When you fall down the rabbit hole, who knows what wonders you will see? Lewis Carrolls’ classic Alice In Wonderland has Alice’s adventure intertwined with all sorts of fantastical creatures and characters. Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award winning ‘Spirited Away’ does the same but reinvigorates the tale by telling it soaked thoroughly in rich Japanese folklore.
Chihiro is a sullen 10 year old girl, unhappy at being forced to move house and schools by her parents. They take a detour and find themselves in what appears to be an abandoned theme park where her parents start eating the freshly prepared food that has been left out. Chihiro must flee as her parents are turned into pigs and a whole cavalcade of Kami spirits (from Japanese Shinto-Buddhist folklore) descend upon her, all on their way to a glorious old bathhouse. Taken in by the apparently friendly Haku, Chihiro must plead with the malicious witch Yubaba for a job so that her life might be spared in this land of ghosts and goblins.
Such a set up allows free reign for the full spectrum of creativity. The screen positively teams with all manner of hideous, gnarled, or bulbous spirits. The bathhouse itself is a triumph of set design, rich with detail that will delight with each repeated viewing, and stacked full of memorable characters. From oozing stink demons squelching into a hot bath and a massive baby hiding under a pillow fort, through to the iconic ‘No Face’ spirit whose unquenchable hunger nearly consumes everyone: Spirited Away is chock full of immediately recognisable imagery.
Chihiro is an unusual character by Ghibli standards in that she is initially very passive. Sulky and sullen, her reluctance to move house translates into a sense of being lost and without guidance once she is trapped in the spirit world. Miyazaki nearly drowns his young protagonist in a slew of set pieces. Yet running throughout Spirited Away is the theme of finding yourself and, by extension, the power of your own name. Chihiro’s name is stolen by Yubaba as a means to lock her into a contract. Chihiro, now ‘Sen’, becomes bogged down in work and servitude until her acts of kindness give her purpose.
In comparison to other Studio Ghibli movies, you could argue that the sheer amount of new character designs and ideas thrown at the screen comes at the cost of plot focus. Also the movie suffers a little from Miyazaki’s inability to end a movie during this period, where everything suddenly resolves rather neatly. But even with these criticisms it is an astounding piece of work. Spirited Away gloriously revels in Japanese culture to the point that even though western eyes will inevitably not understand the depth of folklore being mined, it still makes for a compellingly beautiful experience.
Spirited Away is universally lauded and it easy to see why. It is the only hand drawn foreign language animated movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Animated Movie. It smashed Japanese box office records at the time (beating Titanic) and it is frequently ranked as one of the best-animated movies of all time. Fall into a world of fantasy and, like Chihiro, discover what it is like to become master of yourself when all around you looks like it had gone utterly mad.
Words by Michael Record