SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
During her family's move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.
There are few animators or directors with a filmography like Hayao Miyazaki. From his feature-length debut The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to the sweeping epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he’s created a string of animations that are exhilarating and technically brilliant. After completing his epic fantasy Princess Mononoke (1997), the acclaimed director announced his retirement from filmmaking. However, several years later Miyazaki returned to begin production on Studio Ghibli’s universally acclaimed Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi / Spirited Away. Released in 2001, Spirited Away was a critical darling and became the first recipient of the Academy Award for ‘Best Animated Feature’. Eventually grossing over $395M at the worldwide box office, it became the most successful film in Japanese history. A claim it could make until only recently, before the release of Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2020). Regardless, Spirited Away remains a unique and surrealistic fantasy that represents anime at its finest.
Spirited Away begins with the 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi / Daveigh Chase) and her family moving to their new house. While driving there, her father (Takashi Naito / Michael Chiklis) takes a wrong turn and the family finds an uninhabited village. There they discover a seemingly abandoned amusement park, where her father smells the aroma of delectable food. As her parents indulge their ravenous appetite, Chihiro explores the desolate area and meets a mysterious boy called Haku (Miyu Irino / Jason Marsden). The friendly child warns Chihiro that she must leave the area before it gets dark, but his words come too late and her parents are transformed into pigs. Trapped in a mystical world with no feasible escape, Chihiro is forced to work at a Bathhouse run by the evil sorceress Yubaba (Mari Natsuki / Suzanne Pleshette), who is perfectly happy to enslave Chihiro and her parents forever. So while placed under a spell by Yubaba, Chihiro must save her parents and escape back to the real world.
After Disney acquired the distribution rights for Miyazaki’s oeuvre in the late-1990s, the first Studio Ghibli film released under their partnership was Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The next feature was going to be Castle in the Sky (1999), but it was cancelled following Princess Mononoke’s unsuccessful box office run. Unlike Princess Mononoke, Pixar CEO John Lesseter helmed the distribution and English adaptation efforts of Spirited Away. Dissatisfied with how Miramax’s marketed Princess Mononoke, he felt Miyazaki’s work deserved better attention. Working closely with Ghibli, Lesseter ensured further releases would be meticulously restored and re-recorded with a renowned cast of English-speaking actors at Disney Studios. The general consensus amongst Ghibli enthusiasts is that the original Japanese versions are superior to the English dubs, as many fans expressed their dislike of the vocal choices and occasional additional dialogue. Admittedly, one would usually argue it’s a disservice to the filmmaker to watch the English version instead of the Japanese original, but screenwriters Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt do an incredible job transcribing such a complicated Japanese tale. While under Lesseter’s supervision, they successfully translate Miyazaki’s original screenplay and made it more accessible to western audiences.
Although it lacks the star power of Anne Hathaway (The Cat Returns) and Christian Bale (Howl’s Moving Castle), there’s no denying that Spirited Away’s English track is fantastic. Voice director Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) deserves immense praise for staying faithful to the Japanese original. Stepping off the set of Lilo and Stitch (2002), Daveigh Chase delivers a wonderful performance as the young Chihiro. Admittedly, the character’s whiny tone initially sounds like nails on a chalkboard when we first meet her. However, Chase’s vocals mature in tone reflecting Chihiro’s development as the story progresses. The actress does an incredible job portraying her character’s fragility, imbuing her with a heartwarming sense of bewilderment. Additionally, Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds) shines as Yubaba and her twin sister Zaniba. Yubaba is a greedy enchantress obsessed with money, while Zeniba employs her wisdom to help everyone discover their true identities. The actress defines their personalities perfectly and delivers her lines superbly. Pleshette imbues the right amount of nefariousness to Yubaba that instantly echoes her performance in The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998). Whereas Zeniba’s caring nature evokes similarities to Jean Simmons’ (Guys and Dolls) Grandma Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
The meticulously detailed and beautifully envisioned world that Miyazaki brings to the screen will forever remain the most appealing aspect of his features. The filmmaker’s previous works all have their own unique characters and showcase different strengths to his imagination. However, Spirited Away is arguably Miyazaki’s most creative piece of storytelling. Drawing upon Japanese Shinto-Buddhist folklore and mythology, there’s an endless array of fascinating characters to discover. Within this imaginary world, magnificent dragons soar above the abandoned amusement part where ghostly deities rest from their otherworldly duties. In particular, Yubaba’s bathhouse is populated by a plethora of breathtakingly strange characters. The tiny Soot Sprite creatures from My Neighbour Totoro (1998) toil away feeding coal into the furnace before eating colourful stars, while hallways are crowded with anthropomorphic animals and mighty walruses with rice bowls on their heads. Perhaps the most recognisable figure is the ambiguous semi-transparent spirit known as ‘No-Face’. This spectral entity wears a white mask over its ghostly shroud and absorbs the personalities of others. Confirming Miyazaki’s incredible visual imagination, each fantastical denizen inhabiting the magical world overflows with intrigue and creativity.
Surpassing the quality of the fantastic Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away features some staggeringly beautiful imagery. Released during a time when CGI animation was becoming the industry standard, Miyazaki demonstrates just how compelling traditional hand-drawn animation can be. Although the animator permitted the use of computers to enhance traditional elements, he personally drew thousands of frames by hand. During an interview he said, “we take handmade cell animation and digitalise it in order to enrich the visual look, but everything starts with the human hand drawing.” Knowing that each individual scene has been handcrafted, one can’t help but appreciate the art Miyazaki and the animators have created. The beautiful backgrounds of the bathhouse are lavished with exquisite marble, burnished gold, and lapis lazuli accents. Whereas the Buddhist pagodas and ancient teahouses delicately glow from the red glimmer of Japanese lanterns. Admittedly, animation purists may argue the action sequences lack the fluidity of Disney classics including Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). However, it’s evidently clear that Miyazaki’s fully realised fantasy world has been created with loving detail.
The most breathtaking element of Miyazaki’s trademark animation is the phenomenal attention to detail. Spirited Away is the most detailed and visually appealing production from Ghibli. The perfect nuances of expressions, body movements, and interaction between characters and the settings are impeccable throughout. One particular sequence features Chihiro crossing a bridge and making her way to the magical bathhouse, and many of the bathhouse’s occupants can be seen watching from their windows and balconies from a distance. The entire area is teeming with life and immediately holds one’s attention. Most animated features would distinguish these characters as vaguely moving presences, but Miyazaki animates each character with such unique motion and recognisable features that their presence lights up the screen. Admirably, the filmmaker and his colleagues care enough to lavish as much energy on the less significant areas, creating a world that fully extends beyond the animated pages.
While overflowing with imagination, Spirited Away not only succeeds as a compelling fantasy but also as a deeply emotional drama. Similar to Lewis Carol’s Alice In Wonderland story, Chihiro’s adventure is a heartwarming sentiment about self-discovery and moral principles. The filmmaker stated “I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathise. 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”. Unlike previous Ghibli protagonists including Princess Nausicaa and Kiki, the young Chihiro is obnoxious, irritating, and even cowardly. However, we begin to emphasise with the frightened protagonist once her parents are transformed into pigs. Separated from her parents and trapped in an otherworldly realm, Chihiro’s journey is both literal and metaphorical for finding her own identity. When Yubaba allows her to work at the bathhouse, the proprietress steals her name and begins calling her Sen (the Japanese word for one thousand). Haku warns her that unless she remembers her name and self-worth she will be trapped forever. As Chihiro meets spirits symbolising human values and greedy faceless specters, she finally finds acceptance of herself.
A reoccurring theme throughout Miyazaki’s works is his stance on environmentalism and the destructive nature of capitalism. Princess Mononoke depicted the confrontation between nature and humans, and Howl’s Moving Castle illustrated the social implications of war. Standing as a spiritual sibling to Isao Taskahata’s Pom Poko (1994), Spirited Away criticises a materialistic Japanese society and environmental pollution. Miyazaki expressed his environmental concerns stating “nature, the mountains and rivers were destroyed in the name of economic progress.” The filmmaker’s critique of Japanese culture begins when Chihiro’s parents encounter a shop filled with excessive amounts of food. After noticing there’s no owner in the restaurant, they devour several plates of food. As Chihiro protests, her father says “don’t worry, you’ve got Daddy here. He’s got credit cards and cash”. Arrogantly believing money can solve any situation they eventually lose sight of morality. Perhaps the most important scene occurs when the putrid ‘Stink Spirit’ visits the bathhouse. As Chihiro cleanses the monster, it’s revealed the grotesque creature is the result of years of pollution caused by humans. It’s a wonderfully designed sequence and was inspired by Miyazaki’s own experience cleaning a river. Echoing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the filmmaker’s ecological message reminds us that the relationship between people and their environment is as important as those between humans.
The characters are large and the attention to detail is microscopic, but Miyazaki’s storytelling is as lucid as the freshwater running beneath the bathhouse. Many of Ghibli’s works contain a specific depth and complexity often vacant in American animation. Similar to My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away embraces the spatial concept of ‘Ma’, the Japanese notion of a spatiotemporal emptiness. Instead of overwhelming the audience with constant action sequences, Miyazaki creates tiny nuances that serve no narrative purpose. A gentle breeze blowing leaves across ancient rocks or a lingering shot of a character gazing into a stream. As the filmmaker highlights “if you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension”. A beautiful sequence that exemplifies this occurs during the infamous train ride across an endless ocean. Chihiro quietly sits beside No Face amongst faceless commuters journeying into the afterlife. It’s almost silent as she travels further and further away from the chaotic bathhouse. While other animated pictures fill the space to hold the audience’s attention, Miyazaki consciously avoids sensory bombardment. These moments of contemplation are important for Chihiro’s growth, but also connect the world of Spirited Away to ours.
Rich with Japanese mythology and culture, Spirited Away is an absolutely magnificent animation from Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a compelling and heartwarming fairytale that will have its audiences entranced throughout its 120-minute runtime. Replete with memorable characters and astounding visuals, Miyazaki effortlessly creates a complex and beautifully realised fantasy world without needless explanation. Admittedly, Chihiro and Haku’s relationship feels slightly undernourished and the final act proceeds into an unconvincing rush. However, Spirited Away remains a magical film within a world that one is reluctant to say goodbye after the credits.
JAPAN | 2001 | 124 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE • ENGLISH (DUB)
Following the release of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s wonderful to see StudioCanal release another Studio Ghibli Anniversary Edition. Presented with the original aspect ratio of 1:85:1, Spirited Away showcases a beautiful 1080p transfer on Blu-ray. The colour platter is gorgeous, awash with vibrant primaries, inky blacks, and rich contrast. Detailing is also phenomenal, the animator’s line art is naturally defined and each brushstroke is unblemished. The combination of CGI and traditional animation is married together seamlessly. A perfect example of this is the wonderful rendering of each character as they move around in interesting ways. There’s a hint of grain occasionally, most noticeably around the silver lettering on Zeniba’s house. However, it’s negligible and never affects the quality of the animation. Much like Miyazaki’s many other works, the beautiful HD transfer is like witnessing a painting come to life.
Both the original Japanese version and English dub receive a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio surround sound track. After listening to both audio options, despite the language, there’s not much difference between the two. However, the question is whether to watch the feature in Japanese or English. The Japanese version is the authentic Ghibli experience, whereas the English track allows an English-speaker’s eyes to explore Miyazaki’s gorgeous environments more. Regardless, both tracks are clear and precise with no technical issues noticeable. The subwoofer is well utilised, creating mighty rumbles as characters stomp around the bathhouse. The rear channels capture subtle atmospherics including buzzing bees and chirping birds with clarity. Whereas the gentle wind and rainfall create a truly immersive atmosphere spreading from the front to rear speakers. The most noticeable feature is the brilliant musical score from Joe Hisaishi (Castle in the Sky). A regular in the Ghibli universe, his beautifully melancholic score sweeps the soundstage.
writer & director: Hayao Miyazaki
voices: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Yumi Tamai, Bunta Sugawara (Japanese) • Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Susa Egan & David Odgen Stiers (USA English).