Creator: Hayao Miyazaki
Length: Movie (2:05)
A Studio Ghibli Production released in the United States by Walt Disney/Buena Vista Pictures
+ Miyazaki's most beautiful animation, ever
+ The American dub is mostly faithful to the Japanese script
+ Disney dub adds explanations to unfamiliar aspects of Japanese culture without becoming overbearing
+/&150; Disney dub adds dialog that gives the film a less pessimistic ending than the original
Many fantasy films produced in the west overemphasize the fantasy, overwhelming the audience with special effects but forgetting the heart. Spirited Away achieves a near perfect balance between beautiful, unforgettable imagery and heartfelt, emotionally powerful story. With creatures drawn from Japanese folklore, Spirited Away shows the western audience sights we haven't seen before and with one of Miyazaki's strongest screenplays it reminds us that the important things in life aren't food or money but love, friendship, loyalty, and identity.
5 out of 5 · An Unequivocal Recommendation
Spirited Away Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 12/6/2006
What would happen, if Alice in Wonderland was created in Japan with Japanese sensibilities? In 2001, animation fans got their answer when master animator Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement to create Spirited Away. Much like Lewis Carroll, Miyazaki took his inspiration from the daughter of a close friend when he created the story of Chihiro a young girl transported into a world of spirits, monsters, and ancient gods when her father takes a wrong turn on moving day. When Chihiro's parents gorge themselves at a mysterious open-air eatery they are transformed into pigs by a curse. Seeking to break the curse, Chihiro finds herself an employee of an otherworldly bathhouse.
Suddenly feeling very hungry, Chihiro's parents wander through the park to an outdoor eatery - piles of food are heaped up on serving trays and other dishes are cooking and simmering but the restaurant doesn't seem to have any employees. Figuring they can always settle the bill when the employees show up, Chihiro's parents start helping themselves to the food and in true Miyazaki fashion they gorge themselves silly. Chihiro is restless and apprehensive and still sensing some unseen danger so she refuses to eat, warning her parents that they'll get in trouble.
Wandering away from the food stand, Chihiro comes to an enormous old fashioned bathhouse, its smokestack still billowing great belches of smoke into the evening sky. As darkness falls, Chihiro encounters a young man named Haku who warns her to get back across the river before the village's inhabitants arrive. Returning to the restaurant, Chihiro is startled to see two enormous pigs dining where her parents had previously been sitting. The village is not deserted, either; its inhabitants just don't come out during the day. By taking that wrong turn, Chihiro and her family have wandered into a realm of the spirits.
Rushing back to the river, Chihiro is shocked to find that what was a dry riverbed when she and her parents arrived in the village is now full of water. What's more an ethereal ferryboat has just deposited its passengers - dozens, perhaps hundreds of ghosts, spirits, monsters and demigods of Japanese folklore. The village is designed for tourists, just not human tourists. Reacting to her situation the way a real little girl might, Chihiro spends several minutes of the movie in a state of near total panic hoping her situation is just a dream. Haku, the same mysterious boy who aided Chihiro earlier again aids her, helping her sneak into the bathhouse and secure a job.
Show More Haku tells Chihiro to seeking out Kamaji the old man who runs the boiler room. When she finds him, he turns out to be a multi-armed creature, smoking cigarettes, and drinking tea by the kettle full. With his enormous nose, mustache, and glasses, he could be related to "Uncle", the old man who kept Dola's airship running in Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky and his position in relation to the rest of the bathhouse if very similar to Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle. Stating that the enchanted balls of soot that haul coal to the boiler are all the help he needs, Kamaji at first tries to get Chihiro to go away. When she proves to be an industrious worker by aiding the balls of soot, he relents and tells Lin, one of the bath girls, that Chihiro is his granddaughter and to take her to Yubaba, the old crone who runs the bathhouse.
As in other Miyazaki films the backgrounds are richly detailed. Yubaba's bathhouse looks and even feels like a real place. You can see details such as grain in the wood and texture in the paint; you can even sense the moisture in the air. The term bathhouse is perhaps misleading it is in fact more of a giant luxury resort hotel where spirits vacation and relax with bathing, massages, and eating the primary form of relaxation. The bathhouse is enormous, employs hundreds of workers, and caters to spirits of every size, shape, and description. Hayao Miyazaki is known for his beautiful hand drawn animation. He has been quoted as saying, "Draw by hand, even when using the computer". Many of Miyazaki's recent films do make use of computer animation but in much subtler ways than other anime or western animation. Spirited Away makes the most extensive use of computer animation of any of his films, primarily in the depiction of the huge sea that surrounds the bathhouse after heavy rains and a beautiful sequence of Sen and Haku running through a rose garden.
In bringing to life the denizens of the Japanese spirit world Miyazaki and his character designers have out done themselves. Not only do the beings match descriptions from art and folklore they have weight, dimension, and personalities of living breathing beings. No two spirits move in exactly the same way, speak in the same voice, or conduct themselves with the same manner. Even the rather identical frog spirits who man the kitchens and tend to the guests have distinctive movements. With a few exceptions (most notably Haku, Yubaba, and Kamaji) even the human and human looking characters break somewhat from Miyazaki's usual patterns. Chihiro is especially well designed; looking and behaving (her discomfort at sharing the elevator with a giant radish is particularly palpable) like a real girl rather than the generic pretty girl seen in so many of Miyazaki's movies. This is no doubt related to Chihiro and her parents being modeled on real people in Miyazaki's life rather characters existing solely in his imagination.
When Chihiro finally encounters Yubaba, she turns out to be a crone with an enormous head, dressed in 19th century garb and dwelling in palace-like private chambers. She has the personality of a shrewd businesswoman crossed with a cathouse madam. She comes across as shrill and foul tempered but like many similar Miyazaki characters has her moments of softness - Yubaba looks after a giant baby much as Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke looks after the lepers. At first accusing Chihiro of being a lazy-good-for-nothing loafer, she eventually relents and signs a contract with Chihiro, remembering that she obligated by oath to give job to anyone who asks. As part of the contractual agreement, Chihiro is renamed "Sen" for the duration of the contract.
Show More The next day, before her shift begins, Haku takes Sen to see her parents. On her way to meeting Haku, Sen has her first glimpse of the lonely masked spirit known as Noh Face. When she turns to look at him, after passing him on the bridge, he has vanished. Upon arriving at the pig pens with Haku, Haku warns that if she ever visits her parents without him, she'll become a pig herself. In what might be seen as a warning about the nature of greed, her parents, transformed by the curse, no longer remember being human. After visiting her parents, Sen and Haku share a quick meal in the vegetable fields at the edge of the pig pens. Haku gives Sen her own clothes back along with a good-bye card she received just before leaving her old school. It has her real name written on it and he warns her if she ever forgets her name she'll be trapped in the spirit world forever. Haku has forgotten his own name - one of the themes running through the film is the importance of learning maturity without loosing one's identity.
When we first meet Chihiro she is a self-centered and sullen child. During the course of her work at the bathhouse we watch her transform from a sullen child to mature girl on the edge of young adulthood. Working in the bathhouse is tougher than Sen imagined but she manages; although everywhere she goes she seems haunted by the mysterious Noh Face. Eventually feeling sorry for him, she leaves the door open and he comes inside and disappears. Meanwhile, Lin and Sen are assigned to wash out the "big tub", reserved for the more disgusting clients. When the foreman denies Sen's request for an herbal soap token, Noh Face takes one for her. When no one is looking, he offers her dozens of them. They turn out to be quite useful; as it turns out a hulking, slime covered being is lurching its way towards the bathhouse. There is a terrible panic in the bathhouse; they believe the creature to be a Stink Spirit. However, in Miyazaki's subtlest use of the ecological theme, when the creature is properly bathed, he turns out to be a benevolent and wealthy river god transformed by garbage. When Sen overcomes her fears and to everyone's surprise, aids the Spirit, he rewards her with a special ball of herbal medicine which, like Noh Face's bath tokens, later turns out to be quite useful.
The next day, Sen awakens to find the entire staff of the bathhouse rushing to the beck and call of Noh Face - he gorges himself and throws them gold by the handful. In what could be seen as another warning about the nature of greed Noh Face grows bigger and bigger while the bathhouse employees beg for more and more gold from him. Eventually Noh Face goes on a rampage and eats several of the employees. Meanwhile, Sen goes on a mission to aid a wounded dragon who may be the mysterious Haku. Haku helped her when she arrived and now she wants to return the favor. On her way to the top of the bathhouse to find the dragon, she encounters Yubaba's giant, germ-phobic baby as well as Yubaba's identical twin sister Zeniba. Zeniba at first seems as malevolent as Yubaba when she casts spells on the denizens of Yubaba's apartment and threatens the dragon's life over a gold seal. However, when Sen later visits Zeniba to beg forgiveness for Haku's actions she proves to be very benevolent and grandmotherly.
Chihiro is also the only bathhouse employee to stand up to Noh Face. Telling him to return home, she feeds him part of the medicine she received from the river god; he vomits up everything he has eaten, including the bathhouse employees. Although he is first enraged by Sen's actions, he apparently forgives her when he finally returns to his normal form. He even accompanies Sen on her trip to track down Zeniba. The last twenty minutes of the film chronicles Sen's lonely journey to see Zeniba as well as Haku's efforts to win Sen's freedom from Yubaba's contract and freedom for Sen's family.
Spirited Away is a beautiful film. Not only is it one of Hayao Miyazaki's greatest achievements, it is the best film of its type. No other film inspired in any way by Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz can compare to its awe inspiring imagination, beauty, or wit. Not only is it feast for the eyes which allows to the audience to gorge on wondrous creations it feeds the heart and soul with important lessons about maturity, friendship, bravery, greed, courage and other Miyazaki signature concerns. With a softer edge than Princess Mononoke it is more appropriate for a younger audience but it will also entice and seduce adults whose imaginations have not been dulled by talk shows, news, and reality TV.
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