Spirited Away is another absolutely wonderful animated feature from Studio Ghibli and writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. Perfect for the whole family, this atmospheric and beautifully crafted fantasy realm is richly endowed with stunning visuals, inspired imagination, relevant themes and a consistent mystery at the heart of the story. Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards and tied with Bloody Sunday for the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.
Pixar director John Lasseter (Toy Story and Toy Story 2), an admirer of Miyazaki, was approached by Walt Disney Pictures to supervise an English-language translation for the film's North American release (which wasn't until September 2002, following its release in Japan in 2001). Spirited Away became the most successful film in Japanese history, grossing over $274 Million worldwide. It is one of the most magical family feature films I have ever seen - and this recent viewing is only my second one - and one I would most certainly have enjoyed immensely if I had seen it back in 2002.
Spirited Away follows the story of Chihiro, a spoilt and sullen 10-year-old girl who is moving to a new neighbourhood with her parents. After attempting a shortcut, they find themselves lost and discover what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro's mother and father decide to explore the park, with the frightened Chihiro reluctantly following. Leaving her parents, who suddenly decide to start devouring the food from one of the stalls, Chihiro spots a functioning bathhouse on the other side of a bridge. When she approaches, a young boy insists that she must leave before nightfall. She hastily returns to the stall to find that her parents are not only still eating, but have been transformed into pigs. Chihiro discovers that the park has developed otherworldly characteristics, has become surrounded by water and mysterious creatures and spirits have begun to appear.
The boy, whom she runs into again, reveals that his name is Haku. Smuggling Chihiro into the bathhouse via a multi-limbed boiler man and he instructs her to find a job, so that she can safely remain within the realm and buy herself the time to recover her parents and escape. As she becomes acquainted with the world, Yubaba, the elderly witch who holds a tyrannical rule over the bathhouse, gives her a job. As she plans to rescue her parents, Chihiro faces increasingly perilous obstacles - ridding the bathhouse of a stink spirit in one of the most memorable set pieces - but is aided by the friends she has picked up along the way, and a spirit known as 'No Face' who accompanies her through the later stages of her journey.
In a very evident transition from childhood to maturity, Chihiro discovers the courage she never knew she had, enabling her to not only survive in the realm, but successfully managing to help those who need it. As a spoilt child forced into a fantastic world, Chihiro becomes completely separated from everything she has known, and must find her way back to reality. In her attempt to regain herself (the spell on her name means she can barely remember it, instead adopting 'Sen' as her name), Chihiro must forge a new identity and come of age.
The realm is beautifully built and a wonderful expression of Miyazaki's rich imagination. Full of ghosts and spirits, mysterious creatures and personified animals, there sure is plenty to marvel at. You get the sense that it is loosely based on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, though purely as a respectfully tweaked inspiration. The animation is amongst the most impressive of Miyazaki's career, and the extreme detail assigned to the world, and especially the extraordinary bathhouse and all of its layers of activity, is absolutely incredible.
There is a great pace to the story, with engaging action commencing almost immediately. The story settles down within the walls of the bathhouse, but because Chihiro is an outsider, and because we follow her every step of the way, it never ceases to be intriguing. The balance between the film's critical societal commentary, its magic and its downright bizarre elements, is perfect. While I initially thought it was a little bit too long - I had no such qualms on my recent repeat viewing.
The accompanying score by Joe Hisaishi is superb, as always. Chihiro's initial realisation that she was entrapped in this fantasy realm is punctuated by this energetic, somewhat haunting, melody. While the stunning visuals and intriguing protagonist have you drawn to the film almost immediately, this sequence ensures you are hooked. Spirited Away is magnificent; it is so easy to get completely lost in this world. With Pixar now dominating the world of animation, Ghibli and Miyazaki prove they still have the edge.