Quick selection

A confession

First things first, I need to make a confession. Although Spirited Away; a film that is often regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time; directed by a man who is perhaps among the most decorated in the field of feature-length animation; was released 22 years ago (20 in the UK), until a few days before writing this review, is a film that I had never seen. 

Sure, the success of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away prompted a global breakthrough, spawning a heightened interest in Japanese animation — especially Studio Ghibli works — that even I was well aware of. 

For the past two decades the shots of the main protagonist Chichiro alongside that of no-face and others have become inescapable, as has the name Spirited Away inside the animation bubble; that’s before I even mention its commercialisation and continuing renewal of interest. Suffice to say, It’s hard not to feel somewhat familiar with the title without even watching it. 

Yet recently the opportunity finally presented itself to sit down and witness the film that arguably changed the industry. So here’s a Spirited Away film review with a 20 year perspective.

Brief synopsis

For those of you like me that have been living under a rock (somewhat), Spirited Away involves a young girl named Chichiro and her family inadvertently crossing over to another world. Immediately, a sense of unease lingers over Chichiro and not before long find that they are unable to escape this strange new place where they are clearly not welcome. 

With the help of a sympathetic soul Chichiro quickly learns how to survive and adapt to her new reality. She is forced to work at a mysterious onsen resort run by an even more mysterious sorceress, however, the ever-present thought of saving her family and escaping back to the world she knows drives her forward in the face of disdain and adversity. 

As she works towards her goal, her determination and kind-hearted nature wins her friends and allies who assist in her pursuit and ultimately wants to see her succeed.

Take a look at the original trailer for the film.

Fantasy and fairytales

Considering the nature of Spirited Away’s narrative where a 10 year-old girl is lost, separated, and — for the lack of a better word — subjugated, it’s a film that oozes charm and child-like wonder above all other emotions. Any form of despair or heaviness that the audience might feel has been completely exorcised leaving you with nothing but a feeling of content-ness from start to finish. 

In short, ‘visual fairytale’ is a term that sticks in my mind to describe Spirited Away. 

Much like a fairytale where anything becomes a possibility, Spirited Away is set up so that much the same can be done here. Sure enough we are introduced to talking toads, giant babies, a couple of dragons here and there; all within the confines of a theme park where the operators only appear at night and a bathhouse operated by a literal spider-man and his army of sentient soot piles. 

It’s all utterly bizarre and fantastical but it leaves you wanting to see what else is possible. Oh and pigs make a prominent appearance in this fairytale too.

Much like any good fairytale there are meanings and morals of the story and such too.

Greed rears its ugly head on a number of occasions throughout the film and the consequences quickly reveal themselves in a less than subtle manner. In fact, in some way it’s the driving force of the entire story. Excessiveness, taking without question, placing the value of ‘things’ over everything else arguably sets the story events in motion. 

But at no point does it ever feel like you’re being scolded by an overzealous preacher; on the contrary, Spirited Away makes you feel like a proud parent as you watch Chichiro — the perfect counterweight — act in a manner that puts everyone else to shame.

All in the details

Spirited Away definitely possesses a certain allure that is attributed to far more than a simple fantasy tale. There is a tangible sense of artistry that many modern animations have perhaps lost whether through extended use of computer generated graphics or the creative process. 

What I mean by this is two-fold; the way Spirited Away retains the hand-drawn look and colourisation, where you can almost see the underlying sketches and the brush strokes of the applied paint; but also how it encompasses exquisite use of sound, both ambient and musical that perfectly reflect and enhance on-screen events and mood, and visual distinction in key moments to deliver a fully immersive experience. 

The result is a creation that fully encapsulates the term ‘moving-image’ like no other; there’s a real ‘art on canvas’ feel to the film that makes it as though you’re looking through a series of individual paintings sewn together by the narrative rather than a continuous flow that a film typically follows. 

This is by no means a criticism. If anything it allows a better chance to take in each scene and a greater appreciation of the efforts it entails. We tend to forget at times that cinema and film are — by definition — forms of art, and here Hayao Miyazaki is as much an artist as a director. 

Rooted in Japanese mythology

In contrast to many of Miyazaki’s other films, Spirited Away has a very distinctive Japanese identity. For many it may be hard to pinpoint why it feels this way, but behind it all, Hayao Miyazaki is experimenting and taking inspiration from the Japanese religion of Shinto

Compared to some of his other works such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle which feature European inspired locations and western characters, Spirited Away presents us with large red gateways, arched bridges, and typical Japanese styling, much of which relates to Shinto and is commonplace across Japan.

Those red structures and styles are actually shrines, torii gates, and Soribashi bridges which are some of the most iconic features of the country and key features in Shinto folklore. Moreover, many of the characters we see, both major and minor, are based on mythological beings and entities, and numerous lines and quotes directly reference Shinto and Japanese beliefs. In short, it’s very much a central component that permeates much of the film. 

However, to be clear, an understanding of Shinto is not a requirement for enjoying Spirited Away. For someone unversed in its nature, its presence lends itself further to the film’s overall curiosity and the theme of being transported somewhere totally mysterious.

Final thoughts

In case it needs to be explicitly said; Spirited Away is an impressive, captivating, and — at times — moving spectacle that truly captures the imagination whether you are a child or an adult. It’s a visually majestic piece of animation that has been crafted with the utmost care and attention and introduces us to a world seemingly bizarre but has its roots in tangible lore.

The fact that 20 years later Spirited Away remains the preeminent title in the animation sphere is a testament to its brilliance. So if you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend taking some time to explore the wondrous nature of Spirited Away.