Spirited Away (2001)

Review #1,593

Director:  Hayao Miyazaki
Cast:  Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki
Plot:  During her family's move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.

Genre:  Animation / Adventure / Fantasy
Awards:  Won Golden Bear (Berlin) & Best Animated Film (Oscar)
Runtime:  125 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean) for some scary moments
Source:  Studio Ghibli

“Once you do something, you never forget.  Even if you can't remember.”

This was my introduction to the world of Hayao Miyazaki, at the behest of a friend in college.  Many have spoken about how their childhoods had been transformed or enlightened with Studio Ghibli (and of course Disney too…), but for me it all started at age 17, when I was fairly new to the medium of cinema (my knowledge was only limited to Hollywood blockbusters at that time), though I was eager to put on my jungle hat to do some exploration of other kinds of cinema on my own.  Spirited Away opened the doors for me to Miyazaki, and also, Isao Takahata, so 13 years on, revisiting this gem of a masterwork is a poignant affair.

One could arguably regard Spirited Away as Miyazaki’s greatest achievement, based on the honours he received alone, including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival.  While everyone has his or her favourite work, most fans would agree that Spirited Away is a breathtaking anime of endless imagination and hypnotic power.  

A tale of a young girl, Chihiro, moving to a new home with her parents, the film sees them drive up a mysterious path that leads them into a world of fantasy, though the laws of reality do somehow still apply.  With her parents turned into pigs after an uncontrolled bout of greediness, Chihiro must face uncertain challenges in navigating a world of strange beings and sometimes supernatural forces.  

While it is certainly a great cinematic experience to reminisce and revel in, backed by a wonderful score from the ever-reliable Joe Hisaishi, viewing Spirited Away now can be disturbing in ways not felt before.  It is an allegory of many things, notably the fragility of modern youth, where the young of today are seen to be averse to hard work.  In other words, the toil which Chihiro is forced to repeat daily is symbolic of a generation that desires to liberate itself from labour.  

Another allegory is the bath house, a kind of classy brothel where dirty clients are serviced—it’s hard to erase the thought that Chihiro is no more than a young girl who must come of age, perhaps prematurely, in an adult world.  Lastly, the concept of identity, real or stolen, imagined or recollected, forms the overarching theme of the film.  Miyazaki asks of us to remember who we are, how we have come to be, and how proxies (in the real world, Sen could have been a virtual alias for Chihiro) are mere ephemeral markers of our existence.  We must, of course, seek to own our existence.

Verdict:  Arguably Miyazaki’s greatest achievement, this is an anime of endless imagination and hypnotic power.





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