Often regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time and Japan’s highest grossing film in history at the time of its release, Spirited Away is an animated adventure, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Ten year old Chihiro is travelling with her parents to their new house when her father takes a wrong turn that leads to what looks like an abandoned Amusement Park. Though scared, Chihiro follows her parents who find the Park deserted but discover food has been left out. As the parents begin to tuck in Chihiro looks around and discovers a Bath House where she meets Haku, a boy who tells her to get back across the river before sunset. As she returns to her parents she discovers they have been turned into pigs and she is stuck in a strange world of spirits where her kind is not welcome.
Spirited Away reminded me of some of the great children’s adventures such as The Goonies or Labyrinth but also features the kind of animation that reminded me of my childhood. The hand drawn style is reminiscent of classic Disney but also of the cartoons that I was bought up on in the late 80s and early 90s. It doesn’t appear to be pushing any boundaries but is deceptively deep and beautiful.
Thematically the film shares similarities with the likes of Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland as well as The Wizard of Oz as our heroine is seemingly transported to a fantastical world in which she must come of age and make a difference in order to get back. The coming of age tale is at the centre of the story as Chihiro goes from a scared little girl to a strong, courageous and warm hearted young woman. The plot is fantastical and surreal and is generally great fun to witness but at times I found my mind wondering to other things. The film is a shade under two hours long but I think it could have lost fifteen or twenty minutes. What keeps the movie ticking over is the various weird and wonderful characters that we meet along the way. Giant babies, faceless spirits, talking frogs and rolling heads are just a few of the creations that can be found in and around the Bath House and it was the creatures that reminded me most of the likes of Labyrinth. They are all inventive and have deep set characteristics which give them a three dimensional feel.
As I’ve already mentioned the animation is spectacular. At times it looks simple and effortless but is often deeply complex and intricate. The character and set designs are magnificent and the world that is created looks stunning. I also really liked the ingenious camera angles which help to capture the strange spirit world. Scenes are often shot from high up, behind lamps or through windows to give the impression that we are peering into the world from the outside. Something else that was excellent is the soundtrack. Composed by Joe Hisaishi it has a classical, philharmonic sound with obvious Japanese tones and a mystical resonance.
As much as I enjoyed Spirited Away I almost feel as though I’m at the wrong age to fully appreciate it. I remember when I reviewed The Lion King I wasn’t that impressed with it but people who had seen it as children loved it even still. Had I seen this as a child I have no doubt I would have been glued to it as it is a fantastic coming of age adventure. In my mid twenties I feel as though it hasn’t had the effect on me which I’m sure it would have had fifteen years ago. It’s the sort of film though that will go straight towards the top of the rather long list of films which I’ll force my children to watch one day. For me the film is deserved of its plaudits and place in animation history but I found myself occasionally bored.