FILM REVIEW: Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

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© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Gwen Mahler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Since I was a child, I have placed much of my trust in this film making genre we call animation. This genre provides me a way of losing myself in a world that could never possibly exist in reality. As I grow older, and my imagination seems to narrow with each day, my appreciation for the style becomes stronger. I believe animation is significant and, to an extent, necessary for the sake of one’s curiosity and ambition. No other film has captured this fulfillment of desire like Spirited Away.

Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi; “Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away”) is a 2001 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli. Originally released in Japan on July 20th, 2001, it grew to become the most successful film in Japanese history, grossing over $347 million worldwide; the animated film overtook Titanic’s status in the Japanese box office to become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history with a total of ¥30.8 billion. Hayao Miyazaki’s film received universal acclaim, and earned an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. It was the only hand-drawn and foreign-language film to win in the award category’s history.

A Japanese Movie Poster depicted prior to the release of the 2001 Studio Ghibli film
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Throughout his career as co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has written and directed animated films for small children and teenagers. Some of his titles include My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The inspiration behind Spirited Away originated from spending his summer vacations cooped up in a mountain cabin accompanied by associate producer & childhood friend Seiji Okuda along with his ten-year-old daughter, for whom the film was based upon and its intended audience is geared towards: Miyazaki researched by reading shōjo manga magazines aimed towards preteen girls, but rather found that what media which already existed focused upon the topics of romance and crushes. To his revelation, Hayao Miyazaki stated,

“I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a film in which they could be heroines. I would like to make this film something through which ten-year-old girls can encounter what they truly want. I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize. It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.”

In creating such a revolutionary piece of media, Miyazaki’s work has lived on throughout the past nineteen years: fifteen years after its release, it was voted the fourth-best film of the 21st Century by 177 film critics from around the world, while in 2017 it was named the second “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far” by the New York Times.

The animated film opens up with ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino and her parents traveling to their new home in a rural town of Japan. Her father stumbles upon a shrouded shortcut guarded by a Torii gate— thought to signify the entrance to a shrine of the Shinto religion, or at times a pathway into the sacred realms of the gods. The family’s car stops in front of a clocktower which leads to the abandoned remnants of a 1990s amusement park. Captured by the scent of cooked meats, Chihiro’s parents urge her to follow as they cross the diluted riverbed to explore. They discover a seemingly-empty restaurant stocked to the brim with buffet trays full of food. Chihiro’s parents immediately begin to gorge on the food and plan on paying for it later.

Chihiro protests to partaking in the feast, and rather she decides to wander off on her own only to meet an older boy named Haku who warns her to return across the riverbed before sunset. Alarmed by Haku’s caution, Chihiro returns to tell her parents but discovers that the once-empty restaurant is now full of a bustling population of Kami, spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore. She finds what’s left of her parents after they were magically transformed into slobbering pigs.

In disbelief, Chihiro runs off towards the dried-up riverbed to find it flooded, overflowing any path leading back to the tunnel. As Chihiro begins to fade away from their world, Haku offers his help by instructing the ten-year-old girl to beg Yubaba, the haggard sorceress who rules over their bathhouse, for a job. 

Upon gaining employment at the bathhouse, Yubaba has Chihiro sign a contract signing her name away to the bathhouse witch. The witch renames her Sen「千」(an alternate reading of “Chi”「千」, the first character in Chihiro’s name – “one thousand.” After her first day at the bathhouse, Haku takes Sen to visit her parents’ pigpen. Haku warns her that Yubaba controls people through taking their names and that if she forgets hers like how he has forgotten his, she will not be able to leave the spirit world. From there on out, Chihiro/Sen is on a mission: to find a way to free herself, transform her parents back into humans, and return to the human world before forgetting it ever existed.

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Spirited Away is by far one of the most immersive animated films I have ever seen. The visuals are stunning. While it is one thing to animate every detail to be as realistic as possible, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away takes a separate, more imaginative approach. Despite not being considered a 3D-animated film, Studio Ghibli depicts the details of reality in a subtle yet more realistic aesthetic. Where most animation studios incorporate realism the way children’s toy companies design a doll, the excessive attention to detail can come off to the intended audience as disturbing: Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli captures the aspects of life by focusing upon the body language, facial expressions, and fluidity of movement instead of adding each individual strand of hair.  

This film is more than just a story for kids. The hidden themes explored throughout Spirited Away contain critical commentary on modern Japanese society concerning generational conflicts and environmental issues. When asked why the Studio Ghibli film was to be centered around the spirit world of Japanese Kami, Miyazaki explained,

“In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that Kami existed everywhere – in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything.”

Words and phrases hold mystical power in the Shinto folklore belief referred to as “Kotodama.” Before being employed to work at the onsen, Yubaba steals several characters from Chihiro’s name, leaving one meaning “Sen” or “One Thousand” in English; this likely is a metaphor to what Chihiro is to Yubaba, a number and a source of income rather than an individual. Likewise, the kanji for “Chihiro” can be interpreted as “One Thousand Questions” so in this sense, the number stayed the same yet Yubaba removed Chihiro’s ability to question. By stealing away Chihiro’s name, thus symbolically killing the child, she must then assume adulthood. Along with its function within the ostensible coming of age theme, Yubaba’s act of taking Chihiro’s name and replacing it with Sen, is symbolic of capitalism’s single-minded concern with value, reflecting the film’s exploration of western-influenced capitalism and its effect on traditional Japanese culture.

Miyazaki opens a gateway into another world through beautiful animation paired with meaningful symbolism that allows the audience to speculate what change impacted post-World War II Japan. Spirited Away has not only fed my imagination, but impacted the faith I have in my strength as an independent female by creating such a strong heroine for young girls. Even then, this film is appropriate for all audiences ages 10+. I encourage everyone with free time during the quarantine to view the film. Five out of five stars ☆☆☆☆☆.