222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, clinging to her parents’ arms as they unwittingly enter a tunnel to the spirit world. That example of childish dependence informs the girl’s horror later on, when both her father and mother are replaced by disgusting pigs. Chihiro is frightened not just by her father’s grotesque new face, but also by the realization that she has lost her family. As bizarre as Spirited Away becomes, the film always remains grounded in that realistic fear of a parent’s guiding hand slipping away in a crowd, and of a young girl suddenly having to fend for herself. More than the witches, dragons, and phantoms that Chihiro encounters, what most defines Spirited Away is the universal experience of a lost child being forced to grow up.

Despite the fantasy setting, growing up in Spirited Away is portrayed in the most mundane terms: as having to get a job. Chihiro learns from a boy dragon named Haku that she’ll be turned into a pig unless she finds work, and so she accepts the witch Yubaba’s offer of the “worst, nastiest job [she’s] got.” Rather than vanquishing the witch or finding a loophole in the deal, as most fantasy heroes would, Chihiro proves her worth simply by working very hard to clean the vast bathhouse by hand. Later, when a slimy Stink God arrives, she trudges through ankle-deep sludge to bathe the creature and release a mound of garbage lodged in its side. Chihiro is accordingly praised like a hero, not because of her strength or cunning, but because the child has lived up to her responsibilities like an adult.

Yet if Spirited Away presents maturity as a kind of heroism, then it portrays immaturity as something dark and twisted. While Chihiro encounters many obstacles in the spirit world, her greatest nemesis is the specter called No-Face, who mirrors the girl’s own childish need for attention. Initially presenting himself as a friend, he tries to win Chihiro over by giving her tokens for the baths and then fistfuls of gold. When she rejects the gifts to help an injured Haku, though, the furious No-Face begins eating her co-workers and growing in size, like a giant, bulging tick. The generosity he showed before mutates into something like greed, a desire for companionship so strong that it becomes an urge to devour the companion. That desperation recalls Chihiro’s own intense need for her parents, along with the all-consuming despair she feels in their absence.

Overcoming No-Face therefore requires Chihiro to overcome her own immaturity, as the final part of her coming of age. She does this by selflessly offering the sickened creature an herbal cure from the Stink God, which had been meant for her parents. The cure causes No-Face to vomit out everyone he’s eaten as Chihiro leads him on a chase out of the resort, until he is nearly too weak to follow. Rather than abandoning him, though, Chihiro waits for No-Face, and invites him to join her on the rest of her journey. She thereby defeats the monster, not by meeting it on its terms with pain and anger, but by treating it with compassion. She defuses her opponent by taking responsibility for it, like a parent taking care of a child or an adult taking control of his or her own wild emotions.

More often than not, fantasy depicts extraordinary figures caught in titanic struggles, but Spirited Away is about an average girl grappling with the normal experience of growing up. Miyazaki uses fantasy to evoke the larger than life emotions of that experience, reigniting the fear of being separated from one’s parents and the confusion of life without their help. Likewise, Chihiro’s efforts are elevated to fantastic proportions, such that heroism is seen in a child who learns to work hard, accept new responsibilities, and to live on her own. Ultimately, what Spirited Away shows us isn’t just a weird world of gods and monsters, but also the weirdness of leaving childhood behind and the courage required to see that journey through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The towering, lost dreaminess at the heart of the film is an unmistakable obsession of this director. Actually, rather than Disney’s ‘Spirited Away,’ the movie could better be considered Mr. Miyazaki’s ‘Through the Looking Glass.'”–Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“… [a] dark, strange, mysterious but ultimately joyous film… Dream and nightmare, the grotesque and the beautiful, the terrifying and the enchanting all come together to underline the oneness of things, to point out how little distance there is between these seemingly disparate states, much less than we might imagine.”–Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

“Before it becomes unwatchably strange, Spirited Away comes off as an uneven yet compelling animated endeavor that benefits substantially from Miyazaki’s seemingly endless creativity… The rampant weirdness on display is… not as off-putting as one might’ve feared…”–David Nusair, Reel Film (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE: Spirited Away | Disney Movies – The Disney page for Spirited Away contains only the trailer, a brief synopsis, and a rundown of the DVD/Blu-ray features

IMDB LINK: Spirited Away (2001)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Spirited Away // Naussica.net – This Spirited Away page on a Studio Ghibli fansite has not been updated in almost a decade, but still includes many valuable links, including a translation of Miyazaki’s director’s statement

Midnight Eye Interview: Hayao Miyazaki – One of the rare Miyazaki interviews that have been translated into English, conducted soon after the release of Spirited Away

The Making of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” – Writer and animation buff Jim Hill provides background on the production

Facts You Didn’t Know: Spirited Away – “Viral Film” video highlighting ten bits of trivia about Spirited Away

Taiwan’s Jiufen — the Real-World Inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away – Photo essay on a visual inspiration for Spirited Away‘s setting

In Jiufen, You Can Eat Your Way Through a Miyazaki Film – Another article on Jiufen, with an emphasis on cuisine and some animated .gifs from Spirited Away

DVD INFO: In 2015 Disney upgraded its DVD release of Spirited Away to Blu-ray (buy) (a bonus DVD copy is included as well). Viewers may choose to watch the film in Disney’s dubbed version, or in the original Japanese with subtitles. Besides the beautiful remastered transfer, the release contains numerous bonus features: an introduction by English language version director John Lasseter, a behind-the-scenes featurette with the American voice cast, a contemporary Japanese TV show report on the making of the film, a feature on Miyazaki’s art, and interactive storyboards that allow you to switch between the art sketches and the finished product.

The 2003 DVD-only release is still available (buy). It contains most of the same features, but the storyboards are not interactive.

(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who suggested “a number of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, but if I had to choose one based on weirdness alone, I’d pick Spirited Away.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)”

  1. Excellent essay. It’s interesting to me to think that this was the first of Miyazaki’s films I saw, and how that may have colored my view of him as an artist. I often find myself wondering if I would have seen Princess Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle in a different light if I had seen any of his other films first.

    As it stands, Spirited Away made an enormous impression on me as a high school student fascinated by weird art films, back in 2001. I appreciated so deeply the amount of emotion it managed to evoke from me, despite much of the story and events not making any real logical sense. This, coupled with Mulholand Dr the same year, definitely solidified my love affair with weird movies.

    Point being: thank you guys for having given me years of insightful essays and entertainment, and for having introduced me to a number of films I now rank among my favorites.

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