With animation studios all turning to computer animation, Studio Ghibli remains as one of the only few major film studios that are pumping out traditionally animated films. It’s not because they are too poor and “uncool” to use computer animation but it’s because they don’t need it. Anime should stay the way it is, a unique and compelling form of art. Hayao Miyazaki has been dominating in making anime movies for the past 30 years with masterpieces like Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo. Many critics and audience members have praised Miyazaki for his imagination, animation style and overall emotional depth. Spirited Away is Miyazaki’s most beautiful, imaginative and emotionally resonant work to date.
The story details a girl named Chihiro who is moving to a new home. She doesn’t seem to be excited about it and complains endlessly. When Chihiro and her parents get lost, they come across a gate to some sort of garden. Chihiro’s parents decide to explore it, against Chihiro’s wishes. As they explore further, they come across food stalls, where Chihiro’s parents start to have a feast. Chihiro doesn’t eat and decides to walk alone. She comes across a giant bathhouse. A worker at the bathhouse then tells her to leave before the sunsets but Chihiro is too late. A giant lake obstructs the gate she entered from and her parents have turned into pigs. From there on, we see Chihiro embark on an enthralling journey through this fantastical and strange world.
Having viewed Spirited Away four times, I can honestly say that each viewing brings something new to the table. During the first two viewings, I was simply astonished by Miyazaki’s creativity, the color palette in his animation and the captivating story. I was also amazed by the quality of Joe Hisaishi’s lively yet tranquil musical score. During later viewings, I started to appreciate the themes of the film and Chihiro’s character development from an annoying child to an appreciative young adult.
Animation is a painstaking process, even for expert animators such as Miyazaki himself. After taking closer examinations of each frame in Spirited Away, I began to notice things that don’t need to be there. Despite having to exhaustingly draw each frame of the film, Miyazaki doesn’t simplify any visual elements for his own benefit. He adds detail and complexity to his drawings as if every frame was a painting. In a scene where Chihiro stands in front of the giant bathhouse, the windows and balconies of the bathhouse show many of its inhabitants in great detail. They aren’t just vague still figures in the background. Instead they start to become moving characters that we recognize. But it isn’t just repetitive motion. The background characters are actually doing real things. The bathhouse itself is also highly detailed even if it’s only a backdrop. Miyazaki still lavishes energy on the insignificant bits. We as an audience do not pay attention to these meticulous details but we subconsciously know they’re there, reinforcing our sense of Miyazaki’s magical world.
Speaking of magic, Miyazaki’s imagination just never seems to rest. Does it? Have these many different kinds of creatures ever appear onscreen at once? But Miyazaki is cautious of how far his imagination can run and understands how to control the continuous movement and energy onscreen. There are moments in the film where characters act un-dictated by the story. Sometimes a character just opens the window and smokes, contributing nothing to the story. Miyazaki knows that gratuitous motion isn’t how to get kids invested in the film but a strong emotional connection with the main character.
Chihiro, the central protagonist isn’t 100% likable at first. In fact, I found her annoying and whiny at certain points. Her experience of working at the bathhouse with things she has never seen before really changed her into a different person. She began to become an intelligent and strong character, standing up against people opposing her and figuring out ways of solving problems in this strange world. Ultimately, her enthralling journey and growth as a person helps us care for her and eventually start to like her.
Lighter in tone than Miyazaki’s previous film Princess Mononoke and more inspired than his most recent film The Wind Rises, Miyazaki brings a film that acts as both an energetic piece of entertainment and a poetic and vastly ambitious masterpiece. Kids will be drawn in by the painstakingly handcrafted and breathtakingly beautiful visuals while adults will be captivated by the touching story. Spirited Away is such a landmark and pioneer of artful animated movies that anyone influenced by Miyazaki truthfully owes him an enormous artistic debt. I am giving Spirited Away an A+.
Please comment in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!