Studio Ghibli #12: Spirited Away (2001)

Whether you’re an anime fan or not, chances are one of the few titles you’d recognise regardless is Spirited Away. Often referred to as Miyazaki’s magnum opus, Spirited Away is both a labour of love and the culmination of the gradual advancements in animation we’ve seen throughout Miyazaki’s career. The impact and reach that this film has had is undeniable, becoming the first non-english animated film to win an Oscar, and even became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history at the time of its release. Proving to be both critically and commercially successful, Spirited Away has often been cited as the best anime of all time, and one of the most influential in Anime’s history; and while I don’t completely agree with the former, I think the latter statement is definitely the case.

I’ve mentioned in previous columns, but Spirited Away paved the way for a new standard of animation. Every single scene oozes with movement and style, with meticulous detail put into the details of the world. From the abandoned amusement park that initially entices Chihiro’s parents, to the bustling bath-house where the majority of the film is set, every frame feels full of vitality. Even in the slower scenes, the film feels meditative and the beauty of the animation remains and thus that creates this beautiful melancholy that reverberates in the shots. One of the best examples of this being the train sequences which despite the characters sitting still for their journey, still uses little moments of movements to breathe life into the scene. Whereas in the past a shot like that would, most likely, have used a form of static animation you can see in a film like Porco Rosso. Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from the slower moments in the film, and it significantly enhances the worldbuilding when you get these scenes. Relatively early on in the film after Chihiro has started work at the bath-house, and Haku takes her to see her parents on the edge of a field, the scene offers a deep emotional moment as Chihiro weeps and finally releases all her tears after managing to navigate the world to this point. It’s a brilliant moment that builds Chihiro’s character in a very swift and clever way, it shows that despite being able to step up to the tasks put in front of her and navigate her first full day in this new world, behind all of that is the same anxious, frightened girl.

These slower scenes juxtapose brilliantly with the hustle-&-bustle of the more frenetic scenes used in the film. The use of crowds and movement is so superbly utilised, for a range of purposes like; creating tension, for example when Chihiro is crossing the bridge, for comedy, like the scene with the soot spirits, and for fear, like when no-face goes berserk in the bath-house. So much detailing went into every single scene in this film, and there’s never a moment where any corners are cut in the animation. When the camera pans over the busy floors of the bath-house, you’re not seeing carbon copies of the same few background characters. There’s so many different spirits in the bath-house which just adds to the sense that this world is so much bigger than what we’re seeing. 

The film’s art style, for me, is the very essence of what people talk about when they talk about Studio Ghibli’s style, and the busyness of the film is a big part of that. A great example of this is the buffet scene where Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs, the whole screen is just filled with these gorgeous looking food dishes. You get so caught up looking at the beautiful animation of the food as it piles up on top of each other, and it’s this sense of excess in the animation that also plays in the themes of consumerism and greed, as well as it’s impact on traditional Japanese culture. Even the bath-house is at odds with itself thematically, the use of the Japanese spirits, often taken directly from folklore, that represents the traditional culture, even the fact it is a bath-house to begin with perpetuates this idea. But Yubaba, and Chihiro’s parents, represent the growing consumerism of Japan; Chihiro’s father wears a European style polo top and reassures Chihiro that he has credit cards and cash before turning into a pig, which is an almost hilariously unsubtle jab at consumerism by Miyazaki. Similarly, Yubaba and her offices are styled very differently, taking influences from Western clothing and housing design, when compared to the very traditional Japanese design of the rest of the bath house. Her obsession with money, contracts and power put her at odds with the rest of the bath house, she only helps Chihiro when it benefits her, unlike other characters who readily offer their help, and thus she can be seen as a criticism of the commodification of culture, and consumerism as a whole.

While Spirited Away isn’t my favourite Studio Ghibli film, nor is it my favourite Miyazaki film (that honour belongs to Nausicaä), there is a very clear reason why it holds the acclaim that it does. The animation is unparalleled compared to its contemporaries, the narrative is so uniquely distinct from other Ghibli films, feeling almost episodic but with a strong thematic through line that carries the film. It feels very similar to My Neighbour Totoro in that way, but with genuine stakes at play which Totoro purposely avoids, for the most part. It’s so easy to fall in love with both the characters and the world that Miyazaki creates, whether it’s on a surface level of just taking in the story, or as a deeper critique of consumerism and pollution going on in Japan. Spirited Away has easily earned its place in both anime and film history, and as far as I’m concerned it truly deserves that position. 

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