It’s hard to believe that Miyazaki’s 2002 Oscar-winner about a young girl who gets lost in an otherworldly fantasy is two decades old. But here we are, and yes, it’s still a near-perfect example of not only a classic animated film but as one of Studio Ghibli’s top tier efforts.
An achievement just to infiltrate the highly competitive Best Animation Oscars shortlist, this adventure, which follows a young girl called Chihiro, is arguably the Japanese studio’s peak. Crafting such a whimsical, emotionally-taut and enjoyable feature, bursting with vibrancy and constructed with an exquisite animation detail synonymous with the visually pleasing Ghibli style, the studio fully deserved both its acclaim and Academy Award win.
While other classic anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell boast epic action moments and intricate sci-fi plotting, the simplicity of Chihiro’s journey here is what makes Spirited Away a multi-faceted experience from start to finish. It strips away any convoluted narrative that can often plague a script and tells a no-frills story that is brimming with emotional engagement. Simple yet layered storytelling.
Miyazaki’s narrative of innocence and naivety forced to grow up is relatable; acknowledging a realisation that the hierarchy of responsibility, notably between parent and child, is not always one way. Here, we see a mother and father in that familiar authoritative position of control only to have it swiped away, becoming apparent that their child is indeed the smart, cautious and respectful one in this equation.
It’s after this turning point, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into literal pigs, that a reliance of being able to run to a parent shatters, and a nightmare scenario begins. Chihiro having to fend for herself as a pre-teen continues Studio Ghibli’s established continuity of stories focusing on the feelings and actions of child protagonists, as she’s left to wing it – notably when it comes to making big decisions and meeting new faces.
For years, Spirited Away has not only stood the test of longevity when it comes to cultural relevance; it’s been able to flourish within pop culture and go toe-to-toe with some of the best offerings from Disney and Pixar.
What makes this Ghibli film special is not merely its ability to engage the smallest and oldest of minds with a relatable story about a kid exploring her human emotion and experiencing her own trauma. We are also invited to delve into the depths of our wildest imaginations – both as viewers reminiscing our own childhoods and in the position of the characters. There’s something inherently relatable that means its pleasurable and poignant themes stay with you.
Thematically, Miyazaki’s films always have something to say. Here, there are various points the auteur aims to get across, even when entertaining us in the bathhouse. In a memorable scene, our heroine helps rid a spirit of literal pollution, referencing a time when the director cleaned rivers as a means of doing his bit – everything means something or relates to an anecdote, whether it be on a physical, emotional or ethical level.
Like his previous works, Spirited Away is a throwback to traditional, painstaking filmmaking: Miyazaki wrote, directed and hand-drew the entire feature, which is something of a modern-day rarity. It certainly stood out to me as a teenager and the nostalgia hasn’t faded. The film began production without a script, in fact. Yet the way Miyazaki does things allowed the movie to flourish along with his creativity: ‘It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow,’ he once revealed in an interview with Midnight Eye.
But his exquisite animation wouldn’t be complete without its most important aesthetical features, which are, of course, the visuals. An extraordinary amount of time and effort went into Miyazaki’s hand-drawn tale, with pinpoint movements, facial expressions, humanistic behaviours and sheer wondrous imagination of its imagery that affirms Spirited Away as one of the most beautiful animations in my memory.
After all, there’s a reason why it was, until 2020, Japan’s highest-grossing movie ever; reigning at the summit unopposed for almost two decades. And it’s sad to think the Studio Ghibli of old may soon no longer exist – Miyazaki, at 80, may well soon retire (he’s threatened it before), Toshio Suzuki has taken a step back from producing, and Isao Takahata sadly passed away in 2018. But even if the guard will change at the venerable studio, I can look back fondly, safe in the knowledge that nothing can ever take away the feeling of seeing Spirited Away for the first (or twelfth) time.