Some films entertain you for a couple of hours and then you forget them. Other films don’t let go. They keep their hold on you, play on your mind, haunt your imagination long after the final scene has finished. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is one of those that keep its grip on you… even years later.
Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film is a landmark in animated movies, a stunning fantasy adventure full of wonder, mystery and menace. It’s a throwback to traditional, hand-drawn animation that doesn’t seem at all dated. In fact, watching it again, it’s a refreshing antidote to the wave of computer generated animations that have dominated the big screen for the last 10-15 years. It’s also an excellent introduction to the work of Japanese film-makers Studio Ghibli and founder Hayao Miyazaki if you’re not already familiar with them.
Travelling with her parents to a new home, 10-year-old Chihiro is headstrong, sulky and reluctant to move which isn’t helped by her father taking a wrong turn along the way. Leaving their car, Chihiro and her parents stumble across an abandoned theme park and, lured by delicious aromas, Chihiro’s parents find a food stall and start stuffing their faces… Before long they’ve transformed into ravenous pigs and the theme park is coming to life with odd creatures, silent phantoms and mysterious spirits appearing out of the twilight.
Befriended by a friendly spirit called Haku, Chihiro must steer clear of the many dangerous inhabitants of this world and beware of the attentions of witch queen Yubaba who runs the bathhouse where the little girl works while trying to track down her parents. If that sounds weird, that’s because it is. It’s also completely mesmerising. Masked apparitions, slime monsters, dragons, giant babies, bouncing heads and arachnoid-men are all part of the heady concoction that makes Spirited Away so strange yet also so beguiling.
It has strong echoes of Alice In Wonderland (Chihiro and her parents walking through the tunnel is the film’s ˜down the rabbit hole’ moment) and The Wizard of Oz, riffing on themes of family, friendship, loyalty and an innocent finding themselves lost in a fantastical world.
It’s as beautiful as it is strange, its dazzling fantasy world fully realised and created with loving detail by Miyazaki and his team. Trying to figure out exactly what it means would probably be missing the point; best to just watch and enjoy the glorious, bizarre spectacle. By turns Spirited World is funny, puzzling, inexplicable and even a little frightening, but it’s also compelling viewing. Just as much now as it was on its original release.