Life couldn’t get any worse for ten-year-old Chihiro. Her family is moving to a new home, meaning she had to leave her friends and old life behind. In an attempt to reach their destination faster, her parents take a detour that leads them into what they assume to be a theme park. The two unwittingly gobble up the food of the Gods, transforming them into pigs. Only Chihiro is spared from this fate due to her cautious, sheltered upbringing, but none of those qualities will help her much when she realizes the world she’s trapped in wasn’t meant for humans. With help from a mysterious boy named Haku, Chihiro is given a job at a local bathhouse where she must step way out of her comfort zone in order to save her family.
Spirited Away is important for a number of reasons. Prior to its release, Studio Ghibli’s films on Western shores were mostly cult classics among anime enthusiasts (specifically the revered Princess Mononoke), but unknown to the general public. In Japan, Ghibli’s powerhouse status meant Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in its home country. It took the efforts of Pixar’s John Lasseter as he fought tooth and nail to bring it to American shores with intent to change American minds. It worked well enough, garnering several awards (including the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003) and praise for its unique, innovative offering. Importantly, it convinced Disney to release the rest of Ghibli’s films to a mainstream demographic with varying results. Among American audiences, Spirited Away may still lack the admiration it has in Japan, but its success means Ghibli is a better recognized name now than it was years back. Even taken on its own, the film is a unique entity in itself.
On the surface, it’s a hard movie to adjust to, especially if you grew up in the West where the majority of related all-age programs limited themselves to kid protagonists going on adventures and fighting bad guys. Spirited Away deliberately avoids violence or any black and white displays of “good vs. evil.” Miyazaki consciously developed a world as opposed to just a place for Chihiro to bypass. She interacts with an array of characters with complicated goals and unpredictable manners. The primary antagonist Yubaba is portrayed as a shrewd, conniving business woman, but one who makes good on her promises, takes her job seriously, and dotes over her spoiled son. The sarcastic Lin is rude to everyone else, but protects Chihiro like an older sister. Meanwhile Haku alternates between being supportive to Chihiro whilst carrying a secret that questions his loyalty. The heap of surreal touches like the legion of flying paper birds or the three hopping heads firmly place this film in the “so weird” category.
Its reliance on peculiar imagery and Japanese folklore might confuse foreigners and the target audience (and if one documentary in the Blu-ray extra is anything to go by, that includes Japanese youth), but its tale is as ageless and accessible to any kid growing up. At its core, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age journey. Chihiro’s self-centered behavior is put to the test when she doesn’t have her parents to cling onto. She is occasionally assisted by the friends she makes, but largely has to pick up after herself. Miyazaki stated his inspiration for Chihiro was the daughter of a friend, acknowledging her sullen and willful behavior as an interesting enigma he wanted to depict. At first, Chihiro’s apathy seems like the antics of an old man criticizing today’s generation of lazy misfits, but it’s clear he views her as a complicated soul with limitless imagination. Chihiro is at a stage of prepubescence where she’s ready to walk the path of adulthood and the challenges she’s forced to encounter can be seen as a metaphor for that. Nothing speaks this better than Yubaba taking ownership of Chihiro’s name and branding her as “Sen”, forcing her to cling tight to her individualism through self-growth. Miyazaki made this film as a compliment to the complexities of children, which is something adults in general tend to dismiss. Chihiro’s story feels several shades more inspiring knowing it had the backup of its creator.
Spirited Away gets a lot of its storytelling right by what it doesn’t do. Its two hours length never feels bloated from its message nor does it ever talk down to the audience. Exposition is a rarity in the film; the characters’ quirks speak for themselves. It constantly emphasizes quiet moments while balancing a flowing narrative. A lot of its deeper themes might go over the heads of children, but they can relate to Chihiro’s fears. Meanwhile, anyone old enough to understand will appreciate the nuance it carries.
Fifteen years down the line, Spirited Away still looks amazing.The impossibly defined backgrounds are inhumanly precise: from the decoration of the bathhouse to the lowliest rice bowl, nothing is left half-done or lacking detail. The spirits are an obtuse band of mythical creatures, inanimate objects (much love for the Radish Spirit), and other weirdly shaped denizens. Animators carefully took time to draw insignificant details on mouthwatering foods, disgusting piles of goo, and elaborate Japanese structures. This attention further extends to minor gestures and moments that would otherwise go unnoticed by the average viewer: Chihiro doesn’t simply put on her shoe, she makes sure to tap it with her toes to keep it in place. Chihiro’s mother doesn’t just eat, she hovers one arm to the side in a mannerism unique to her. Miyazaki pointedly emphasizes this level of thinking, so much so that he tells his employees that Haku’s dragon form must slither like a gecko and fall like a snake instead of simply “falling.” It is a film that bears repeated viewings to spot something you might have missed the first time or get a better feeling for the characters based on their actions.
The English dub is largely superlative. Daveigh Chase’s high pitch fits the spoiled Chihiro, David Odger Stiers gives Kamaji the Boiler Man a worthy gravelly tone, and the late Suzanne Pleshette is an effectively witchy Yubaba. Jason Marsden acts well enough, but is miscast for the youthful Haku due to his deep voice. I’m also on the fence with Susan Egan’s sarcastic portrayal of Lin when her Japanese counterpart sounds more haggard and stressed, but it’s amusing to hear Disney’s Hercules’ Megara in an anime. There are a few instances where English dialogue clarifies certain scenes that isn’t the original Japanese, but they’re incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. The only dialogue change that might stand out as a negative is a line spoken at the end. Without spoiling, it completely alters the scope of the movie compared to its original Japanese counterpart, partially losing its meaning as a result.
Spirited Away is available in a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Extras include Japanese TV spots and commercials. A feature is included to play the entire movie through the original Japanese storyboards. “Introduction by John Lasseter” is a short vignette of the Pixar studio head gushing over the film. The DVD copy is the same one from the last home media release, meaning this feature always appears at the start of the movie. It’s an unnecessarily minor nuisance, but thankfully can be skipped. Fortunately, this is not the case in the Blu-ray copy where it’s merely an optional side bonus. “The Art of Spirited Away” is a decent look behind the American alteration of the movie as it interviews voice actors and translators. The latter is definitely interesting as the writers tackle the cultural differences while trying to keep the script as close to the original as possible. “Behind the Microphone” is a basic featurette on the American voice actors. The cream of the crop though is the “Nippon Television Special:” a forty minute documentary that thoroughly inspects the progress of the film. The special chronologically details the animation process, sound effects, voice recording, and music. Appropriately, the documentary sometimes dives into Miyazaki and his bemusement over the younger generations. Rumi Hiiragi, the actress behind Chihiro isn’t aware of a childish superstition presented in the film that Miyazaki himself grew up with for example.
Spirited Away is a gateway series for many western viewers. Like many, it was my first Ghibli affair and has since left an unforgettable impression on me. It’s a magical, atypical movie coated with subtle motifs, yet remains accessible in its approach. A theme throughout is the decline of old traditions; the spirit realm is treated as a strange, invading presence in the eyes of a ten-year-old, yet Spirited Away feels like a modern retelling of stories from old. It’s timelessness means future generations has the chance to experience Miyazaki’s masterpiece. With this newly released Blu-ray edition, a new line of children can receive the encouragement and praise its creator has for their self-perseverance.