A young girl wanders into the realm of the spirits and begins working at the magical bathhouse that resides there.
There is magic in the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, and never has than been more obvious than when we visit the world of “Spirited Away”. Much like “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Porco Rosso”, “Spirited Away” has only a very loose and basic storyline; it’s the characters and the world that are intricate beyond imagination. In a way this film feels like a series of vignettes with fairy tale characters and creatures, much like the works of Lewis Carol or Frank L. Baum. We spend just enough time in each vignette to get a sense of how grand this world really is; we get hints of the character’s back stories and their relationships to other characters; and we get a sense of how the spirit world works, without ever having the rules spelled out for us. We might not spend as much time in the bathhouse of “Spirited Away” as we do in the realms of Narnia or the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, but this world is stuffed with just as much magic as any other fantasy world you could compare it to.
“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
After Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi, “Ponyo”) and her parents Akio (Takahashi Naito, “Tales from Earthsea”) and Yuko (Yasuko Sawaguchi, “Godzilla 1985”) stumble upon what seems to be an abandoned amusement park, they find they are trapped in the realm of the spirits, and Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs. Chihiro runs into a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino, “The Garden of Words”) who tells her that she must ask Yubaba (Mari Natsuki, “Isle of Dogs”) if she can work at the bathhouse. As Chihiro begins her employment, she struggles to fit in among the spirits, whose ways seem strange to her.
The animation in this film is absolutely astounding. There are so many amazing details in every frame, and so many interesting and uniquely designed characters that flood the bathhouse floors. The animation itself is smooth in motion and richly and gorgeously colored. The locations where Chihiro works are all amazingly designed, and we get a sense of just how magical the world is by the way it never stops shifting. When we first see the bathhouse, for example, it’s set in the middle of an undulating green field; but then later, when Chihiro lives inside the bathhouse, she looks out from a balcony to see that it is surrounded by water. We never get an explanation for this; we don’t need one. The world just is as it is, and the rules- at least the ones that we get glimpses of- are what they are; we are forced to accept the way the world is, much like Chihiro. In accepting the vague rules of this world, anything becomes possible: river spirits can come in for baths, dust mites can be enchanted to move coal, giant walrus-creatures can operate elevators… wherever you look, there is something new and exciting happening.
The characters are also wonderful. Chihiro (whom later becomes Sen) is a great POV character because she is just as intrigued and confused by the world as I would be. She asks questions, she makes mistakes, but she doesn’t ever overstep her bounds. Chihiro’s character, though she is a bit stubborn, tries to do the things she’s tasked to do to the best of her abilities; she’s likeable, hardworking, and diligent. She doesn’t seem to let her mind wander even when there are a billion other characters asking her to do things. Some of my other favorite characters are No Face, the masked creature that grows to an enormous size when he begins consuming people and things; Yubaba and her weird rolling head triplets; and I really like Kamajii, the six armed man who runs the furnaces at the bottom of the bathhouse. But really, there are a half dozen other minor characters you could gravitate towards; this world is just stuffed to the gills with things to fall in love with.
I think my favorite part about this film is just the rewatchability. I’ve seen this movie probably a half dozen times now, and every time I watch it, I find something new that I hadn’t seen before. Whether it is a little nuance in the story, perhaps something symbolic I hadn’t picked up on before, a character doing something in the background or a location that looked more beautiful than I remembered, this movie always has something more to offer.
Miyazaki is a master of the animated arts, and this is perhaps his best film (I know it’s his most acclaimed, but my personal favorite flits back and forth between “Princess Mononoke” and this), and that is saying something incredible. If you’ve never watched an Anime feature before, then this is a marvelous place to start; it’s fun, exciting, and, yes, magical.
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