A magical world, quirky creatures, a nasty villain, danger, and a spunky child heroine, everything that would have made my childhood self radiate with joy. Spirited Away was the very first Studio Ghibli movie I viewed. Little did I know that the act of pushing a disc into a DVD player would stoke a blazing fire of love for a movie studio.
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Version watched: English dubbed
Sometimes I wish I had a time machine so I could meet up with my childhood self and show her a movie, a movie that she would watch for the pure pleasure of getting lost in a new world. That little girl would not analyze the plot, or wonder if a character had a complete enough story arc. The childhood me would adore the movie, then, immediately take her new friends to the backyard to act out favorite scenes. Spirited Away is one of those movies.
A Very Brief Synopsis
Chihiro is moving to a new home. She will have to go to a new school, make new friends, scary stuff for a ten-year-old girl.
Her family gets lost on the way to their new house and end up in a mystical world filled with spirits. After her parents get turned into pigs, Chihiro must figure out a way to save them and escape from the spirit world.
She is tricked into indentured servitude by an evil witch, but using a mixture of bravery and brains, and a little help from some new friends, Chihiro saves herself, her parents, and a boy named Haku. After her big, dangerous adventure, tackling a new school will be a piece of cake.
Most of the story takes place in a Japanese Bathhouse for the spirits. Instead of a bed and breakfast, think of it as a bath and breakfast.
One of my favorite scenes takes place in the bathhouse.
There’s no real explanation as to why everyone in the world is racist against humans. Yubaba, the antagonist states,
“Humans make a mess of things,” and that’s that. I can’t disagree.
When a dreaded stink monster enters the bathhouse, no one has any qualms about giving the disgusting job to the human/ new employee, Chihiro. Through the genius animation, you can almost smell the malodorous monster wafting through your screen.
Chihiro uses a combination of politeness and wits to give the monster the bath he deserves. It turns out that the monster is really a river god whose river got polluted by humans. Chihiro frees the god and in return he gives her a gift. In your face mean bathhouse workers.
My second favorite scene of the film is the train journey sequence. It is a gorgeous bit of animation . Chihiro sits quietly as the lovely Japanese countryside slips past the train’s windows. You can feel Chihiro’s worry in her silence. It is haunting, yet hopeful.
Of Radishes and Kings
No Face is my favorite Spirited Away character. As an introvert, I think I’m drawn to the characters that don’t speak.
He is a sweet, lonely monster who just wants to make friends, and oh yeah, maybe eat those friends if they’re not careful. He has a loving, gentle side, but when in the wrong place, he can be corrupted and turn into a vicious monster. No Face seems more of a representation of human nature than the human characters in the story. The No Face rampage in the bathhouse is a great piece of terrifying anime. It’s also why I’m reluctant to recommend Spirited Away for tiny kids.
Chihiro is a wonderful heroine for young girls to look up to. Once she becomes determined, nothing is going to stop her. She’s not the kind of heroine who goes around bashing heads or shooting arrows (not that there’s anything wrong with that), cleverness and kindness are her weapons.
As a villain Yubaba is okay. I find her huge head extremely unsettling. She is certainly mean enough, but her motivations feel a little unclear. At her age, I don’t even want to know the birds and the bees behind her having a baby.
Haku has the most extensive back story in the film. He gets points for also being a dragon and for helping Chihiro escape. He has that Han Solo, I’m a charming nice guy who will also steal you blind thing too. I like him, but he is far from my favorite Ghibli leading man.
The rest of the characters are like a Jackson Pollack painting of imagination. Kamaji gives a whole new meaning to spider-man. There are the adorable soot sprites, and I have a real soft spot for the odd Radish spirit. The delightful weirdness just goes on and on. I’m a great admirer of weirdness.
I’m positive that had I seen Spirited Away as a little girl, you would have found me in my backyard pretending my swing was a train, zipping along the invisible Japanese countryside while I prattled away to a No Face that only my imagination could see. If I did this as an adult, the neighbor’s would talk. As an adult however, I have no less appreciation for Hayao Miyazaki’s untethered imagination and the beautiful piece of art that is Spirited Away. I’m forever grateful to it for starting my relationship with Studio Ghibli.