Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant masterpiece, Spirited Away, was both a groundbreaking story and a beautiful example of traditional 2D animation when it was released in 2001. Animation was experiencing a new golden age through Disney’s new era of modern classics (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, among others) in the ’90s and the introduction of Pixar’s game changing computer-animated Toy Story and Toy Story 2, also at the same time. Spirited Away fits easily among these films, and in some ways surpasses them with its symbolism and cast of fantastical creatures.
The story of a young girl named Chihiro, Spirited Away quickly sets up a strange, and at times disturbing, world for her to navigate. Chihiro is moving to a new town with her parents when they stop at an abandoned amusement park site and things quickly become bizarre when her parents find one open restaurant and gorge themselves until they literally become pigs. This begins Chihiro’s journey to transform them back, but one that can only be achieved through her entrance into a magical realm.
Chihiro’s time in this new reality begins when she gets a job at a bathhouse for spirits. At the urging of her friend, and initial guide, Haku, Chihiro goes to Kamaji, the bathhouse boiler man to get the job. This scene sets the tone for the film in general, and the bathhouse specifically. Kamaji is half-spider, half-man and he directs an army of spiderlike creatures who feed coal into a giant fire. It’s both a highly imaginative and clever scene, yet one with a sense of humor that carries through the film.
Chihiro then finds herself at the mercy of an old woman named Yubaba. She allows Chihiro to work, yet has her sign away her identity. Haku then warns her that once she forgets her name (she is now known as Sen in the bathhouse), she will be trapped in service to Yubaba forever, as he is.
Yubaba places her as a cleaner of some of the dirtiest tubs in the bathhouse. Here is when Chihiro encounters fantastical creature after fantastical creature. It also quickly becomes obvious that the bathhouse is a place of greed and excess. While working, Chihiro is visited by an ominous figure, No Face, who takes on the characteristics of those around him, often negative attributes that Chihiro is neither interested in or tempted by.
When one of the dirtiest bathhouse spirits arrives, Chihiro is put in charge of helping the guest and with her help it’s revealed that the spirit was a water spirit who had been suffering under the great weight of so much pollution. Once freed, Chihiro is the hero of the bathhouse. This sequence is extraordinary for balancing such repellant attributes with the eventual joy and celebration of the spirit. It’s gross and funny and touching all at once, something that Miyazaki effortlessly accomplishes over and over again in the film.
The film continues with a dragon, who is really Haku’s spirit, introduction of Zeniba, Yubaba’s benevolent twin sister, and more interactions with No Face. Spirited Away runs just over two hours and in that time Chihiro, and the viewer, are fully immersed in this magical world. The many creatures that Chihiro encounters are always fascinating, for various reasons, and her journey is one that immediately engages and enthralls, and it never lags.
Miyazaki’s interest in making a movie centered on a ten-year-old girl is one that obviously resonates with young girls, yet also connects with other viewers in that the story is a coming of age tale that’s easily relatable, despite all the strange encounters. Chihiro is undoubtedly a hero, but first she is just a young girl, and Miyazaki never attempts to present her as anything but that. The many trials she goes through in order to save her parents clearly represents her own growing up as she takes on the more adult role of protector. It’s a theme that carries through the entire movie as the pain of growing up comes up again and again in her struggles in the bathhouse and beyond.
Spirited Away not only elevated traditional animated features, it also established much more intricate storytelling in the form. Modern animated films like Wall-E, particularly its first half, and Inside Out have clearly been influenced by the imagination and viewpoint of Spirited Away. The imagination of the film is unparalleled, but what truly makes Spirited Away a masterpiece is how it also manages to imbue the fantastic with so much real feeling. It’s a difficult feat to achieve, yet one that Miyazaki does easily and masterfully.
The Blu-ray release is a remastered edition that greatly improves on image quality. While this release contains no new bonus features, it does include those that came with the previous DVD release. There’s an introduction by John Lasseter, various behind the scenes featurettes, and original Japanese trailers and storyboards. The storyboards are especially impressive because they put all of the meticulous work that goes into 2D animation on display in a way that shows just how wonderfully realized and painstaking a process it was to actually create Miyazaki’s vision.