“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
Think back to the Disney movies you probably watched as a young child. There was that sense of wonder and enchantment, like you were swept away into a new, magnificent world that just seemed so magical. I don’t really get that feeling from Disney movies anymore, nor do I from most movies. That’s one of the sad parts about growing up. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), brings me right back to that place of magic and wonder. Miyazaki is often described as the Japanese Walt Disney, but that’s not a fair comparison. Miyazaki’s work is often more mature, a little darker, and even further into the realm of fantasy. And this film may be his best work. It’s the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and the only anime film to be nominated for—and win—an academy award. It rightfully earns its place among the best animated films of all time.
The plot opens with Chihiro, a young Japanese girl, riding with her parents on their way to their new home. A wrong turn takes them to what they think is an abandoned theme park, which they choose to explore. But when Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and a hidden world of spirits is revealed, it’s clear Chihiro is in over her head. Chihiro, with the help of her newfound friend Haku, is reluctantly accepted into the spirit world, but immediately begins looking for a way to get her parents back and escape.
I’d like to help you, dear, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s one of our rules here. You’ve got to take care of your parents and that dragon boyfriend of yours on your own.
The technical aspects of Spirited Away are phenomenal. The English dialogue and voice acting are superb (localization was handled by Disney), and the animation is beautiful. All of that combines with the fantasy-rich plot to create an immersive viewing experience. From the moment the spirit world emerges, you’ll feel like you’re a world away from your home. The world it portrays is both completely foreign and completely charming, and I enjoy being there every time I watch this movie.
I’m no expert in Japanese culture, but I’m going to try to add a little context to this movie. Acknowledgement of and respect for spirits is a huge part of Japanese religion and culture. It’s a way of connecting with ancestors and the world around us. Though less than 10% of Japanese people identify as strict Shintoists, over 80% are involved with those beliefs on some level, and nearly everyone respects those beliefs. In the opening scene, we see Chihiro’s parents casually dismiss this belief before stumbling into what they conclude is an abandoned amusement park. We immediately see that the sense of magic and interconnectedness (in the spirits) and fun and wonder (in the park) is dead in this family. And immediately, Chihiro discovers not only real spirits, but a whole town that springs to life in the seemingly dead setting. This is a movie about believing in wonder even if you think it’s dead, and it captures this brilliantly.
Spirited Away is an amazing film and piece of art. It may be a bit too dark for younger children, but older children, teens, and adults of all ages will be able to enjoy this magical journey. And I know I’ve used the word “dark” twice in this post, but this really is an uplifting, enchanting movie. There are a few tense moments to be sure, but it never loses its footing as a family movie. This is a fun, engrossing animated film that I would recommend to anyone.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Genres: adventure, animated