Miyazaki, director/writer of “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “Princess Mononoke” (1997), brings his top game in “Spirited Away.” Studio Ghibli, the studio responsible for this piece of art, outdid themselves with this movie, and it is possibly one of the best movies that they have made. It has won numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. “Spirited Away” follows a young girl, Chihiro, as she journeys into a strange magical world filled with witches, spirits, and a magical bathhouse.
The story begins with Chihiro and her parents in a car as they are moving to a small Japanese town in the countryside. Chihiro is sullen, moody, and childish. Chihiro’s father makes an incorrect turn and they end up going down a small, creepy road that leads to a dead end in front of a tunnel. Her parents get out and decide to explore, much to Chihiro’s dismay, and she’s forced to follow them. They end up in an amusement-like area where Chihiro’s parents find an unstaffed restaurant filled with food. They begin to eat and decide to pay for the food later.
Chihiro leaves and is found by a boy, Haku, who informs her that she must leave with her parents before it gets dark. Chihiro does not get back to her parents fast enough, and they are turned into pigs by Yubaba, the selfish witch who rules the all-important bath house. Yubaba steals the names of her workers so that she has control over them and so that they can work for her forever. With her parents turned into pigs, Chihiro is now stuck in a land full of spirits. She cannot escape because the path that she came in on is gone and she is forced to find a job at the bath house, the center of this park, so that she can save her parents. With the help of Haku and others, Chihiro makes her journey to adulthood.
The animation in this movie is all hand drawn, a feat which is impressive in itself. For every second of the movie, there are approximately 12 drawings. The movie was released in Japan in 2001 (IMDb). It was adapted for an English-speaking audience in 2002 by Disney Animation Studios. The Disney team worked to make sure that Miyazaki’s original ideas for the movie were not lost in the translation from Japanese to English. The animation style is very different than typical Disney animation. The soundtrack helps bring the movie to life, and, although it is not as dramatic as most modern movie soundtracks, the music complements the movie really well.
This movie touches on the importance of childhood but also the reality of growing up. Miyazaki is clearly speaking to the children of Japan in this movie. The disconnect between generations, the struggle with dissolving Japanese culture, and the dangers of environmental pollution are all ideas that are present in the screenplay. It also warns against the dangers of greed and blurs the lines between good and bad, showing how the world is really like, for no person is truly all good or all evil. All the characters in “Spirited Away” are dynamic. All these themes are very heavy for a ‘children’s movie,’ but Chihiro’s journey from childhood to adulthood is worth the watch.