I can still remember waiting in a long line around the block to see the film in a one-screen arthouse theater. There was a rousing applause by the time the film ended which I found incredibly remarkable for a Sunday afternoon screening. Soon after, the film expanded to more movie theaters and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
So what made Spirited Away stick out so well? One aspect to consider was that it was the film that convinced Miyazaki not to retire. He looked at the landscape of media for youth and realized his work wasn’t done as long as he’s still breathing.
Originally, Princess Mononoke was going to be Miyazaki’s last animated movie. He’s a director who puts an incredibly high amount of himself into his films and that can be quite taxing. By that I mean he would literally draw the frames of the animation to a high degree.
Though Miyazaki appeared content with Mononoke being his final film, he found that his work wasn’t done. He took note of the entertainment available for young girls in Japan. When he found himself dismayed with what was being presented, he wasn’t content to just sit back and bellow like a cranky old man. He wanted to do something about it.
And he did what he did best. He developed an animated movie where the lead hero was a girl who wasn’t required to fall in love or conform to gender stereotypes. He crafted a fantasy that was as whimsical and heartfelt as it was poignant and personal. He made Spirited Away.
One Determined Girl
The film follows the adventure of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl whose family is moving. En route to their new home, her father takes a detour and they end up at an odd location of a deserted town. It isn’t too long before her parents are turned into pigs and the town is now filled with all sorts of fantastical creatures and spirits.
Chihiro needs to find a way out of this weird fantasy world and save her parents. It’s a premise that is seemingly familiar for Disney’s many adventure-oriented animated films. The key difference here is how Chihiro goes about saving the day.
Chihiro doesn’t receive some extra help in the form of magical powers or being born some messiah of the fantasy world. It’s her very determination that will save her parents and allow her to return to her own world. This makes the climax of her choice to find her parents feel all the more exciting and worthy of the cheers she receives for solving the final puzzle.
Working Through a Fantasy World
When Chihiro has whisked away to this world, she’s immediately thrown into a situation she has little control over. She’s instructed by the mysterious spirit of Haku to conceal the fact that she’s a human and gets a job at the bathhouse. He informs her that this is the only way to save her parents.
Chihiro’s quest to escape is not an easy one considering who she has to deal with. Her quest to get a job at the bathhouse is to convince the evil witch of boss Yubaba to let her work. Yubaba, however, is incredibly strict and only agrees to hire Chihiro after plenty of pressure has been applied.
Even when Chihiro is hired, she also has to deal with difficult customers. No-Face seems kind but his desire to feed greed festers into a monster. Another difficult customer includes a stink spirit of mud who can only be saved if a bike is pulled from his muddy innards.
There’s a lot of simple and sad moments in Spirited Away that make it so astounding. Chihiro’s adventure through this fantasy world is not all whimsy and charm. It’s a scary experience for a kid being on her own for the first time.
Her first night of seeking employment at the bathhouse is one of caution. She tenses up and struggles to restrain her screams at the sight of talking frogs and furry monsters that amble about. Even the cute little soot spirits of the boiler room are a bit of an unexpected sight for her.
After Chihiro endures some work in the bathhouse, she is greeted by Haku once more, this time offering her food and instructing her further on how to save her parents. She eats with tears, fearful of the situation she’s been placed in without her parents. Haku comforts her and there’s an emotional release of how tough it can be venturing on your own for the first time.
The Real World Relation
Despite Spirited Away being a film that is brimming with all sorts of odd characters and great magic, there’s a lot of real-world elements to its story. Shades of reality bleed into the picture and become a guiding light for Chihiro. Part of what helps her unravel the mystery of Haku is to recall memories of the past that can help shape the future, specifically that the spirit is of the Kohaku River.
Real-world inspiration also greatly shaped the story beyond Miyazaki’s mere distaste for media targeting little girls. The scene where Chihiro helps the staff remove a bicycle lodged in the inside of a stink spirit relates to a similar experience of the staff pulling out garbage from the river.
The Environmentalism Angle
Sticking with the stink spirit for a moment, Spirited Away embodies a few lingering aspects of Princess Mononoke in how it relates to environmentalism. The stink spirit is overflowing with pollution and garbage. It is only after the spirit is cleaned of both filth and litter that it returns to a chipper state.
Chihiro’s mindfulness of the environment she occupies becomes a key aspect of forming her relationship with Haku. Her memories reveal that Haku had saved her once. Now it’s Chihiro’s turn to save Haku when he appears badly hurt in the picture, requiring Chihiro to protect him. She has to literally protect a river from harmful magic.
Compared to Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away’s outlook is less bleak for the divide of humanity and nature. It asserts that perhaps the next generation will be more knowledgeable of the environment and recognize that it needs to be protected. If Princess Mononoke was all about how that relationship was broken, this film is all about how it can be repaired.
Knowing of Greed
More vocally present in the picture are the aspects of how work is draining and greed can push forth unhealthy perspectives. This seems incredibly obvious with the character of No-Face, a masked spirit who follows Chihiro. He enters the bathhouse and displays his ability to dispense gold, making it easy for him to order baths and food.
No-Face buys and eats so much from the bathhouse and continues piling on the gold for the employees. Chihiro, however, is not impressed with this. When No-Face attempts to use gold for his admiration, she refuses and No-Face soon turns into a monster.
Yubaba finds little wrong with No-Face as a paying customer until he starts ruining her business, being oblivious to the monster she has created. Eventually, No-Face returns to normal but not without shedding his greed. He spits out the other creatures he consumes and his gold melts, showcasing how money is ultimately meaningless when it comes to seeking love.
The Disney Distribution
Part of what made Spirited Away more widespread in America was thanks to a finalized deal with Disney. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli had been dismayed with how their previous films were distributed in the west in diced up versions that changed the narratives. A perfect example of this can be seen with how his movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1985) was heavily edited as Warriors of the Wind.
A deal was struck with Disney where Ghibli would give them access to all of their films but that not a single frame would be edited. This deal was nearly broken when Miramax (under Disney) wanted Ghibli’s most violent film, Princess Mononoke, to be cut down enough for a PG rating. So the story goes, Ghibli sent Miramax head Harvey Weinstein a sword with the message “No Cuts” and the film was released in American theaters uncut with a PG-13 rating.
Spirited Away, however, was an easier sell for being so kid-friendly with the demographic it was targeting. As such, Disney placed it under their main banner of distribution. The success would lead to the studio releasing other Ghibli movies on DVD soon after, including Nausicaa, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoroand many more.
Spirited Away plays with and further explores the coming-of-age story that is surprisingly not as well explored in theatrical animation. It lets Chihiro become the hero all on her own but still doesn’t resort to the tired trope of her being an orphan. It lavishes in the fantasy elements but never lets them overtake a greater story about growing up and understanding the world.
What’s rather remarkable is how well the film has resonated with American audiences. It is perhaps one of Ghibli’s most Japanese-centric films for embodying more of the culture than other pictures. Yet the themes are universal enough that most audiences seemed to really identify with Chihiro, know a boss like Yubaba, or find the cuteness in the swarms of soot spirits.
It’s fascinating to see how popular the picture has become since its North American debut. My DVD copy has been loaned out more times than any other in my video library for families who wanted something to watch with their kids. It became my most borrowed disc that I eventually had to buy another copy on the off chance somebody lost it or multiple people wanted to see it.
One of Miyazaki’s Best
As of this writing, Spirited Away is the only Japanese animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It wouldn’t be the only one nominated, however, as other Ghibli pictures followed with awards attention. This included Miyazaki’s follow-up feature of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and his premature departure picture The Wind Rises (2013).
It’s been a debatable picture for whether or not it’s the best of his filmography, considering that the popularity surrounding it was massive at the time. But since it was a film that was conceived with an inspiration to not go quietly into retirement, it is definitely one of his most notable efforts. Mononoke would’ve been a fine film to end a legacy but Spirited Away felt even better, inspiring a whole generation of kiddos to dream about more than greed and hopelessness.
If Spirited Away has any central message beyond its observations on the work culture and the environment, it would be that the world is what you choose it to be. Our world can be one of great wonders, tragedy, disgust, and love. It’s all about how we want to shape it and step up to make this one life you get worth living.