Spirited Away, perhaps Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest work of art, is the beautiful and engrossing tale of a young girl, Chihiro, who enters a magical world through an abandoned amusement park. Of course, such a summary necessarily fails to do justice to the grand imagination on display in the film. The comparisons to Alice in Wonderland are obvious; however, unlike Alice’s adventures, where the cause and effect relationship is thwarted and non-existent, as Chihiro navigates the world of the Yubaba’s bathhouse she must seek to uncover its own particular rules and strange cause and effect logic.
The result is a film that is both meandering and gentle, and, conversely, strangely menacing. The guiding logic of this magical world is that of dreams, as good and evil are ever shifting in contention for Chihiro’s very identity—Yubaba renames her Sen, and Chihiro is warned to hold onto her real name if she ever hopes to leave.
The success of Chihiro’s quest is never certain, but her “large heartedness” wins the day, as she encounters memorable characters such as Haku, No Face, and a multitude of spirits culled from both Japanese tradition and the unique imagination of Miyazaki.
Accompanied by Joe Hisaishi’s marvelous score, Spirited Away is uncommonly long for an animated feature, at 125 minutes, allowing us to really take our time in entering into Miyazaki’s world, and allowing for entrancing digressions with creatures like the mud-filled river spirit.
Miyazaki’s animation, both hand-painted and aided by carefully used computer effects, has never been more beautiful, showing an attention to details and wonderful imaginative world building. This succeeds in emphasizing Miyazaki’s recurrent theme of harmony with nature. The spirit bathhouse is perhaps one of the most well realized fantasy settings in cinema, from the steam room in its deepest bowels, to Yubaba’s study in its towering heights. Spirited Away is one of the few recent works of fantasy that can actually take your breath away, all the more astonishing without gratuitous action sequences or massive battles. Chihiro’s battle is one of will and spirit.
While Spirited Away’s real stakes and sense of danger, as well as the dearth of clear-cut good and evil characters, might disqualify its appropriateness for all ages in some quarters, it does give the film a greater thematic weight and helps it to earn its place as one of the great films of the early twenty-first century. Westerners have much to learn from the Japanese in realizing that animation is not just for children. Spirited Away offers guidance for living in a recognizable postmodern world, where the only sure thing is kindness.