

I’ve seen Spirited Away three separate times now, and I believe each viewing has offered something very different. The first I was not yet acclimated with Miyazaki, and therefore the strangeness and darkness of the film turned me away from it. It is very dark and strange indeed, and even with this, my third viewing, I found many of the elements to just be weird, which is likely something I will always struggle to overcome. However, in my second viewing I knew of this strangeness and was able to focus more on the story being told, while still being distracted by the grotesque creatures floating about the scenery, such as Yubaba’s giant, ugly head, or her oversized baby, or No Face’s unsettling and mysterious aura. My third viewing, however, I was able to see past this surface intrigue and get to the depth of the story itself.

This is not to say I can ignore the strange spirits, in fact Miyazaki doesn’t intend for me to. In fact, just the opposite, the spirits are an integral part of the story being told. But at the same time, Spirited Away is a simple parable about accepting the unknown and mysterious, and thriving in the new world. As Chihiro is scared about leaving her friends and old home and school, she must accept this new adventure for what it is, make new friends and thrive in her new school and home. I still don’t view Spirited Away as one of my favorite Ghibli films, but after seeing it for a third time, I can confidently appreciate the tremendous imagination and craft that has gone into it.

It is a bit of a wonder that Miyazaki is able to take some very repulsive and truly scary elements and place them into an animated feature and have them work as well as they do. For instance, the stink spirit scene is absolutely disgusting, but manages to work in some very satisfying, cathartic way in which it never should. No Face is an ambiguous figure who seems to be a friend to Chihiro, yet a monster and enemy in many other instances. Miyazaki balances this ambiguity, as he does with his entire world, on very thin ice, but manages to have everything come together in the end, surprising me with his vision and confidence of imagination. Spirited Away is a film which has much more depth beneath it’s surprising surface which, when dissected and explored in a little more detail, should prove to offer more and more with each viewing.

***1/2 – Great

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