Hayao Miyazaki, considered by cognoscenti the "God" of anime creators, acquired this exalted status during his career crafting eight features and numerous TV shows since he started in the early 1970s. His latest production, Spirited Away -- brought to the USA under the auspices of Walt Disney Studios, and featuring far better than usual English dubbing, with top voice talent directed by John Lasseter of Toy Story 1 and 2 fame -- will only further enhance the master's reputation, for it may be the best thing Miyazaki has ever done, its quality standing out in a field where there's a markedly higher rate of intelligent storytelling, three-dimensional characters, and thought-provoking themes than in American full-length cartoons.
Resonant with universal folkloric motifs yet thoroughly steeped in Miyazaki's own beloved Japanese traditions, the dazzling, weird, one-of-a-kind Spirited Away begins and ends in contemporary Japan, with an extraordinary otherworldly adventure in between. The story concerns a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who, as the story opens, is not a happy camper. She's being driven by her parents to their new suburban home, far from familiar friends and places. Dad, with Mom basically in accord, decides to take a "shortcut" to their new home, down an unpaved forest road. When it dead ends in front of a narrow tunnel through a tall, featureless wall, they decide to investigate, and find themselves in a wide-open landscape, near a seemingly deserted traditional village. The father, rationalizing the clearly impossible -- the fields are clearly too wide-open to be anywhere near the town they've just left -- guesses it's an abandoned theme park. Eager to explore, and dragging their fearful and protesting daughter with them, the parents find an apparently unattended restaurant stocked with fragrant food, on which the adults gorge while the anxious, abstaining Chihiro reconnoiters the vicinity. Returning to her folks, their horrified offspring finds that they have literally made pigs of themselves -- a porcine transformation from which Chihiro runs in terror.
With sunset rapidly approaching and the streets gradually filling with shadowy, spooky-looking specters, Chihiro, unable to find a way out, encounters a comfortably human-looking, and seemingly sympathetic, young man called Haku. He's the first friend she's found in this eerie place, and he gives some advice on how to survive in this strange new world, in order to eventually free herself and her parents. He guides her to the largest building in the realm, the bathhouse for the millions of Shinto gods that inhabit the Shamanic spirit world into which Chihiro and her parents have stumbled. Following Haku's instructions enables her to find another source of succor, who can give her the job she will need to stay alive and function.
This ally turns out to be the custodian of the basement furnaces that power the supernatural spa; a certain Kamajii, whose gruff demeanor and strange appearance -- a gnome's gnarled features and beard, combined with six spidery swift arms -- conceal a compassionate heart. He operates complex machinery and supervises the innumerable cute little soot sprites (just like the ones in Miyazaki's earlier My Neighbor Totoro) that, one by one, carry coal to the fires. When Chihiro helps an over-burdened sprite deliver a piece of fuel, she endears herself to Kamajii, who then tells her how to find the ultimate decision-making authority, who lives and rules at the top of the bathhouse. This powerful figure, Yubaba, a huge-headed, fearsome, bejeweled witch (and ever-watchful were-vulture) clothed in Victorian-style petticoats, uses her magic mostly to make money and to enslave her workers by stealing pieces of their names and giving them new ones in the process. (Controlling a name evidently means possessing some control over the named soul.) Yubaba gives Chihiro the new moniker of Sen and puts her to work. (This is a play on words -- turning a girl of great depth into just one more lonely worker lost in a crowd of thousands -- among many in a movie rife with punning in the original Japanese.)
The tale then becomes one of Chihiro's maturation, outgrowing her petulance and discovering internal wellsprings of perseverance, courage, and simple kindness, in a world populated by myriads of outré, unpredictable entities neither all-good nor all-evil. Learning the ropes, Chihiro also befriends one of her co-workers, the lovely, quick-witted, grown young woman and invaluable guide, Lin. While doing her duties the protagonist endures many rigors and bizarre encounters, while trying to find a way to restore her parents to their true forms before they get -- horrors -- eaten! Achieving this goal also involves solving the mystery of Haku's presence in this otherworldly place and discovering his real role. Is he Yubaba's loyal servant, having helped draw in yet another slave, Sen; or does he have his own agenda, one that might include saving Chihiro? And how does Haku connect to the oddly familiar dragon occasionally seen flying near the bathhouse?
Along the way to the surprising, poignant, believable climax and resolution, the viewer gets treated to wonderfully creative set pieces, including (to mention just a few among so many): the astonishing appearances and variety of the uncanny beings Chihiro works with and who enjoy the bathhouse; the Faceless One, a fascinating and important, but potentially dangerous, entity; Yubaba's enormous baby Bou, who must be seen to be believed; the subtly, ecologically significant Stink God and his cleansing transformation; the amazing dragon and his equally interesting true nature; the oddly amusing trio of disembodied heads who live in Yubaba's apartments; and the very animate, hopping lamppost-guide encountered at a telling moment in Chihiro's journey.
Spirited Away's mostly hand-drawn, meticulous artwork offers dazzling delights galore. Wide landscape shots feature misty watercolors, sometimes accented with subtle CGI for the shimmer of light on water, or the wind rippling across field or forest. The awesome array of characters -- from the central figures to cameos like the Radish God -- are distinctly rendered, with vivid personalities. The ultimate effect is to create a complete, compellingly real otherworld, which is then perfectly complemented by a dynamic score, delicately blending traditional and modern instruments.
The movie's story enchants and enthralls, even while providing a painless and child-friendly, yet intelligent and complex, exploration of human beings' relationships with the environment, with themselves, and with higher powers. The spunky protagonist and the colorful personages who aid or oppose her are refreshingly ambiguous, seeming to have true personal motivations, rather than assigned black/white roles. The depicted spirit world, traditionally Japanese, also displays technological influences of the Western mundane world, suggesting the fascinating concept that even indigenous Shinto kami can be open to borrowing and adapting anything they find useful -- just like the humans whom they resemble emotionally, for good or ill -- even when their physical appearances are decidedly non-human.
Adding more meat to Spirited Away's rich subtextual stew, while in no way hindering viewer pleasure, is its presentation of the intimidating adult working world -- relentlessly dehumanizing and bureaucratic, and frequently cruel, arbitrary, and degrading -- as viewed through the eyes of a sensible innocent who hasn't been desensitized to the point of just accepting that "that's the way things are." Yubaba's power to "steal names" is a great metaphor for how bureaucracy assigns labels and ignores people's real identity.
Breaking all box office records in Japan and winning prestigious awards at home and in Europe, Spirited Away is a masterpiece that deserves the highest accolades. Inhabiting an ideal aesthetic realm midway between the dark intensity of Miyazaki's earlier Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds and Princess Mononoke, and the effervescence of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, this latest film achieves a rare, exquisite balance between epic action and touching emotional moments. People of all ages owe it to themselves to experience this story -- a memorable, magical, cinematic spellbinder, a work of genius destined to be a classic -- and be spirited away.
Amy Harlib is a lifelong, avid reader of SF & F literature, retired with plenty of time to indulge in her passion for reading. She lives in NYC and welcomes intelligent feedback and discussion about the genre. Other enthusiasms: cats, archeology / anthropology / paleontology, folklore and mythology, genre films, science for intelligent laypersons, and memoirs / narratives as literature. Her previous work at Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.