One of Studio Ghibli’s most popular creations, the 2001 fantasy film Spirited Away needs little introduction. Opening in modern Japan, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents are quickly transported into a fantasy world of magic and intrigue. With the help of Haku, a young boy with the ability transform into a dragon, and Lin, a bathhouse worker, Chihiro attempts to save her parents from the hold of the bathhouse witch Yubaba.
The film was the twelfth feature to be released by the Japanese studio, founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985, and has since gone on to both critical and commercial success – taking over $270 million worldwide and picking up the 2003 Academy award for Best Motion Picture. The international success of the film is hardly surprising with Miyazaki finding a winning formula in earlier works, such as the 1997 film Princess Mononoke; however, the particular blend of Shinto infused mythology and magical realism in Spirited Away is especially effective.
The epic sweep of Princess Mononoke is stripped away and far more simplistic scenario replaces. In removing the more complex socio-political context that imbues the earlier success, Miyazaki weaves a childlike narrative in which the free reign of imagination is given primacy. It would be misleading to describe the film as being for children, but Miyazaki’s focus on an uneroticised, pre-pubescent world returns the view to a stage of innocence in which the magical happenings can go unquestioned.
Whilst the film achieves a number of things, it is the way in which it compels a re-examination of the world around us that is most startling. Indeed, after immersing oneself for two hours in Chihiro’s world, we, like the protagonist, return to our own existence refreshed. The ability to re-enliven our own vision of the world around us is where the true power of this film lies.
Themes of excess and greed, which are played out in the bathhouse and through the antagonist Yubaba, form a backdrop to the work; and whilst it is clearly something that the film condemns, there is never a point at which the viewer feels cinematic condescension. Like Chihiro, we wander through this world unaware of its complex working, with only a peripheral vision of the enormity of Miyazaki’s project. The fact that the original plot would have stretched to over three hours of film, before choice cuts were made, is indicative of the expansive nature of the work.
It would be amiss in discussing this masterpiece of cinema to ignore the aesthetic beauty itself; the artwork that forms the visual construct of the film is second to none. It is the attention to detail that constantly surprises, and one can re-watch the film endlessly simply for the splendour of the imagery. By combining computer animation software with traditional techniques, the studio animators were able to enhance the visual effect of the work without overpowering it. Indeed, the insistence on hand-drawing the characters maintains an essential simplicity that could be lost using technology.
Miyazaki’s stated aim for the film was to place ordinary people back into a world of surprise: ‘It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.’ This, and more, is achieved in Spirited Away, which remains not only one of the seminal films in the genre but in all cinema.
W. J. Humphries