Spirited Away review

This Japanese anime classic made Studio Ghibli famous and is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best films.  It follows the story of Chihiro, a spoilt, immature and annoying ten year old girl who is moving with her parents to a new house.  On the way, the family stumble across what they believe to be an abandoned theme park.  They find a restaurant stall with steaming plates of fresh food and, unaware that it is food left out for the gods, Chihiro’s parents begin to devour it. 

Chihiro, untrusting of this, explores the rest of the park and finds an exquisite bathhouse for Japanese Spirits.  She returns to her parents to find that they have transformed into pigs.  Terrified, Chihiro is comforted by Haku, a river spirit and dragon, her closest ally in escaping the spirit world and returning to the human one.  Chihiro is also assisted by the spirit No-Face, the boiler-man Kamaji and Chihiro’s super-sassy work colleague Lin.

I loved this film as a kid and I love it just as much now.  It is by far one of the best films that Studio Ghibli has done and one reason for this is that it’s just so weird.  The world of Spirited Away that plays host to witches, dragons, anthropomorphic frogs and strange spirits, is so far removed from anything that I have encountered before, that it instantly drew me in and held my interest throughout. 

In order to survive in the spirit world, Chihiro has to take a job within the bathhouse: a luxourious spa for Japanese Spirits to come and relax.   Miyazaki’s creative depiction of the many spirits who attend the spa is one of the best parts of the film.  One of the best characters is the Radish Spirit who, beyond being the spirit of radishes and adding some comedy relief does little to the plot, but is still great to see on screen.  Secondly, the boiler-man Komaji is a Yokai, a shape-shifting creature, whom is a cross between a man and a spider, is also a great creation by Miyazaki.  Throughout the film, Komaji serves as an ally to Chihiro and plays the role of wizened advisor.

The animation and the illustration of the film were brilliant too.  Haku, the spirit of the Kohaku river, who can shift forms between boy and dragon is drawn beautifully.  The oriental depiction of a dragon is vastly different to the Western depiction, where the former is much more subtle, refined and even ornate and elegant to some extent.  Furthermore, the animations of Yubaba, the witch who owns the bathhouse and the film’s antagonist are also great.  She is portrayed as an ageing, wrinkled and fiercesome witch.

One thing that I didn’t realise until we had watched the film was how scary it is considering it’s only a cartoon.  This works much to its success, as it adds an unexpected layer of interest into the film.  As a viewer watching this cartoon film for the first time, I wouldn’t expect to be scared whilst watching it.  One of the best examples of horror is when Chihirio discovers that her parents, upon devouring the food left out for the gods, have been transformed into pigs.  

I also really liked the character of No-Face.  No-Face is a spirit without a personality, meaning that it adopts the personality of whomever it meets.  No-Face first encounters Chihiro at the entrance of the bathhouse, where Chihiro leaves the door open to allow the spirit to enter.  No-Face tries to emulate Chihiro’s generous nature by giving her gold, which she refuses.  However, the callous and greedy workers of the bathhouse become entranced by this promise of gold and work hard to impress the No-Face spirit.  No-Face then embodies their greedy natures and becomes a terrifying monster who wants to eat anything it encounters.

Many Studio Ghibli films have didactic messages and this film is no exception.  Again, this isn’t something that I realised until I rewatched Spirited Away, but this film warns strongly against the dangers of greed.  Whilst Chihiro selflessly denies any gold that No-Face offers her, all of the other workers jump at the chance to collect as much gold as possible.  However, it is only at the film’s conclusion where all of the gold is revealed to be nothing more than dirt.  

The musical score of Spirited Away is absolutely outstanding and this is down to the talents of Joe Hisaishi and the New Japanese Philharmonic orchestra. From the beautiful piano work of the Sixth Station to the orchestral combination of brass, woodwind and percussion of the Dragon Boy, Hisaishi composes music that fits each scene perfectly.  Joe Hisaishi has scored a number of Studio Ghibli films and his musical scores are some of the best bits of these films.  Spirited Away is no exception. 

For the most part, I love this film.  I love the music, the creativity and the characters.  One thing I didn’t particularly like was the character of Chihiro.  The film follows her transformation from a spoilt, immature brat into an intelligent, selfless and brave young woman.  However, I argue that throughout the film, she to some extent retains some of her more immature qualities, which made her very annoying.  Furthermore, throughout Spirited Away, Chihiro is bullied and taunted by the other workers at the bathhouse, because she is human.  This did make me question what the other characters were.  So, Yubaba is a witch, Haku is a spirit and Komaji is a Yokai, but what about characters like Lin.  Isn’t she human too?

A wholly wonderful film with an amazing musical score, brilliant creativity and great visuals.  If only Chihiro wasn’t so annoying, then maybe this film would be superlative.

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