Animated movies have helped mediate the transcendence of film during the 21st century, with state-of-the-art computer-generated effects, pioneering texturing and a wealth of creative minds at its disposal. Despite this movement, leading animators such as Cartoon Saloon have retained an authentic approach to their craft, with sumptuous hand-drawn frames that maximise effect with abstract detail. Striking the balance between human and technological capability has proved difficult, with animators constantly flirting the line between generic computer-assisted animation and 2D hand-drawn antiquity. Of the few examples in history where this marriage has aligned synchronously and surreptitiously, none hold a candle to Studio Ghibli’s beguiling and extraordinary Spirited Away.
On its 20th anniversary, we look back on how Spirited Away established itself as a perennial landmark in animated culture. The brainchild of acclaimed director and animator Hayao Miyazaki, it represents a paradigm of the unusual and the unbelievable. A by-product of its universal influence means that it has provided a gateway for many Western viewers into the wacky world of Ghibli, and with it a peek into the unmatched standard of sketched animation. Spirited Away is indeed predominantly hand-drawn, but it embraces computer software to embellish and supplement graphics, without losing any of the customary Ghibli magic.
The story centres around Chihiro, a disillusioned and querulous 10-year-old girl. We begin with Chihiro and her family moving home, driving through rural Japan before taking a wrong turn. They inadvertently enter the world of Kami (Japanese spirits), where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs as punishment for their ravenous indulgence in the unattended local cuisine. The culprit responsible for this porcine metamorphosis is the local witch and proprietor of the nearby bathhouse, Yubaba. To prevent herself from disappearing, our protagonist is forced to seek employment with Yubaba and undertake thankless tasks within the confines of her grand spa. With the help of new friends and using her childish inquisition, Chihiro must find a way to liberate her parents before she becomes embroiled in the local warfare or eaten by one of the disturbed customers.
Although a bridge for intercontinental viewers, the Japanese wordplay will be lost on Western audiences, especially considering each character’s name shares a literal meaning. Chihiro loosely translates to ‘1000 questions’ or ‘1000 searches’, in reference to her habitual curiosity and inquiring nature. She is a poster child for Ghibli due to her enduring charm and precocious tendencies. It would be easy for her to become lost in the scale and grandeur of this new world, but she is impervious and grounded in her resolve. She is an inmate who never appears restricted by her confinement; an outsider who never appears to be perturbed by her ostracism. Chihiro’s liminal journey defines her as one of the greatest animated heroines, eclipsing princesses and warriors despite her unassuming stature.
Chihiro is forced to grow and mature beyond her years, yielding her childlike petulance which we see in early scenes. This is a topic which is resonant with viewers of every age and background; being forced to adapt and confront change in times of individual hardship. Although Chihiro thrives and succeeds as the personable heroine, her re-transfigured parents remain oblivious and ignorant to her trials. Awareness is central to this exquisite story, with the hope that children may become more conscious of their natural surroundings, searching for the hidden realms in all walks of life and finding purpose in the most unlikely places.
Spirited Away is visually breath-taking, with a selection of vibrant shots that have become ingrained in animated culture. Yubaba’s wrinkled and haggard face alone contains more detail than most animated movies made today and, juxtaposed against her opulent headquarters atop the bathhouse, it makes for an essential and striking viewing experience. Miyazaki and his elite team seamlessly blend traditional Japanese architecture with polychromatic neon lighting and a subtle steampunk aesthetic. The expertly crafted bathhouse plays as the capital city, a sterilising service station for the inhabitants of the spirit world. It is only when we branch out in the penultimate scene that the audience realises it is a microcosm of this universe, and that the forced claustrophobia of the previous act was intentional.
Watching Chihiro manoeuvre her phantasmagorical surroundings is both disconcerting and enthralling, with the regular introductions of unconventional characters keeping the audience stimulated. Indeed, it is the plethora of characters which Miyazaki uses to people his otherworldly plaza that define Spirited Away. From the arachnoid spirit Kamaji who supervises the boiler room to the enigmatic pseudo-villain No-Face, the invention and spectacle that Miyazaki subscribes to in the creation of his supernatural cast is sublime. The kooky ensemble elevates the hyper-realistic animation, resulting in one of the defining modern classics.
Miyazaki has mastered the art of subtle worldbuilding and Spirited Away is his most distinguished in that regard. Throughout his acclaimed filmography, there are very few place names and with that a deliberate sense of disorientation in his immersive settings. Spirits of all nature enter the central bathhouse, from realms and dimensions unknown to the viewer. It provides scope but tells us very little about the world around us. Miyazaki maintains intrigue through this tool and adjusts the pacing accordingly. One minute, Chihiro and her parents are driving erratically down a country lane, the next they are languidly strolling through an old station and subsequent green field; the entrance to the realm of Kami, unbeknownst to them. The audience is forced to view the new world around them without properly understanding it, representing one of the many reasons why Spirited Away is so spellbinding and irresistible.
Outstanding visuals and intriguing characters are integral to Ghibli’s tried and tested formula, but it is the additional elements of Spirited Away which elevates it above its contemporaries. Long-term collaborator and composer Joe Hisaishi returns to deliver his very best score. From the orchestral overture ‘One Summer’s Day’, which sets the tone succinctly, to ‘The Sixth Station’, an ethereal and understated climactic belter, the soundtrack is his most accomplished. It captures the dream-like sequences and accentuates Chihiro’s modest personality, driving the narrative with soothing reverence.
Typical of Miyazaki films, Spirited Away is rampant with playful nuances but doesn’t shy away from mature themes. A plagued river spirit enters the bathhouse for much needed maintenance and deep cleansing, with Chihiro helping to release the putrid waste which has infected it. This allegory for human corruption of natural surroundings is a theme which resonates throughout various other Miyazaki projects, including Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Although not as evident in Spirited Away, Miyazaki has potent anti-war messages dotted throughout his filmography, which in turn was central to his reason for boycotting the 2003 Oscars ceremony. Despite Spirited Away being nominated for best picture, he opted not to attend in a form of silent protest against the USA’s involvement in the Middle East.
Miyazaki’s pacifistic ideology may not be a central theme in Spirited Away, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a major focal point in his long and well-documented dispute with international conflict. In a way though, the battle and bitter rivalry between the Witch twins Yubaba and Zeniba, in which Chihiro remains wholly diplomatic and uninterested in the minutiae, may reflect Miyazaki’s inherent disillusionment. The witches’ squabble is never fully explained or focused on, and it affects everyone else far more directly than either of the responsible parties. Without detracting from the narrative, this subtle nod to the obsolete nature of war is part and parcel of the Miyazaki experience.
Chihiro’s necessary employment at the bathhouse leads to Yubaba stripping her of her name, and replacing it with Sen, which literally translates as ‘1000’. Chihiro and Sen are effectively different readings of the same character; a pseudonym which relegates her curiosity to the wayside. Additionally, it represents the myopic capitalist mindset which reduces everything to numbers and values. The shortcomings of consumerism are more vehemently displayed than any other prevalent theme. The transformation of Chihiro’s parents and the ascension of No-Face in the bathhouse are the result of rampant greed, creating didactic undertones to balance the idiosyncratic and eccentric plot.
Despite the thematic density, at its core Spirited Away is a universally accessible and rapturously enjoyable tale that provides people of all ages with 125 minutes of unadulterated escapism. With the animated world eagerly anticipating Miyazaki’s next film How Do You Live?, which he has come out of retirement to create, there is a distinct hope that the recent flop Earwig and the Witch doesn’t define Studio Ghibli going forward.
If the renowned studio can cultivate anything approaching the quality and staggering craftsmanship of Spirited Away, fans will surely lose their minds. Ghibli’s greatest film is a pioneer in the medium of animation and contains an abundance of ultramodern shots which could comfortably fill an art gallery. It explores Western consumerism, environmentalism, identity and Japanese folklore with a larger-than-life tale drawn straight from the recesses of a Lewis Carroll dream journal. It is the product of fearless imagination, compounded by a fantastical plot which is as wacky as it is profound.