One of my favorite memories regarding film comes from the first time I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” It was my first exposure (besides the “Pokemon” TV show) to the styling of Japanese anime, and I distinctly remember the day that my seventh grade teacher announced, unplanned, that the class was going to watch “Spirited Away” so that we could broaden our minds to other kinds of entertainment. What I saw changed the way I view animation and storytelling, and is a film that holds a respected place in my heart.
The film opens with our main character, Chihiro, driving with her family to a new neighborhood. Parents in a Miyazaki film are often put in one of two categories: flake, or gentle leader. Chihiro’s parents fall squarely in the former slot, and as the family gets lost in the woods during the journey, Chihiro starts to see signs of the supernatural around them. This journey culminates with something happening to the parents, which I won’t spoil, but know that it is one of the most nightmarish things a child can imagine happening to an adult.
The descent into darkness from this point onward is sudden but it never feels rushed, and Chihiro finds herself on another plane of existence inhabited by spirits and curiously taking the form of a bathhouse. Weary supernatural beings – sludge spirits, radish spirits, and one mysterious creature called No-Face – come to get cleaned and treated like celebrities, and Chihiro finds help in the form of a boy named Haku. She is told that she must get a job so that the witch Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse, will not turn her into an animal. From there, she must navigate the world of spirits while attempting to save her parents, figure out just who amongst them is on her side, and try to remember her name before Yubaba enslaves her forever.
This movie is a visual masterpiece. “Spirited Away” is filled to the brim with imaginative creatures and situations, and doesn’t shy away from human emotion when it is most important. Chihiro, unlike so many other stoic protagonists, acts like a child would when confronted with this type of world: she cries and huddles in a corner and waits for the dream to end. Her determination and precociousness, of course, are her main strengths, but Miyazaki understands how children work, and thus plays to his strengths in many of his films by having children be their main focus.
A major theme of “Spirited Away” is a predisposition towards a life lived simply. Characters who live in luxury and wealth are often portrayed as being irritable, sad, and obnoxious, while those in the working class are shown to be honorable. Environmental themes arise during scenes like the cleansing of a river spirit, but it doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with its message. Rather, the themes only tie in to the idea that these are spirits of the earth who affect mankind, and mankind affects them in turn. True love is something not shown through physical affection. Instead, it is symbolized by the sacrifices that characters make for each other and the risks they take. This is a film with a complete lack of kissing, and it doesn’t need it. The love that characters feel transcends anything that could be shown with a simple kiss.
As much as I enjoy “Spirited Away,” I acknowledge that it isn’t a film everyone will like. It’s far too strange for some, not strange enough still for others. However, regardless of what I think people may think, I think that everyone should watch one of the best animated films of all time. It has no real agenda to push, no overarching lesson to teach: it’s a conglomeration of themes, characters, worlds, spirituality, and wonder. I invite you to view it, and hope that you will be as entranced by it as I still am.