Spirited Away is bizarre. So unlike anything I'd seen when I first watched it, and I'm not particularly into Japanese anime. Little did I know its director, Hayao Miyazaki, would become such a world-changing part of my love for movies. Having watched it (so many times!), I can now say that Spirited Away is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.
In this curious and lovely tale, Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi; Ponyo, From Up on Poppy Hill), grumpy about moving to a new home and new school, apprehensively follows her parents into what appears to be an abandoned theme park. But once the sun sets, a hidden world comes to life and Chihiro realizes, to her horror, that her parents have fallen under a dreadful enchantment.
In order to earn her parents’ freedom and escape the enchanted world she had stumbled into, she must befriend a charming crew of different creatures and serve in a bathhouse under the mysterious witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki).
Spirited Away is gorgeous, yet grotesque. You never know whether a scene will portray a glorious sunset over a bridge, or a gigantic river god vomiting the sludge of a thousand years’ pollution. Somehow, the heart and skill of the Studio Ghibli team manage to balance the quaint and adorable with the dark, disturbing, and weighty. There is always something happening in each frame; I guarantee you can watch, re-watch, and keep re-watching because (like all Miyazaki movies) it is crammed full of surprises and delights.
Miyazaki is one of the most important cinematic warriors for children and feminism today. Most of his animated tales feature brave young women, usually children, and they are masterfully complex. Miyazaki’s women are neither damsels nor dominatrixes, and his children are portrayed just as children are in real life: learning, growing, tiny versions of real people. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chihiro’s story.
I freaking love this unique coming-of-age tale about the power of love, trust, and kindness to overcome darkness, greed, and loneliness. It’s full of dragons, ghosts, monsters, and the most adorable dust bunnies I’ve ever seen in my life.
I was absolutely spirited away.
Editor’s note: While there is a solid English-language dubbed version of Spirited Away, this reviewer recommends the Japanese-language version with English subtitles to best capture the spirit of the strange and interesting characters. Certain voices and tones are quite different in the English version, which could make a big difference to a first-time viewer’s experience!