aka Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi
Drawing on the best elements from his previous movies, director Hayao Miyazaki created a beautiful animated tale of a sullen ten year old girl thrust into a world of magic and spirits. Filled with scares that every kid can relate too, it also has a warmth that cannot be denied while teaching lessons on responsibility, hard work, and love.
There are great films and then there are truly great films that last the test of time. Spirited Away is destined to be the latter and I would go as far as to call it Japan’s equivalent to The Wizard of Oz. Both feature a girl as a protagonist dealing with a very strange parallel world while being helped by locals. There are also feuding witches and a search for something special involved, but in the end I consider this movie to be far more emotionally moving than the American classic.
All movies introduce their main character early on, but I can’t remember seeing a heroine start out by sulking in the back seat of the family car. At the ripe old age of ten, Chihiro thinks she has very good reason to be miserable. The family is moving to a new town and the first bouquet of flowers she has ever received was from her classmates as a farewell present. And those flowers are already dying. Life is being so unfair.
Things only get worse when the parents try to cheer her up, but manage to miss the turn to their new house. Going up a cobblestone lane into a forest, the father is determined to keep going despite the worries of the womenfolk. Strange little houses and briefly glimpsed idols line the way, which Chihiro’s mother explains are shrines for gods.
At the end of the road is a mysterious tunnel entered through a brightly painted arch. Terrified of the darkness, the girl refuses to accompany her parents when they decide to explore. Fear of being left behind battles with the fear of the unknown in a perfectly animated scene that captures the intense emotions of youth with realism.
What the little family finds on the other side of the entrance is a path across an empty riverbed that goes up a hill to a run down set of buildings. The father concludes it is an abandoned theme park which are many of in Japan (and other parts of Asia). This further intrigues the adults and unnerves the child.
Do you remember that childhood feeling of being in a place you shouldn’t be with the accompanying fear of being caught? Spirited Away does such a good job of showing it that you might forget you are watching a cartoon. The facial and body animations during the scene where the parents find an empty café and begin pigging out on the food should be something every serious animator should study.
Having grown more than uncomfortable with her parents’ actions, Chihiro wanders off to explore. She finds a bridge to an ornate and well maintained bathhouse towering over the surroundings. There she is found by a boy a little older than she. Their mutual surprise at running into each other turns into alarm as he shouts that she shouldn’t be there and to leave before the sun sets.
It is too late. Far too late, in fact. To the girl’s horror and disbelief, she finds her father and mother transforming into pigs. Terrified and confused, Chihiro runs through the streets of the park only to see shadows begin to move – and take shape.
It is now that the movie kicks into overdrive after a fairly slow paced beginning. The main story has finally begun and things unfold at a dizzying pace. Running for her life, Chihiro finds the empty river bed filled with a giant river complete with a large ferry approaching. Trapped, she tries to wake herself up from what must be a nightmare.
Chanting “disappear” at all the apparitions around her, she instead finds herself fading away. This is probably the second most frightening idea for a child with the first being having one’s parents disappear. Now both have happened to the spoiled child and it is too much for her to handle.
Luckily for Chihiro the boy returns to save her from disappearing into nothingness. Kind and patient, he has her eat a berry so she can stay in the spirit world. But unlike Persephone of Greek myth, it doesn’t trap her or worse, turn her into a pig like her parents. However, her life is still in grave danger for humans are not supposed to be there.
Miyazaki shows that he has not forgotten the odd ticks and behaviors we exhibit during childhood in the sequence that follows. In it, Chihiro must hold her breath while crossing the bridge to the bathhouse or the magic hiding her will fail. I can remember hiding as a little kid and holding my breath thinking it would make me harder to find, so this kid logic rings very true to me.
Along the perilous journey across, a strange spirit that is a shadow with a mask takes particular interest in the pair. Apparently it has not been fooled, but says nothing while watching them. Sadly, a frog spirit surprises the ten year old and she inhales which sets off a panic on the bridge.
Once again, a childhood fear has been fully realized.
There is going to be no break from directly confronting her fears for Haku, the boy, must leave her due to his duties. But he shows her the way to go in a magical moment before going off. The next fear for her to face is one of heights in a delightfully animated trek down a steep set of stairs outside the bathhouse. Chihiro acts and moves just like a real ten year old girl would in an example of perfect balance between tension and comedy.
A pervasive air of mystery fills the movie as we follow along with Chihiro in her trek to find help. It is a strange world she has been plunged into, yet there are enough elements that are familiar for us to relate to. This keeps the audience’s suspension of disbelief intact. It makes sense that a bathhouse has a boiler room with pipes all over the place, for instance.
The boiler room was the destination given to Chihiro along with the instruction to ask for work no matter what. Residing in the room is a spiderlike man with six arms in constant motion while he works. Kamajii is annoyed by her presence, but she keeps persisting. Also in there are magically animated soot balls (shades of My Neighbor Totoro) carrying coal to the furnace that heats the water.
When one of those cute little black critters struggles with a heavy chunk of coal, Chihiro gets her first lesson about work in a very clever scene. I had to laugh when her act of mercy 45qis viewed as a chance to take advantage of her by the soot balls. Lots of little lessons about work and responsibility are often taught by Miyazaki in his films, so it si no surprise that we see an element of Kiki’s Delivery Service here.
It turns out Haku has not steered the girl wrong for she soon finds herself being escorted by Lin, a worker in the bathhouse. It did take a roast newt from Kamajii to seal the deal, but Lin is the more worldly guide that the girl needs – even if it is the spirit world we are talking about. The bathhouse interior is quite impressive and caters to a bizarre menagerie of spirits of every shape and size.
One of the more memorable ones is a corpulent radish spirit Chihiro finds herself sharing an elevator with. The timing of the looks and actions during the ascent is superb in conveying an amusing acceptance of the strange – by both girl and radish spirit. There is a subtle sweetness to it that is very charming.
CGI was used heavily in this movie and while Miyazaki later got more away from it in his films, the uses of it are often stunning. When Chihiro finally makes it to the top suite, she is whisked by magic through lavishly decorated halls and doorways in dizzying fashion. It is a beautiful trip that evokes fairy tales and the wonder of childhood.
At the end of the trip is the office of Yubaba, a super deformed old witch. If you aren’t familiar with “super deformed,” I’m not talking about the grotesque, but about Japan’s tendency to create drawings and figurines of people with huge heads and small bodies. You can purchase just about any famous character from entertainment properties as a super deformed figure. I’ve always found it creepy rather than cute, but your mileage may vary.
Yubaba is not a nice old lady and is very annoyed to have an unwelcome human visitor. She even taunts the girl with threats of making her a piglet like her parents. Though frightened, Chihiro keeps asking for a job just like Haku instructed her. Eventually, she wears the witch down for the crone has taken an oath to hire anyone who asks for a job.
There is a price, however. In exchange, Chihiro has to sign a contract and forfeits her name, which is magically taken from her. Now she is Sen and must work to stay alive. Having your name forgotten is another fear that afflicts children, so it looks like one more for the girl to overcome.
A rude surprise is finding out that Haku is Yubaba’s henchman and Sen is put off by his now cold demeanor. It even causes her to wonder if there are two separate boys with the same name and appearance. This is a passing worry, because she now faces the hostility and prejudice against humans by the workers of the bathhouse. None of them want to work with a stinky human.
After finally getting a job under the supervision of Lin, Sen begins to start showing the strain. While the other maids sleep during the daytime, Haku visits her to show her where her parents are. Another beautiful CGI scene of running through flower bushes is so well done that it seems like 3D the way it pops from the screen.
Having seen her parents fully transformed into large pigs that look just like all the others in the sty, Sen vows to somehow save them. A chance find in her freshly laundered real world clothes reminds Sen that her name is really Chihiro. The magic is so potent in the contract that she was forgetting it. Sadly, Haku cannot remember his real name for he is bound by a contract with Yubaba too.
An act of kindness by the boy reveals how hard all of this has been for the human girl to handle. It’s a tender moment that reminds you of just how young Sen really is. Duty calls, but Sen turns back before entering the bathhouse to see a silvery streak fly through the air. She quickly realizes it is Haku and that he’s really a dragon!
But how does she know that?
Night approaches so it is time to prepare for the evening’s customers. That means cleaning and the girl is not able to keep up with the others to a mix of their amusement and disdain. Since she is the new girl, it is time for the foreman to haze her by giving her the worst possible assignment – cleaning the dirtiest tub of them all.
In the midst of all this, Sen lets in through a window the shadowy spirit that watched her on the bridge. You can tell there will be repercussions, but first a horrible stink spirit must be dealt with. It first shows up looking vaguely like the Smog Monster from Godzilla vs Hedora as it oozes up the main thoroughfare.
Guess where it is going? Now the effort to clean the tub becomes a frantic race against time. Yubaba decides this is the perfect opportunity to make Sen’s life worse by assigning her to serve the wretched monster. Despite the overwhelming stench, our heroine does her best to do the job.
The evil witch may be out to get Sen, but little did she count on the help of a grateful shadow spirit who seems to want to be friends with the girl…
While I may be a little facetious comparing the stink spirit with the Smog Monster, the truth is actually more interesting. The spirit is actually a polluted river spirit and the ensuing scene is based on a real life environmental clean up that Miyazaki participated in.
Laboring like Hercules to clean the spirit, the human girl may not have a river to divert, but she does have a token for the most expensive herbal wash thanks to her new would be friend. A chance discovery leads to a massive group effort to help the foul creature. Once freed of his torment, the river spirit gives Sen a gift before flying away in a form that looks a great deal like Haku’s.
Having finally proven herself and gaining acceptance, Sen gets a chance to rest and reflect. Dark clouds are gathering though. Her act of kindness toward the shadow spirit called No-Face leads to horrific consequences when he exploits the greed of the workers and begins to change into something far more sinister.
Another dark cloud arrives in the form of a lethal magical swarm that has badly wounded Haku in his dragon form. Desperate measures will be required to solve both problems confronting Chihiro. Can she take responsibility for what she has unleashed? Can she save the boy who saved her? Will she be able to restore her parents back to their human forms?
One of my childhood memories was watching certain cartoon specials (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi especially) that only aired once a year in the days before VCRs or DVRs. Oh the pain of watching them end, knowing I wouldn’t be able to see them for another year, if then. The phrase “parting is such sweet sorrow” comes to mind, for it felt like losing something precious. I never expected to feel that as an adult, but that is what I feel every time Spirited Away’s end credits roll.
Somehow, Hayao Miyazaki managed to capture all the emotions of childhood and distill them into this movie. All the fears, uncertainties, lessons, terrors, and wonders are vividly portrayed without a single misstep. Beautiful in every regard, Spirited Away is one of the greatest animated films of all time.
Like The Wizard of Oz, the quest of a young girl trying to return home is at the core of the story. Chihiro and Dorothy both find more about themselves along the way, growing into responsibility and heroism in equal measures. Their companions eventually find what they were looking for, but not in the way they expected. There is something universally compelling about such stories, for they are very much metaphors about growing up.
By this point, you can probably tell that I love this film. Frankly, I don’t have a sufficient vocabulary to properly praise it. It isn’t just one of the best animated movies ever made, it is one of the best movies ever made.
Spirited Away is rated PG for good reason, since there is violence, scary spirits, and actually quite a bit of blood near the end. It was aimed at ten year olds and up by the director, so that is my recommendation as well.
I recommend the film to animation lovers, fantasy fans, parents, and children in the double digits. Adults will enjoy this just as much due to the wonderfully written story, gorgeous animation, and beautiful soundtrack. It truly is an extraordinary experience and I wish I could have seen it in a theater.
Sadly this has not been released on Blu-ray yet, so we have to make do with the flawed DVD release from Disney. If you have later Disney releases of Studio Ghibli DVDs, this isn’t quite to their standard.
The main problem is the video quality. While the case claims it has been optimized for widescreen TVs, it is not fully anamorphic. The 2.0:1 ratio is oddly letterboxed and does not use the full 720 pixels like it should. Instead it is letterboxed on all sides, but not at 4:3 ratio. It is wider but will require your HDTV to use the “Fill” setting to present correctly.
What all this arcane technobabble means is that the scaled up picture will look muddier than it should with more “jaggies” around the outlines. You’ll also see more horizontal lines (combing) in fast moving scenes. For such a beautiful film, this is a crime. At least the colors are well saturated and clear.
Fortunately, the audio side is excellent with full Dolby Digital 5.1 for both the original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub. The French track is only Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles are provided in English and English SDH captions. While as always I prefer the Japanese dub with subtitles, the English dub is superb.
A bevy of extras are spread across the two discs in the set.
Disc 1 contains:
Introduction by John Lasseter – He’s the director of Pixar Animation fame and possibly North America’s biggest Miyazaki fanboy. That’s okay because he’s become friends with the Japanese director who’s inspired him so much.
The Art of Spirited Away – This is a 4:3 letterboxed 15 minute look at the movie with comments from Hayao Mizaki and the American script team. Lots of nice tidbits here on the difficulty of subbing and it also includes footage from the Toronto premier of the film.
Disc 2 contains:
Behind the Microphone – A not quite six minute documentary about the English dub voice actors. ADR is harder than you would think is what I got out of it. 4:3 ratio again.
Select Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison – This one is in the odd widescreen letterbox again and makes full use of the alternate view ability of some DVD players. You can flip between the original storyboards and the finished animation for the first ten minutes of the film.
Nippon Television Special – At almost 42 minutes and 4:3 ratio, this is a fascinating look at the hardships involved in making an anime movie. All the motivations involved in creating the movie are explained, but it is the difficulties and ridiculous hours involved in making it that impressed me. Then there is the generational gap issues between the director and his much younger assistants. Didn’t get some of the things in the movie? Neither did they.
Glimpses of Miyazaki’s concept art and key frames being drawn makes one realize just how much effort goes into a project like this. His hand is involve in every step of the way so this is truly his movie.
Also interesting is the unusual place they recorded the voice acting and the interactions with the cast. KFC makes a cameo and may explain why I felt the craving for fried chicken for a week after watching it. Not only was attention to detail paid to the vocal performances, but to the sound effects. A real life bathhouse and hotel was used to record background noises, for instance. But what took the cake was seeing them rent the exact model car in the beginning to record it driving over rough terrain!
That’s dedication, folks.
Joe Hisaishi scored the movie and I think it was every bit the equal to his wonderful Princess Mononoke score. Also covered is the lovely closing theme Always with Me written and performed by Youmi Kimura which made the end credits even more emotional. She had sent a recording to Miyazaki after being inspired by one of his earlier movies, but it did not fit the failed project Rin the Chimney Sweeper.
But the director kept the recording and returned to it one day to realize it fit the story that became Spirited Away perfectly. It ended up being a direct inspiration for the film, so they brought her in to record it again. Haunting does not even begin to describe the melody. Appropriate, eh?
Original Japanese Trailers – The odd letterbox format rears its head again for half an hours worth of trailers. Only for the diehards, it does show how the ad campaign played up the sinister and dark aspects almost exclusively at first. That’s intriguing to me and definitely shows a cultural difference.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
What a rollercoaster ride the beginning of the third act is. The mayhem in the bathhouse by No-Face and the frantic efforts of Sen to get to the wounded Haku makes things exciting to say the least. No-Face’s desperate desire for Sen to like him and the inability to fill his infinite loneliness with food and attention is made even more sad when you find out he is based on Miyazaki himself. For a man who has made so many people happy, it is jarring to see how he views himself.
I loved the difference in Chihiro when the life of the boy she loves is on the line. That fear of heights? Pfft, time to tie up the sleeves and legs samurai style to run on a collapsing pipe to climb up the exterior of the bathhouse. It shows how much she has grown in such a short amount of time.
The various spirits may scare other people, but Baby is the most frightening one to me. He embodies the total selfishness of the very young, but packaged in a powerful body. Even his mother Yubaba is frightened of his tantrums. Spoiled rotten, he is used to getting his way, the little huge creep.
That made what happened to him at Zeniba’s hands very satisfying. Turned into a fat rat, his perspective was changed in a hurry. Zeniba comes off just as wicked as her twin in her entrance to the story.
The scene of Haku falling down the ventilation shaft and landing while thrashing around has some stellar animation. There is some foreshadowing done here with Sen’s flashbacks to being underwater when she was little.
Sen’s bravery in forcing the cursed item out of him was high drama, so it was impressive to see how quickly some humor in the physical form of the cures was inserted without missing a beat. Isn’t that the cutest curse you’ve ever seen? The power of love is on display with Kamajii making sure it is said aloud.
No-Face is as much of a star of the movie as Chihiro/Sen. His character arc is an interesting one involving the use of deception to gain “friends” through extreme consumerism. This turns him into a bloated monster who speaks in the voice of others he has consumed, much like how people completely swept into the popular culture parrot their peers.
In the end, he is still as lonely as one can get having failed miserably with that approach. Yet Chihiro is very kind to him and lets him accompany her on the spirit commuter train. The ride is one of my favorite sequences in the movie due to the feeling it captures. You are always amongst strangers on these rides and having them be faceless shadows makes me wonder who they are. It is the loneliness of the city life encapsulated succinctly.
Yubaba’s greed is another commentary by Miyazaki about being blind to what is really important. She doesn’t even notice her son has been replaced with a transformed proxy and when told something precious is missing by Haku, she first looks at the gold given out by No-Face. Her misplaced rage against the boy is another animation highlight.
The arrival at Deniba’s cottage is surreally charming, if that makes any sense. The hopping hand lantern is whimsy incarnate, if you ask me. Right away it creates an uncertain air about approaching the witch, for it doesn’t seem sinister at all.
Zeniba is great fun once the distrust is dispelled. She is the classic good twin and her values are that of a bygone era. Everything about her life and residence reflects the warmth of a country hearth. In short, she is an idealized grandmother.
Haku’s arrival to rescue Chihiro is very well done and the affection between them is conveyed in such a sweet way by their touching foreheads.
Unexpectedly, it is topped shortly after in a reprise when Chihiro remembers falling into a river and being saved by him when she was little. The river is now gone but she remembers its name…
She may only be ten, but she has already had the romance of a lifetime. It is very innocent and pure with hints of predestination.
While she may have the boy she loves by her side, Chihiro must pass the final test by herself in order to gain her and her parents’ freedom. Her approach to Yubaba reminded me of a gunslinger from a western walking to a duel.
True love has arrived a little early for Chihiro and furthermore the two belong to different worlds. But she makes Haku promise they will see each other again and it sounds like it will be some time before that can happen.
That last wistful look back at the gate before getting in the family car says it all. While it is a happy ending and the parents are rescued, part of her, maybe most of her, doesn’t want it to have ended. That’s also how I feel after watching the movie.