#54 Spirited Away

(千と千尋の神隠し- Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
(2001, Hayao Miyazaki)

“Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can’t remember it”

While Princess Mononoke was the movie that gained Studio Ghibli, and its prestigious director Hayao Miyazaki, significant critical reception in the West, it was his follow-up, Spirited Away, that really gained him public recognition, leading to the translation and distribution of the entire Ghibli catalogue as a result. And it’s easy to see why. Spirited Away is quite possibly one of the best animated movies ever made.

It tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi/Daveigh Chase in Pixar’s dub) , a ten-year old girl who’s moving home and school, and very unhappy about this. On the way, her parents take a wrong turn and they find themselves in what appears to be an old abandoned amusement park. However, it turns out to be a fantasy world, and she and her family aren’t welcome there. Her parents are turned into pigs, and now to try and escape, she has to negotiate to work for Yubaba, the sorceress who owns a bathhouse to the gods. Along the way, she makes friends and learns to fend for herself in this strange new land.

And this is what makes Spirited Away such a good movie. Despite the many fantasy elements, this is a coming-of-age story at its heart. When the movie starts, Chihiro is slightly spoiled and whiny, and by being thrust into this strange world, she learns the skills that will hopefully help her should she get back to the real world again. She goes from being scared and helpless to independent and strong, and in a world of Disney Princesses, this is exactly the kind of heroine young girls need. Not a helpless damsel waiting for her prince, she is proactive and determined to save her parents from being turned into bacon. She survives the world through her own initiative and through exercising her best qualities, such as her kindness and selflessness. Sure, she gets help along the way, but no one saves her, and her ultimate escape comes from her own intelligence and bravery.

As well as the strong characterisation of its lead, the movie looks fantastic. It is a Ghibli production, so this is to be expected, but it seems they’ve excelled themselves here. The world Chihiro finds herself in is vibrant and exciting, and the characters are full of life. In addition, the animation is incredibly complex and detailed, with even strands of hair meticulously animated where necessary. It’s a masterpiece, and really shows off Ghibli’s capabilities. Even the minor use of CGI is fantastic, blending seamlessly into Miyazaki’s world where it could have easily looked tacky.

The only real major issue I have with Spirited Away is that it’s heavily reliant on a lot of knowledge of Japanese folklore. Some elements of the world are barely introduced and while they may make sense to a Japanese viewer, the average English-speaking viewer might be a bit lost. For example, it’s notable that the dub explicitly introduces a character as “the Radish Spirit” but the Japanese seemingly assumes the audience knows exactly what it is. It’s a bit of a problem because a Japanese viewer may understand it completely on first viewing, but it may take a Western viewer repeated viewings to fully grasp the concepts. Obviously this is just a regional issue rather than an issue with the film specifically, so it’s not that major.

Otherwise, this is a fantastic children’s movie. Not only does it depict its young female protagonist in a positive, fairly empowering way while still retaining her femininity (again, in direct contrast to the Disney Princesses) but there’s also a very well-crafted story with messages about avoiding greed and materialism and the importance of friendship and self-identity. It also has Miyazaki’s trademark lack of any obvious villain. It seems that Yubaba would fulfil this role, but under the “evil sorceress” mask we see a woman trying to balance a difficult management career with raising a child, so it’s hard to seriously dislike her. All in all, a wonderfully layered movie that raises the bar for children’s animation. Hell, it raises the bar for animation in general.

Spirited Away proves that Miyazaki is more than the Japanese Walt Disney. In fact, it proves that Disney really needs to pick up their game to catch up with him.

Starring the voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki & Yumi Tamai
Dub starring the voices of Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette & Susan Egan
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Music score by Joe Hisaishi
Cinematography by Atsushi Okui
Edited by Takeshi Seyama

Favourite Scene: Chihiro faces down the No-Face simply by not being as greedy as the staff of the bathhouse. It’s better than it sounds, trust me.
Scene That Bugged Me: So, Chihiro’s parents are willing to walk into some abandoned place and just start eating food that just so happens to be sitting there? OK, fine, you go do that stupid thing, we’ll be over here staying out the way.

Watch it if: You want to know how to survive should your family turn into pigs
Avoid it if: You’d be likely to take No-Face’s gold

Originally posted on Blogspot Sunday 12 February 2012

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Posted on April 14, 2012, in 2000s, Animation, Fantasy, Japan. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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