As the most famous Studio Ghibli film, I usually introduce all other Ghibli films to them as “Oh it’s by the same studio that made Spirited Away.” From the positive affirmations I get, I suppose most people have seen it (or are too polite to admit they haven’t). So I have been hesitant to review it, for what could I say that others couldn’t deduce for themselves? I’ll give it a try though, especially because if you are one of those people who haven’t seen it, then I would highly recommend it. I know I recommend all Studio Ghibli films, but this one in particular is a great place to start for those new to the genre and want to test the waters a little.
Spirited Away is the story of a young girl, Chihiro and her family as they journey to a new house. On the way, her father decides to take a short-cut and ends up discovering a tunnel in the forest. At first glance, the tunnel seems to lead to an abandoned town (or theme park, as Chihiro’s father suggests) but then, night falls and things turn strange. Suddenly, Chihiro finds herself trapped in a mysterious parallel world, full of demons and spirits who all prey on her humanity. Her parents have been turned into pigs after scoffing down the food reserved for spirits, and Chihiro is desperate to rescue them and escape from this creepy world. Luckily, Chihiro finds a companion in a mysterious young man called Haku, and with his help, she finds herself able to survive in this world by gaining employment as a worker in the bathhouse. The rest of the film revolves around Chihiro’s work in the bathhouse, as well as the mysteries surrounding Haku, Youbaba (the bathhouse owner) and her sister Zeniba.
The film boasts a wonderful array of colourful characters. From the six-armed boilerman Kamaji to the boorish baby Boh, Spirited Away has a delightfully interesting cast. It manages to imbue so much life into even the most simple of creatures, like the tiny soot sprites who work in the boiler room. The spirits that feature in the bathhouse are also incredibly creative and manage to be full of character despite having any dialogue. In my opinion, Spirited Away has one of the strongest cast of characters out of all the Ghibli films, as the range of different creatures captures a huge variety in interesting character types.
Fundamentally though, Spirited Away deals with themes of childhood and innocence, as Chihiro navigates her way through this bizarre world full of references to Japanese folklore and culture. She starts the film as a slightly immature, almost brattish girl, and scared of her move to a new home. But by the end, she masters the courage and bravery needed to overcome the obstacles and finds the strength to not only save her parents, but to return the favour of saving her to Haku as well. As a theme, it’s fairly compelling and indeed, Chihiro does become an incredibly endearing character. It’s very much a coming of age film, designed to reflect on Chihiro’s development as a person. Studio Ghibli excels at strong female leads, and Chihiro is a fantastic role-model in that respect. She comes across as uniquely human, realistic yet loveable.
Underscoring the story though are issues surrounding capitalist greed and environmentalism. The bathhouse serves spirits who seem to embody these issues. At one point, Chihiro must service a revolting customer who looks like a giant pile of sludge. However, upon being washed, he’s revealed to be a river spirit who has ingested too much rubbish. Another customer, No-Face, showers the bathhouse employees with gold as they rush to appease him in any way they can, all for the lure of more gold. The riches turn out to be fake, and the bathhouse employees are exposed as greedy to the point of lunacy. What is truly magnificent though is the way these themes are handled in the film; they don’t come across as too preachy or too moralistic. Indeed, the magic of this film is in masking the obvious theme and making the film thoroughly compelling even if you don’t agree with its message.
Like all Ghibli films, Spirited Away succeeds in transporting you to another whimsical, magical world full of wonder and excitement, whilst still being completely relatable to the real world. Furthermore, it’s a fantastic feel-good movie with a strong sense of morality, making it a perfect family film. And as always, the animation is divine and although Spirit Away is less focused on gorgeous scenery, it’s still beautiful in its portrayal of interesting characters. So whilst it’s not my favourite Ghibli film, it certainly is one I recommend to people as it has such broad appeal and is a stellar example of the studio’s work. It’s almost like a gateway drug into the other Studio Ghibli films.