By Sam Giddings
What can I say about Spirited Away that hasn’t already been said? It won the Oscar for “Best Animated Feature Film” in 2003; that probably sums it up nicely. It’s an animation of sublime detail, vivid characters, and genuine warmth. With Spirited Away, Miyazaki crystallised his place as one of the most brilliant animators of all time – arguably even one of the greatest directors of all time.
Spirited Away is a simple tale told with beautiful complexity, an absorbing mix of the familiar and the alien. After exploring an abandoned theme park with her parents, ten-year-old Chihiro finds an enormous buffet. As her parents tuck in to this decadent feast, Chihiro continues her exploration of the eerie site. Night falls, and Chihiro returns to find her parents have now turned to pigs, in a deliciously spiteful nod to the closing stages of Pinocchio. As a nearby derelict bath-house springs to life, Chihiro finds herself trapped in a fantastical world of bizarre creatures and spirits set around this aquatic hub, trying to restore her parents to human form. Her parents’ gluttony always remains the underlying motivation for all that befalls Chihiro, but the film transcends this simple beginning to touch on aspects of self and identity, of home and of responsibility, and of wonder.
Perhaps it is this wonder that is the single most astounding facet of Miyazaki’s most critically and commercially successful film. Chihiro soon loses her name, starting to forget who she is and why she is staying in this world of talking frogs, spirits called No-Face, and spider-limbed boiler attendants. Chihiro is given the new name “Sen” by her peers, and manages to secure herself a job in the bath house so that she can stay, avoiding detection by the evil with Yubaba who holds dominion over it. Sen tackles her new responsibilities with the straightforward acceptance only children possess, and it is through her eyes that we, the audience, truly appreciate the magical brilliance of the bath-house and its world. It is almost a curious inversion, her stoic approach conflicting with our own continuing surprise as the unfamiliar spirit world is revealed to us. Sen acts as a raw, unpolished prism, her unassuming innocence gently luring us into the perfect oddness of Spirited Away.
Written down, this sounds like a ridiculous sequence of events, but rest assured – woven together in Miyazaki’s deft hands, every action and consequence obeys a curious logic. Never does Sen’s new world feel over-elaborate, or explanations far-fetched – Sen’s adventures consistently delight with their rich layers of imagination and persistent subtlety.
In many ways, Spirited Away is a culmination of all that Miyazaki has created before. The heart of My Neighbour Totoro mingles with the epic scope of Princess Mononoke to create a perfect, singular episode of cinema. It is more focused than Princess Mononoke, more ambitious than Totoro, and daring in ways that most conventional films are not. The appeal of Spirited Away is truly familial, with plenty of beautiful moments for both parents and children alike. I cannot recommend it enough if you haven’t seen it, and if you have, well – perhaps this retrospective is reason enough to dig it out again.
Next week John O’Connell takes a look back at ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’