Life’s difficult when you move house. Ten-year old Chihiro and her family are moving to a small remote town in the heart of Japan. Chihiro is sulky, not happy at the prospect of leaving their old home and starting a new life somewhere else.
On the way to their new home, Chihiro’s dad gets a little lost. Following a shortcut through a forest, they come across a crumbling tunnel. Intrigued, Chihiro’s parents decide to explore the tunnel before moving on to their new home. On the other end of the dimly lit tunnel lies an abandoned theme park.
Wandering through the quiet streets, Chihiro’s mom and dad stumble across a stall stocked with food. Chihiro, not wanting to eat of the food, wanders off on her own. Across a small river lies a strange looking bath house. It’s here that things become a little strange. A boy named Haku appears out from nowhere and forces Chihiro to run away from the bath house. But when Chihiro finally reaches the stall where she left her parents, all she finds are two pigs amongst all the food.
Night has fallen and the theme park has crossed over into the spirit realm. The bath house, run by the evil witch Yu-baba, caters for all the spirits of this world, providing a place for them to come and renew themselves. Chihiro’s parents have been transformed into pigs as punishment for eating the food of the spirits. They are to be slaughtered and provided as meat for the bath house guests in due time. Chihiro, trapped in this world, must surrender her name and work in this world in order to try and save her parents from this horrible fate.
Now known as Sen, Chihiro, with the help of the mysterious Haku and the maid Lin, must work hard to earn the trust of Yu-baba and finally receive the chance of claiming her name back and freeing her parents from this terrible spell. Encountering many dangerous and wonderous enemies and allies alike, Sen embarks on a voyage of self-discovery, finding the true depths of her inner strength and spirit.
Spirited Away is a wonderous tale directed by Hayao Miyazaki and brought to life by Studio Ghibli. Over the years, the collaboration between these two has always produced memorable movies, and this one is no exception.
Spirited Away is a marvellously told story about a girl forced into a situation beyond her control, and how she finds the strength to deal with it. Sen’s (Chihiro) wonderful naivety and compassion shine through as she grows as a person throughout this movie.
The story is simple and elegantly told. The first three quarters of the movie introduce the colourful and diverse land of the spirits as well as the plight and work of Sen. Miyazaki goes to great lengths to introduce a host of strange and wonderous creatures, all interacting together under the roof of the bright and colourful bath house. The story highlights how greed tends to corrupt people and how sincerity and pureness of spirit should always win through.
The animation is classic Miyazaki, his distinct style clearly visible on all the characters introduced throughout the film. His locations and designs are pure fantasy. The animation sticks closely to the traditional flat 2D animation, staying far away from any CGI. If any special effects were used, they were carefully blended in the background so as not to draw attention away from the story busy unfolding.
The musical score for the movie is entirely orchestral-based, providing a hauntingly beautiful and melodic backdrop against which the story can be told.
After Spirited Away’s success in Japan, Disney decided to licence it and bring a translated version to the Western audiences. The translated version is very well done, and Spirited Away walked away with a few Oscar Awards.
My only complaint about this film lies in the time taken to tell the story. As mentioned before, the first three quarters of the movie act as the introduction to Chihiro and outlines the work she has to undertake in the bath house. However, because so much time is used up during this part of the movie, not much time is left for the conclusion of the film, giving it a slightly rushed feeling at the end.
Despite this minor observation, Spirited Away is a beautiful film, and well recommended to anyone looking for a nice family film. I don’t think that children will appreciate the beauty of the story told, but there is enough humour in the movie to keep them satisfied. If you are looking for a Miyazaki treat, then Spirited Away should be right at the top of your list.
(Historical Note: This review was written back in June 2003. Pleasingly, my writing has gotten a lot better since then.)