Spirited Away is a very unique film. Besides probably being Studio Ghibli’s most famous film, it’s also one of the very few anime that seems to be beloved and known by pretty much everyone. Whether you’re an anime fan, a casual animation fan, or neither, it’s very likely that you’ve seen this film, and to most, it’s probably their first introduction to the wonderful world of Miyazaki and Ghibli.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who discovers a secret world when she and her family get lost and venture through a hillside tunnel. When her parents undergo a mysterious transformation, Chihiro must fend for herself as she encounters strange spirits, assorted creatures, and a grumpy sorceress who seeks to prevent her from returning to the human world.
The film’s main character Chihiro is based off a real girl, associate producer Seiji Okuda’s daughter who came to stay with Miyazaki every summer. Inspired by her, Miyazaki made this film with her and other 10-year-old girls in mind. This resulted in a very real and in a way, a very relatable main character that resonates with people of all ages. While there’s been some criticism on Chihiro, I think she’s actually a really great, realistic character that goes through some wonderful, real, and honest development throughout the film. She has to slowly adapt and grow through the situation she’s put in which makes for a really interesting and very real young hero.
This film, like many other of Miyazaki’s works, is filled with symbolism, messages, and elements of folklore and fairy tales. A big theme, while not as pivotal here as in Princess Mononoke, is the environment. Haku, for example, can’t find his way home because his river was drained, and one of the spirits in the bathhouse was a ‘stink spirit’, a river spirit that had been too polluted by garbage.
Another major theme is the importance of names and words. In the story, Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, forcing Chihiro to take up a new name: Sen. Haku warns Sen not to forget her real name which could lead to her being trapped n the spirit world forever. Sen must remember what the qualities are that make her who she is even when the one word that defines her, her name, has changed. Sen eventually succeeds and keeps her identity and helps Haku regain his as well, which frees both of them.
There’s also some really interesting motifs and themes in the film like greed. Almost each one of the main characters doesn’t reach their full potential at first because of greed. Chihiro’s parents’ greed leads them to being turned into pigs, and the humans’ greed leads to Haku not being able to return home.
Another interesting thing about Spirited Away is that there’s no real division between good or evil, which is interesting considering most Western animation always has a very clear line between who’s good and who’s evil, and there’s usually a very clear hero and villain present. What makes Spirited Away so good is that each of the characters has good and bad qualities, and each of the characters really show both sides, which is very much like the real world. Everyone has their better and worse sides, and they come out in different situations. I would even argue that there’s no real villain in the film that’s through and through bad like you usually would in Western animation.
The design, look, and feel of this film once again speak of Miyazaki’s brilliance. He managed to create a unique and really beautiful world that just makes you want to be part of it. After seeing this film, I just wanted to explore this world myself which is actually a very rare feeling. He created an authentic world inhabited by a group of unique and really intriguing characters that have all become very iconic. Each one is like nothing you’ve seen before, and each and every one of them is masterfully brought to life by the film’s amazing animators.
The film has over the years achieved many things. It has won countless awards, including the only Studio Ghibli film to ever win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and broken countless records, including grossing ¥30.4 billion which made it become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history as well as the very first film in history to make more than $200 million at the box office before opening in North America. The film has generally been praised by critics and is perhaps Studio Ghibli’s most well known film all across the board.
Spirited Away truly is a timeless classic. Many people have described the film as a classic fairy tale, and I think this film definitely lives up to that comparison. It’s an amazing story with complex characters, a wondrous world, and beautiful visuals. It’s one of Studio Ghibli’s best and to me and many others, a great first introduction to the world of Miyazaki and Ghibli.
Edited by: Kelly Conley