Spirited Away, the eleventh feature released by Studio Ghibli, is an undeniable landmark. Not only does it mark the peak of Hayao Miyazaki’s stellar career, emerging as the most beautiful gem among the many whose creation the director has been responsible for; but it also opened up the eyes of the rest of the world to the fact that, somewhere in Japan, a great company had been producing stellar animated movies for well over a decade. Spirited Away was, and is, a universal phenomenon whose popularity is worthy of its quality.
The movie’s mass appeal, though, does not derive from the absence of the traditional quirks of Japanese cartoons. On the contrary, Miyazaki’s brainchild, fortunately, reached out to the West without abandoning its eastern roots. In fact, more than any other flick of Ghibli’s canon, Spirited Away is absolutely drenched with nods to the country’s rich folklore and religious traditions.
Those inspirations leak right onto the screen and project a fantasy world of such beautifully uncanny nature that it will prompt many viewers to question from where such imagination came; and the answer lies in the merging of an incredibly powerful mind with the bottomless imagery provided by Japanese tales and beliefs.
The movie begins when Chihiro, a ten-year-old, is traveling to her new home with her parents. As any child within that age range, such a big change makes her both anxious and scarred. A wrong turn on the road leads the car in which the family is traveling to an ominous tunnel that ends on a gorgeous open field where an abandoned amusement park rests. Attracted by the smell of food, and much to the child’s angst, her father and mother are drawn to the park and find an empty stand where delicious recently cooked meals await.
As the adults are distracted by all snacks, day turns into night and the park reveals itself to be a gateway to the spirit world. For their greed, Chihiro’s parents are hit by an evil curse and are taken to a nearby bathhouse where spirits from all over Japan come to rest. Rightfully terrified, the girl – now stuck inside another realm – must find a way to save her loved ones and return home.
A bathhouse in which spirits, like humans at a spa, soak inside bathtubs filled up with hot water sounds positively absurd, and the extravagant nature of it all is spectacularly executed. Miyazaki, drawing inspiration straight from the colorful – and sometimes dark – array of Japanese legends, uses that gathering place as a free canvas on which he can paint the most over-the-top character designs ever projected onto the silver screen.
The result is an awe-inspiring world formed by creatures that would have seemed out-of-place anywhere else. Miyazaki and his artists are able to combine the beautiful and the grotesque with lush animation that will cause viewers to let out genuine sighs of wonder – like the ones emitted by children when they enter a Disney theme park, as well as punctual shrieks of disgust.
The place is run by Yubaba – a very short witch with a giant nose, extreme features, and a son who is a baby of gigantic proportion – who hires Chihiro and magically takes possession of the girl’s name, making her slowly forget who she actually is and where she came from. A humanoid with impossibly long spider legs is responsible for providing water to the numerous tubs. Frog-like creatures and humans work side-by-side welcoming spirits into the bathhouse. And those come in the most varied shapes and forms, with some looking like ghosts, others like dragons, and numerous ones taking cues from different animals, vegetables, and shapes.
It all sounds absolutely over-the-top, and to a certain point it is, but everything comes together with astonishing magnificence.
The key to Spirited Away’s greatness, though, is not the otherworldly. The movie’s greatest trick is how all of that fantasy serves as the background to a very human story. At its core, everything is moved by Chihiro herself – our little innocent window into this amazing world – and her growth is so carefully developed that her arch is by far the film’s highlight.
She starts as a helpless child frozen with fear who is completely dependent on the goodwill of the friends she makes around the bathhouse. However, as soon as she is separated from her parents, she starts to go through a slow and believable development. Her obstacles are immense, but – with a good deal of effort – she conquers all of them one-by-one.
The most interesting aspect of it all is that all of the relationships she builds with other characters are affected by that growth. When events start unfolding, she is the one either being helped or being put in a totally submissive position. By the end of the two-hour running time, though, her active influence ends up unearthing traits and virtues in those around her; her biggest victories are not the changes she goes through, but the heights other characters reach because of her.
Watching Spirited Away is like sitting beside a bud for months and watching it bloom into the most beautiful flower on the valley. The girl who was afraid of moving to a new place becomes the girl who stands up for herself; the girl who needed to be helped transforms into the girl who unlocks the goodness within others. Spirited Away is a major study on how kindness and purity can change those they come into contact with, and the remarkable spirit world surrounding that tale serves as the whimsical setting where the brilliant minds inside Studio Ghibli can run free.