This animated film features the best in Japanese animation, including lush backgrounds, multiple levels of action and scenery, prudent uses of computer-assisted animation, and strong and memorable characterizations—it’s just good film making all around.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service), Spirited Away is a kind of animé Alice in Wonderland, with a plucky young heroine, Sen, forced to work in a spirit-populated bath house in order to win her parent’s freedom. In this eye-popping world she meets tiny workers made of soot, turnip gods, river gods, stink gods, hopping heads, talking frogs, and finally comes to understand (as do we) how interconnected the environment and our own actions really are.
This is a film to be watched as a family, and is especially suited for older children. The opportunities for contextualization and discussion will be numerous, and there can be much joy in the discovery of a familiar tale told through a new culture. Tolerance of the strange and different is often the hallmark of Miyazaki’s work, and it’s never better expressed than in Spirited Away. On the first go-around, try and figure out what the paper “birds” represent, or if that’s what an Oriental dragon really looks like, or just the significance of the bath house in Japanese culture. Or, look carefully for Miyazaki’s adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story, the similarities and the (often cultural) differences.
Spirited Away is one of those rare films that reveals more with repeat viewings, so be prepared to tumble down that rabbit hole (or in this case, through the tunnel and across the bridge) again and again.
This latest film by Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and his associates at Studio Ghibli provides an excellent opportunity for anime neophytes to have a positive and substantial first experience with the form. Initiates, if they haven't seen it already, can be assured that Miyazaki’s high standards have been maintained, and that the fertile imagination, the exquisite visual design and the generally virtuosic form to which they have become accustomed are fully in evidence here. The story begins with a family in transit, a 10-year-old girl and her slightly preoccupied parents who are on their way to a new house in a new community. They take a wrong turn and then go through a looking glass, as it were. What follows is really too multifaceted and overflowing to adequately summarize, but it is enough to say that you’ll have seen nothing like it; this is stunningly imaginative stuff, both visually and narratively.
If this is true, then it should also be noted that the film is frankly eccentric, full of head-scratchers and jaw-droppers. This response of mine is undoubtedly due in part to cultural difference and distance. I certainly found myself unsure about the roots or meanings of many elements in the film that would be self-evident to domestic viewers. But it is fair to say that, apart from my own ignorance, Miyazaki’s films can be kind of, well, weird. When confronted with these kinds of unique sensibilities—and especially when they are presented to us in a foreign language—we are often, unfortunately, inclined to resist or even mock. (Incidentally, American marketing interests have produced an English dub, which may seem more accessible, but discourages us from approaching the film on its own terms—the original language, with available subtitles, is always preferable.) This resisting impulse is in almost every case an unfortunate one, and it would be a loss to give up too soon on this film. If we want, a little after-screening research, as well as more extended exposure, will eventually clear up questions. For what remains unaccountable, there is always that once-upon-a-time storytelling option: submit, and enjoy.
The viewer that does so will find herself in a colourful, quirkily fanciful world. Involvement, engagement and delight will quickly follow. In addition to the Alice-like surrealism already noted, there are clear and important themes and questions to consider. Adult self-absorption and materialism are criticized. Miyazaki’s usual environmental concerns are very much in evidence, particularly in the stunning, and finally very moving stink-spirit (yes, stink-spirit) sequence. So too is his disconcerting and wonderful tendency to complicate conventional story antagonisms; these good guys have flaws, and improvements to make, and those who seem at first to be bad have their reasons, and the possibility of redemption.
While it is true that viewers may not have seen anything like this film, it still has many familiar kids'-lit echoes that will provide orientation and insight, as well as topics for spirited discussion. There are authority figures who aren’t necessarily dependable, but which are not simply villainized or rejected. A passive young protagonist is left to her own devices and thrown upon her own resources, and as a result is energized into action and advancement (L. Frank Baum, Owen Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth). There is interdependence, and a portrayal of the need and blessing of mutual help and friendship. We have a wonderful instance of a profound and complicated character, the sacrificing, saving female (Jane Eyre, H.C. Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”, Mrs. Hodgson Burnett’s Mary Lennox). There is the vulnerability of childhood, fired by challenges and giving way to the independence and generosity of substantial maturity.
Miyazaki’s champions like to point out that he is not necessarily, at least not exclusively, a children’s filmmaker, and Spirited Away reminds us that there is more to Japanimation, and to Japan, than Pokemon and Digimon and Yu-gi-oh. These latter franchises have their merits and they provide valuable cultural and commercial insights, especially to the careful consumer. But films like Miyazaki’s not only have commercial appeal, but social and aesthetic substance as well. By all accounts they resonate with Japanese children and adults in direct and profound ways. It is easy to see why. The western observer who listens in on this conversation is in for an exhilarating ride, one that will provide both pleasurable novelty and reassuring universality.