Chihiro and her parents, on their way to their new home in the country, get a little lost and end up discovering a mysterious tunnel. This tunnel seems to lead to an old Japanese village. But this isn’t any ordinary village – it also leads to a renowned bathhouse for magical spirits who aren’t too keen on humans stumbling across their turf. When Chihiro’s parents fall under a spell that turns them into pigs, Chihiro finds herself having to work for board at the bathhouse, run by a greedy old witch named Yubaba. In order to sign her working contract, Yubaba steals Chihiro’s name (there’s a lot of power within a name) and renames her Sen. With the help of some of her otherworldly colleagues, including a mysterious young man named Haku, Chihiro must find a way to undo the spell on her parents and make her way back to the human world before she loses her true identity forever.
I have to admit, I have watched Spirited Away a handful of times since its release in the UK over a decade ago. It’s almost a film that I can’t accurately describe. When watching it, I almost forget that it is animated. Even though 90% of the characters are spirits everything just seemed so realistic. Classic Miyazuki influence at work here, blending imagination and down-to-earth fantasy to bring forth an element of story-like surrealism that makes it an instant classic.
Unlike it’s predecessor, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away is less message-heavy and imagery-laden. Instead it focuses on taking the viewer through a weird and wonderful journey through a world of Japanese folklore. In turns comedic, whimsical and frightening, we see this world through the eyes of a child that is alone and far from everything they know. We are introduced to a crazy cast of characters, including Kamaji the half-spider half-man in charge of the boiler room, the oversized frog floor manager, the creepily silent No Face and some large, white radish spirit things that take up a lot of space in elevators.
From very early on in the film you realise that the environment is a big theme throughout this film. The monsters are horrified at seeing Chihiro and say that she is vile and smells terrible. They all then find it very amusing when Chihiro is tasked with washing down a giant spirit in the bathhouse, cleansing it of all the modern world pollution covering it that is causing it so much pain. We also see many of the characters undergoing personal transformations in very believable and convincing ways – in particular Chihiro and her attitude to others. Though it makes many references to folklore and legends they are only cameos, as Spirited Away is very much its own film – a fun one that distracts and entertains whilst teaching and captivating. As to be expected from Studio Ghibli, the animation and music are again top-notch. The animation comes across as almost ethereal at times, putting the very realistic-looking Chihiro against a very surreal background and somehow getting it all to gel together seamlessly. It is by no means a Disney film in any sense of the phrase. This is something else that I struggle to describe. There is so much going on in this film, but it moves at a pace that lets you absorb and enjoy before continuing on. It’s not in-your-face. You can look as deep into it as you want, or just enjoy it as a great film.
Giving these reasons along can make people see why this is one of Ghibli’s most successful films, and why it was so well-received by such a large audience nationally. In my opinion, you don’t have to watch anime in order to enjoy this film – it’s a feel-good with lots of twists and turns and a happy ending. It’s so surreal it makes you want to dive deep into this world and immerse yourself in order to try and make sense of it all.Even though it is steeped in Japanese history and myth, you don’t need to know a single thing about them to fully enjoy the ride. And each time you watch it you see something different. Trust me – I know from experience.