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Chihiro, a ten-year old girl, travelling to a new home, finds herself lost in a strange world of spirits and creatures. Confused and afraid, she must find her parents, make some friends, and learn to grow as a person in order to save those she loves and find a way home.
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To regard this as a review is frankly not true. It’s rather a chance for my squealing fan-boy subconscious to ramble on and on about how much I love this movie. But, I will try not to sound too idiotic in my praising of literally every aspect that this film presents to its audience. To do this in ten paragraphs is painful for me. Excruciatingly painful.
Spirited Away is not the beginning of Miyazaki’s mastery of animation, but it is arguably the one that put anime on the map in the western world. Pixar’s most talented artists cite Miyazaki as the true guru of animation themselves. The angelic chorus of critical praise for this film positions it and Miyazaki in the golden reel, if you will, of cinematic masterpieces.
The story follows young Chihiro, like any child stubborn over a big move, as her parents take an unexpected detour into an interesting abandoned theme park. Before long her parents and distracted by some scrumptious and sizeable food, and her curious nature brings her to the first of Miyazaki’s wonderful pieces of art direction. The bathhouse that stands before Chihiro emanates an eerie but spectacular feeling of mystery. The creepy wind all the more sets the mood.
All of these first sequences impress the senses more than needed. The ears are soothed with an endless symphony of expert orchestration from Miyazaki’s soundtrack go-to guy, Joe Hisaishi (he was worked with Miyazaki on many of his films). Apart from the amazing soundtrack, there is the amazing art. It’s a plethora of pictures, a visual feast for the eyes, and all around that is the profound feeling you get from seeing hand-drawn characters move so fluidly. Miyazaki’s animation team has created a vast array of colourful and interesting characters. From six-armed, poufy moustached boiler operators to bouncing green bearded heads, Miyazaki’s envisioning of this breathtaking world is what keeps the eyes wanting more. This film is what animation is meant to be: a resort for the senses, where manicures come in the form of incredible visuals and audio.
Chihiro soon discovers that the place she has stumbled upon is more than an abandoned theme park. While her parents are busy gorging themselves, she finds herself lost in this growingly strange place. Black, transparent figures start appearing in restaurants and when Chihiro finally spots her parents, they have become gigantic pigs. Understandably terrified, she runs for her life, only to cower by the riverbed in hopes that someone will save her. With no time to waste, a young boy, Haku, gives her specific instructions to head out of sight and hide in the boiler room, where she can get a job and stay under cover. Haku is called off as quickly as he came, and a still terrified Chihiro must face fear by herself and traverse this daunting new world.
Now when reading the back of the DVD or the Wikipedia article (careful though, don’t spoil the good parts), one does not, or at least should not, have trouble figuring out what kind of story this is. It’s not a reflection of the mindset of Japan’s government at the time, or a genre-defying minimalist art film. Miyazaki just wanted to make a film where kids can enjoy it; a simple tale, and an easy to understand plot. He inadvertently (or maybe it was his plan all along) created something which all ages could admire. In no way is this film’s meaning difficult to understand, or is it a new kind of story. What the people saw in this movie was wholesome and honest storytelling. All this film was, in its entire marvel, was a story to be told. How it was told, however, is what makes this film so incredibly great. How it was told was Miyazaki’s technique; a technique that can’t be duplicated.
Grasping the simplicity of the story, we can only look forward to Chihiro’s triumphs and cheer her on the whole way though. After meeting the many-armed boiler man, the sisterly servant, and some trusty enchanted soot-balls, Chihiro once again finds herself in a strange new world. In here, it is the world of greed and selfishness, where spirits get time for themselves and the bathhouse thrives on business and business alone. And who better to run this business than the powerful sorceress, Yubaba. An old, wrinkly, big headed coot controls Chihiro’s childhood in the form of her name, which she magically binds to a contract, preventing her from leaving the confines of the bathhouse and returning home. Luckily, trusty Haku has other plans, because like the audience, as I am sure of now, is empathizing with her. Reassuring of her safety, Haku, mysterious as he is, promises her safe return to the human world. Chihiro must earn her spot as a bathhouse servant and endure the demands of Yubaba to keep her hopes up in order to save her parents.
Having made plenty of friends along the way, including Kamajii, the six-armed boiler man and the sister-like servant named Lin, she adapts to this new life in the bathhouse. She cleans especially filthy spirits and meets a peculiar creature, aptly named No Face, on account of the strange mask the black, transparent figure dons. Meanwhile, Haku, who happens to be Yubaba’s henchman, is spotted in (a particularly awesome) dragon form, flailing about in the sky fighting with enchanted paper birds. Chihiro now sure of her previous suspicions, takes her newfound qualities from her extended stay and bravely calls out to Haku in order to help. Haku crashes into the bathhouse, beaten and bloody, with Chihiro by his side. Now the tables have turned, and it is the saviour that needs saving. What better way for Chihiro to test her might then saving those she loves and proving herself to a stubborn Yubaba, a gravely injured Haku, and the snorting pigs of her parents?
Since I don’t have the heart to spoil anymore, only watching the movie will quell any bursting urges to discover the fate of Chihiro and all she has worked for. Trust me; the whole second act is a roller-coaster ride of emotions, thrills, lively characters and changes in setting. Not even half of the characters have been revealed here, but I assure that all of them are of the treasure that is Miyazaki’s imagination. Talking frogs, mentally unstable masked black spirits, radish spirits, water spirits, humongous babies, sentient hopping lamps; the list goes on. What is so amazing is that every one of these creatures, their designs and their interactions with characters, will induce a reaction from the audience. I laughed, I gasped, I chuckled, and I remember crying during one viewing. Everything about this movie reels you in and holds you until you’ve experienced all the emotions this roller coaster throws at you. It’s not an immense spiralling, terrifying roller coaster, or a one-drop two hundred-footer to leave you screaming your lungs out. It’s one that leaves you satisfied; you’ve been thrilled, touched, inspired and amazed, all in one.
To consciously refuse viewing this film, from whatever preconceived notion that anime is childish, or exclusive, or foreign, is a punch in the nuts to all cinema has to offer. It also warrants a personal visit from me, with the DVD in my hand and some duct tape. This is how much I feel this film should be known. It is, and will always be, a classic film. And it should be shared with the world. Tell some friends about a film that’ll cheer them up. Tell them about a film that shouldn’t be missed, one that is a great find, and one that you don’t see often anymore. While we wait for the next Miyazaki masterpiece, we can all do with a little time spent spirited away by this gem of a cinematic experience.