Spirited Away (2001)

The first time I saw Spirited Away I thought it was stupid and weird and I was sort of mad that I was “forced” to watch it by people that purported to be “friends”. But for some reason a couple of years later I watched it again. I still thought it was a bit out there, but started see a method behind the madness. After a third viewing, I still think this film is really weird, but in the best possible way. In this way, my relationship with the film parallels the journey of the protagonist of the film.

Chihiro (Rumi Hîragi) is disgruntled and angry about moving to the suburbs. The loss of friends and the boring life she is sure awaits her puts her in a foul mood. Therefore, when the family stumbles across the ruins of an old fair she’s resistant to explore it, unlike her father who is intrigued. She wants security, normality, to take the easy road instead of braving the rough and bumpy path.It is then with great reluctance and lots of whining that she forced into a fantastic, supernatural world of spirits.

And her first glimpse into this world is when her parents turn into pigs. Yea, this film is weird, and that’s one of the more sane scenes of the film. From there she’s dumped into this bizarre land where gods, demons and frog-people walk about and do their best to avoid humans. Therefore, Chirhiro is left helpless and would quickly be dead if not for the help of Haku (Miyu Irino), a young boy who helps her get a job in the local bathhouse.

From there, the film gets even more bizarre fantastical and out there with all kinds of strange and unique creatures. And that really is one of the joys of the film, discovering this unique world as Chirhiro does. It’s not the most cohesive world but everything feels natural in this world. Yes, a lot of it is really odd, like three bouncing heads, but it works in this strange fantasy way, a boundless exercise in imagination.

But this world does not simply exist to wow, but to challenge Chirhiro. At the beginning of the film, she is childish in the worst possible way, thinking only of herself and how everything around her is an inconvenience to her. But by becoming the lowliest of beings and experiencing this fantastic world she begins to evolve as a character, to grow up and mature. By the end she may not be physically of age, but this is most certainly a coming of age story that demonstrates the key element of growing up.

And that key element is the development of a sense of selflessness, of putting oneself aside to help and aid those around you. Chirhiro is humbled and downtrodden, forced to do some fairly unpleasant things to benefit people besides herself. By taking on these tasks, she begins to understand and develop into an adult, taking on responsibilities and maturing into an adult. Many children, and adults for that matter, could learn from the simple servitude of Chirhiro.

But Chirhiro gets plenty of time to take in the fantastic world that surrounds her. The visual detail and creativity at work is astounding. The simple quality of the image alone is fantastic, but take in the ambition of the animation that often is much more complex with many things moving at once and it’s an impressive work of animation. Plus, there is, as always with Miyazaki, a great cinematic quality to the film.

Spirited Away is a modern fairy tale, the kind of storytelling lost in modern films because it’s dangerous, even frightening at times and dark. It’s also bizarre and outlandish, probably too much for some. But, like the best fairy tales the film is getting at something deeper, something beneath the surface of the bizarre, gothic (or rather mystic in the case of this film) veil that most will never be able to get past. For those who do, there’s much more here than the usual whimsical animated tale for kids.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing