Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most well-known names in the anime circuit, and for good reason. As the founder of Studio Ghibli since 1985, he has been at the forefront of cinematic releases of various animated works, whose inventive storylines, imaginative worlds and colourful cast of characters have captivated audiences worldwide, gaining him fame, cinematic recognition and box office success. He is to anime what James Cameron is to Western movies, Wayne Gretzky is to Canadian hockey, and St. Thomas Aquinas is to Christian philosophy. With a name that big, you could imagine the shock of my friends when I told them that I had never seen a Ghibli film in toto, ever. Last summer, I had made it a commitment to watch at least one of his works, but due to things such as work, family, friends, and convention plans, it took me up until a week ago before I could finally get my hands on one of them: namely, one of his most well-known movies: Spirited Away.
Spirited Away is that one film that everyone who has watched at least one anime series seems to recognize. Even if you’ve never watched it in person, it’s a big guarantee that you’ve heard about it from a friend, a movie blog, or you’ve seen a cosplay of one of its characters in public. Released in July of 2001, this two-hour long film was critically acclaimed by both Japanese and American audiences alike, which led to it taking home various accolades from various international film groups, climaxing with its reception of the “Best Animated Feature” at the 75th Academy Awards – the first time the honor had been bestowed upon a non-English animated film. To this day, it still remains one of the most well-known anime films in most places across North America.
I’m always up for a good bit of isekai and Spirited Away seemed like the best choice to be my first entry into the world of Studio Ghibli‘s films; and after watching it, there was quite a number of things that I could pick up from my viewing, regarding its story, themes, music, and characters.
The main focus of the story is Chihiro, a young girl who moves into a new city with her family, much to her chagrin and utter reluctance. While traveling to their new home, she and her parents stumble upon a foreign otherworld which they explore, despite Chihiro’s protests and her feeling of dread – which turns true when her parents are (literally) turned into pigs who over-indulge in some leftover food that was reserved for the dimension’s population, leaving our heroine to fend for herself. As night falls, she encounters Haku, who serves as her guide through the world, instructing her to take refuge in the city’s bathhouse and obtain work there.
With some help from the bathhouse’s residents, she makes her way through the building to meet with Yubaba, the old and crass owner of the institution, and successfully pressures her to giving her a job (as per Haku’s earlier instructions), at the cost of her own real name; whereafter she is known simply as Sen. Over time, she forms a bond with some inhabitants of the otherworld; such as bathhouse maid Lin, who becomes a “big sister” figure to her; Kamaji, a kind-hearted, arachnoid boiler room operator, Yubaba’s child Boh, and No-Face, arguably the most iconic character of the film, who goes from a wandering spirit, to a trouble-making customer, and finally Chihiro’s loyal follower, freed from any outside influences.
One day, she runs into a badly injured white dragon, who she somehow manages to identify as Haku, being attacked by paper birds (it happens!), and near the point of death. Learning that this was because of a magical seal that he had stolen at Yubaba’s orders, she develops a firm resolve to return the seal to Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba, and rescue Haku from his perilous fate – an act which Kamaji recognizes as her developing feelings for the injured boy.
Accompanied by No-Face and Boh, they make their way to Zeniba’s house, where Chihiro is surprised to discover how unlike Yubaba the former is; whereas the latter is greedy, manipulative and rude to everyone, Zeniba is peaceful, considerate and in general, kind to others who are deserving of it; after receiving the seal from Chihiro, and offering them her hospitality for a bit, a fully restored dragon Haku greets them at the door, which surprises Chihiro; after thanking Zeniba for her kindness, she ascends with Haku to the skies with Boh, while No-Face stays behind to become Zeniba’s spinner. As they fly over the sky, Chihiro somehow manages to identify Haku further as a river spirit that she met a long time ago, which frees him from Yubaba’s curse, for which the latter thanks her graciously for.
The story comes to a happy end as Chihiro releases her parents from their pig forms (correctly guessing from a pile of pigs, that none of them are among the pack set by Yubaba in front of her), leaves the otherworld to the sound of thunderous cheers, and makes a promise with Haku to see each other once again, before departing with her parents back to reality.
WHAT I LIKED
- This is my first time seeing the artistic work of Studio Ghibli, and one thing that stood out to me was its distinctive art style. Compared to other anime that was out around that time, the art of Spirited Away was unique and definitely managed to capture the magic of the otherworld and its various places of living, in particular the bathhouse, the city around it, and especially the vast sea that overlooks it. Especially with the opening montage where the various residents of the otherworld descend upon the town as night falls was one of my favorite sights in the film.
- The story was simple and straightforward, and never manages to either diverge too significantly from Chihiro’s journey, or add too many unneccessary plot-ruining elements to it.
- A lot of components that were present in Spirited Away reminded me of other isekai like Digimon Adventure: such as the characters forming a bond with the world and the inhabitants around them, and the subject matter being treated in a serious, yet completely appropriate manner, unlike most modern isekai series.
- Beyond the plot, there was one thing that I was impressed with more than the other things, and it was the messages and themes that were presented in the film. Spirited Away managed to not only present a coherent story over the span of two hours, but also lay out some applicable real-world principles: such as the battle between capitalism and immateriality, environmentalism, striving for personal improvement, and in my opinion, made me think with respect to how we should, as Christians, approach ourselves and “the things of this world”.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
- Honestly, and feel free to disagree with me: but I found the pairing between Chihiro and Haku to be rushed, and the whole shtick with him being the river spirit and all was quite unprecendented for this film; let alone I was confused how Chihiro managed to connect the dots so easily despite having very little significant in-film evidence to back her up. Sure, it’s cute and all, I’ll give it that; but just a bit tacky how they fit it in the last few minutes of the film.
- I can let pass Chihiro and her parents leaving the otherworld with no recollection of what happened; but you’re telling me that despite the film clearly showing that a significant amount of time (I’m talking about months to years) has passed in reality, everything works just as if they had been gone for a few days (such as the car still working)? That’s one heck of a plot hole if you ask me!
I’ve seen enough isekai where the protagonists are treated like complete idiots who have no idea what they’re doing, or wannabe heroes who end up too powerful for their own good, with no character at all. With this film, this is not the case, as seen with Chihiro and residents the otherworld. Each character is treated with the utmost respect and given a good depth to their personality, and the film works to make them as relatable as they can to individuals like us. Through their traits, they exemplify the complexity of the world around us with characters such as Lin, Kamaji, Haku, Zeniba, and No-Face; people who demonstrate a capability to become good themselves, or those who are genuinely caring and good towards those who are deserving of it, alongside wicked folks like Yubaba and Aogaeru (the frog) who represent the worst of humanity, through their greed and contempt for the well-being of others.
The great thing about these characters is that they’re not just there to act as scenery; these are characters that interact with Chihiro, and assist her development as a person. You could see how the actions they do manage to change her from someone with a childlike mindset to a mature person, who is capable of standing up for herself and owning up to her responsibilities. It’s hard not to appreciate how much she has grown by the end of the film, all thanks to the inhabitants of the otherworld who were there to encourage her through every step of it.
The music of Spirited Away is by far, my favorite component of the film. Every piece in this film was composed to perfection, accurately representing what was going on-screen and successfully evoked exactly what it wanted me to feel. When there’s an intensive battle scene going on, such as when Chihiro and company go up against the “stink spirit”, or No-Face bringing mayhem to the bathhouse, the music reflects a dramatic crescendo to convey the gravity of the situation. When it’s trying to be whimsical and adventurous, the music shifts to something that aims to convey that aspect. And for the emotional scenes, such as that where Chihiro and Haku float through the sky, we have soft, yet hopeful melodies overlayed by a piano to soothe the soul. All in all, Spirited Away got one thing right with its music, and it’s quickly coming in as one of my favorite soundtracks.
All in all, I’m going to have to say: Spirited Away was an experience. Some people consider it a staple of their childhood, while others can’t seem to understand why this is so well-loved by everyone else. Despite some of its flaws, I’m glad that I could finally make time for this. Over two hours, I went through an exhilirating journey across Miyazaki’s beautiful world, which was further emboldened by its amazing animation and soundtrack. It’s an isekai in many ways that captures the genre’s spirit in incredible ways; playful at times, serious at others, but all with an important message to compound. If you’re looking to get started with Studio Ghibli, do yourself a favor and try this film on for size. You might find yourself looking through the shelves for another Ghibli film of this caliber.