Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greats, on the same level as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. His films possess the same depth in his own unique style. Much of his earlier work has been genius (Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke), but Spirited Away transcends masterpiece status. Composed of layer upon layer, it creates its own terminology.
Chihiro is quickly thrust into solitude, pretty much defenseless in a new world. And what a world it is. A brief plot summary—in the midst of moving to the suburbs, Chihiro and her parents wanders into an abandoned amusement park Seeing plate upon plate of delicious food unguarded, her mother and father dive in and much to Chihiro’s dismay, slowly turn into pigs. She soon discovers that she’s in some kind of spirit world and must remain there in order to rescue her parents. She’s put to work by Yubaba, ruler of the bathhouse where spirits come to relax. During her stay, she meets many creatures, all with vibrant personalities and unique characteristics. Included among them are a boy (or is he?) named Haku, a tiny talking frog, a radish spirit, enchanted soot balls, three green, grunting bearded heads and a behemoth of a baby.
Though wildly entertaining, the magic of Spirited Away doesn’t stem from the core story, a Japanese blend of Fantasia, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland. It has, in fact, been told before. What separates Spirited Away from the normal genre entries is how it transcends typical animation with startling thematic richness. Almost immediately, Chihiro is by herself, pondering who can be relied upon in this strange place. Complicating matters is the extreme complexity of the characters. Haku, the only one to show outward compassion for Chihiro, is frequently badmouthed by his co-workers. Yubaba may come across as cruel and heartless but in reality, she’s simply an entrepreneur. Frequently, characters appear to be treacherous or kindly, but shift gears fifteen minutes later. Snippy manners or sugary tongues mean little in Miyazaki’s world; we must dig deeper to discern whom Chihiro can trust, as nobody is what they seem. Take Kamaji, who runs the boilers for the baths. At first glance, he appears nothing more than a gruff old man. Then we realize that he has multiple legs and walks like a spider. Additionally, his grumpy mannerisms are accompanied by soft words, leaving us unsure of precisely where he stands. Conquering solitude is a risky proposition in Spirited Away, for there’s no prototypical good and evil.
Parental care is closely linked to the theme of loneliness. Chihiro’s parents allow gluttony to overwhelm them, leaving her to fend for herself in an unknown place. Contrast this with Yubaba’s child, the behemoth baby. Afraid of human contact, he cowers under his blankets, unwilling to leave his bedroom. He fears germs and life itself. His mother pampers him to the point of disgust, never once suggesting that he leave his little haven. Not until he embarks on Chihiro’s final journey (in a shrunken state, thanks to Yubaba’s sister Zeniba) does he learn that the world isn’t such a bad place after all—by simply being open and in control with him, Chihiro is able to offer better maternal care than Yubaba ever did. Miyazaki is clearly displaying the merits of being independent at a young age.
Miyazaki also presents greed with remarkable delicacy. Shortly after being employed at the bathhouse, Chihiro meets No-Face, a creature without an identity. Thinking that he’s merely another customer, Chihiro grants him access to the baths. No-Face promptly proceeds to wreak havoc; he lures the staff to him by throwing them free money, gorges himself on as much food as they can bring him, eats several workers, and tears the place up. Yet he displays a strange affinity for Chihiro—when she’s around, he’s calm and gentle. Indeed, “No-Face” is an appropriate name for him, for he has no personality of his own and morphs personas to blend with his current environment. The bathhouse, full of insatiability and selfishness, turns No-Face into a dervish of fury and hunger. Around Chihiro, however, her kind nature is able to tame him, and when they leave the baths, he is completely at her disposal, timid as a mouse. For deep down, No-Face is simply lonely, craving attention and contentment. He changes temperaments to fit in. But when offered a chance to live a quiet, peaceful existence, he ecstatically accepts, the disorder of his past simply a memory.
The visual style is exceptionally complete. For Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki and his art directors traveled to ancient forests for research purposes and similar care has obviously been put into Spirited Away. The characters are fludily drawn but it’s the backgrounds and colors that truly set him apart. Every frame seems to have at least one remarkable image: tears floating upwards, ghosts emerging from the water, and the magnificent train ride, which might be my favorite film moment of them all. The lovely score is predominantly subtle, occasionally picking up the pace when a specific scene warrants it. The themes of loneliness and selfishness are emphasized under Miyazaki’s subtle direction. Today’s films frequently bludgeon us with overbearing scores and tritely pull our heartstrings, and Miyazaki’s honesty and trust in his audience is refreshing. We’re never even told that Chihiro is in a spirit world. Why should we? It’s perfectly decipherable without it being shoved in our face. Similar restraint is shown throughout the movie, making it a special event that mustn’t be missed, including by those who have developed biases against animation over the years. It’s a timeless classic for the ages.