Spirited Away is the kind of film that divides you between the urge to describe and recommend it and the fear of never coming with words that will do it justice. How can I describe a film that has no apparent parallel? A film so full of imagination and so powerful it brings reactions I didn’t know I had? Much like I’ve defined films like Vertigo, 2001 or The Mirror, this is a film for which the term masterpiece seems banal (it is for most other cases, anyway). It’s the kind of film that proves that the best films aren’t the distancing works of art (as fair as choice as that is), but the immersive ones, and this is a film that takes you beyond reality.
It’s a coming-of-age story, imbued with the wisdom of stories like Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland, and the infinite possibilities of the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki, itself a reference in children’s stories as seen in great works like Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service or, well, almost everything he’s done. And there’s nothing quite like it in how it depicts our first braver steps in life, and the downright weird uniqueness of adulthood to the eyes of a child. It’s a never-ending roller coaster of fantasy fiction, a poetic mixture of sadness and joy, and an honest model of life as part frightful, part wonderful. The child in question is Chihiro, who’s reluctantly moving to another town and suddenly finds herself trapped in a parallel fantasy world and away from her parents as they are bound to arrive.
That trap, a bathhouse, which only functions at night and attends all kinds of spirits and monsters, is a bridge away from the real world, and is a thing of insuperable beauty, an entire society of imaginary beings that constitutes the peak of Miyazaki’s incalculable power to amaze. When I watched it again two years ago, I was fascinated by how and organic everything was, each character unique and complete to the last details. Miyazaki gives birth to creatures that flow with life-like appearances and gestures, from the forest bunnies of My Neighbor Totoro to the multiple stages of sea princess Ponyo, but here they’re at their most breathtakingly beautiful, thanks to an entire new level of texture and form that gives them further dimensions. One look towards characters like black ghost No Face, evil sorceress Yubaba or trio of bouncing heads Kashira means none back.
More than in any other film by Miyazaki, whose films are always extraordinarily sweet and harmonious, Spirited Away shows the scarier, darker, more confusing side of infancy, when every new day brings a new challenge and things evolve at an almost violent pace. Miyazaki gives it the mystery and tension that his other action and adventure films never fully embraced. Chihiro, a stubborn, moody and charming ten year-old girl (or, as we know it here, a ten year-old girl), is really trapped in a new world; her parents, who have been cursed and transfigured into animals, are really in danger; the spirits whom Chihiro meets along her mission are often nice and charismatic, but they can be greedy and aggressive.
Another visual wonder of Spirited Away is its enhancement of multiple animation techniques, mainly traditional animation and 3D rendering. In Princess Mononoke one can have a taste of this mixture, but here it reaches an entirely new level, giving us moments that, without stealing the show, blow us away. Spread throughout the film in key occasions, they show unparalleled beauty, as if the 3D rendering symbolized the animation breaking through the boundaries of the screen and beginning to transcend its own time and space into a new world. These are moments that seem to be infinite in their short duration, unforgettable glimpses of magic. It feels silly to try to explain them, but if you watch the film, you’ll notice what I mean. It’s in the wind blowing through grassy hills, in the sparkly touches of light in railway tracks, in a quick race through flower fields, and in the rush of air a dragon rushes into the bathhouse.
Overall, Spirited Away is a film full of powerful symbolisms and allegories, which serves a children’s story just right. I won’t comment on the ones I know because there seem to be many more I’m not aware of; this is a film with as many secrets as revelations, bound to strike you after each viewing. It’s a film that, most importantly, constitutes a visual and emotional journey that combines the benevolence and sense of wonder of a child with the maturity and determination of an adult, and a plea for this combination even in the hardest of times. It is, in a way, a simple story about a child who gets a glimpse into a world of age-old traditions and mysteries, who must learn the way back and forth from it.
Every time I watch a Miyazaki film, I’m reminded of the powers of animation to create stories that could never come to life in live-action, or even digital filmmaking perhaps. Roger Ebert once said, “[r]ealistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence”, and there couldn’t be a better example of that than Spirited Away. It’s pure, heart-melting nostalgia, and achingly beautiful collection of moments in time, a new world to be inhabited and savored endlessly.
Director: Miyazaki Hayao
Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #235 (tied)