The Friday Afternoon Movie: Spirited Away

Come with us as the FAM takes you on an extraordinary journey. Today’s offering is no doubt familiar to many, and yet bears repeated viewings. Released in Japan in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi which translates literally to Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away) remains his most popular film. By the time of its release in the US in 2002 nearly a sixth of Japan’s population had seen the film, making it the highest-grossing film in the nation’s history. It would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature becoming the first anime film and, thus far, only foreign language film to win the award.

Spirited Away, then, is the ambassador for Miyazaki’s work in the States. While his other films had seen release here, none did so much for his reputation among the general public than this film; and it’s not hard to see why. Spirited Away is a stunning piece of animation, the culmination of decades of Studio Ghibli’s work. It’s a film that upon each successive viewing reveals new details. The bathhouse scenes in particular are wonders, packed to the brim with background points of interest. For their part, when Disney localized the movie for North America they resisted the urge to fill the cast with big-name actors (something they did previously with Princess Mononoke and since with other Studio Ghibli releases). It makes the English dub much less intrusive to me.

It is easily my favorite of Miyazaki’s films, a man whose oeuvre is rife with amazing offerings. Spirited Away strikes me as the film that he let his imagination run wild while still managing to retain a cohesive narrative. It’s also a film that allows the viewer to enjoy it as merely a story and not necessarily a parable like, say, Princess Mononoke a film that, while beautiful, was bogged down by its environmentalist message. Spirited Away is a surrealist journey in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its messages and meanings subtly woven into the fabric of the story; there for those who wish to find it, invisible for those who don’t. It’s a truly timeless piece of movie making.

6 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: Spirited Away”

  1. Elana Says:

    Weird, this is the only Miyazaki film that I really didn’t like. I found the narrative haphazard and full of loose ends. Your article is making me want to give it another chance. Thanks, Ross.

  2. monkey Says:

    Love. This. Movie.

  3. Michelle Says:

    I’m on a Miyazaki kick right now in between Battlestar Galactica discs; I haven’t seen much of his films. I think I watched Princess Mononoke when I was a little kid and found myself totally baffled. But we just watched Howl’s Moving Castle a few weeks ago (which I thought was all right), and then Spirited Away sometime last week I think – I looooved Spirited Away! It’s definitely a film I’m going to buy and probably watch over and over again.

  4. Jack Says:

    Ahhhh, this was a “first date movie” for me. Love it.

  5. David Forbes Says:

    I adore Spirited Away, Ross, but I think you’re giving Princess Mononoke short shrift.

    It’s a parable on one level, yes, but the ideas, plot and characters are juggled so deftly that I’ve never seen it as bogged down by that. A serious theme isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when a storyteller handles it as well as Miyazaki does.

    For once, the (polluting) humans are fleshed-out beings with sympathetic, even understandable, motives, while the (natural) creatures are, for all their closeness to the land, brutally savage and, well, animal. It’s a movie that throws the stereotyped view of environmental struggle often depicted (*cough* Avatar *cough*) into disarray while remaining a riveting story in its own right.

    Spirited Away is a superb film, but watching it I never quite felt that sense of the border between dream and nightmare, which is what would have taken it to the next level. For all its beauty, it’s a little too haphazard and clean. Mononoke retains Miyazaki’s sense of primal wonder, but it plays for keeps, and stands as his masterpiece.

  6. Tequila Says:

    A beautiful film that I’ve enjoyed countless times over but Mr. Forbes hits it well about Princess Mononoke – which for me remains his most powerful and beautiful film. One of my top five of all time really.

    It handles a serious issue in a way that does not feel like a lecture or one-sided. Cause & Effect for sure but always with shades & layers easy to fall into one after the other.

    It does what so many other films have forgotten to do – understand that the audience have experience, knowledge, & are aware of the world around them. That THEY are not idiots meant to be talked down too & that by and large they are the kinds of people the film depicts.

    I was glad the film found and audience in spite of the piss poor promotion the film got for it’s painfully brief theatrical run.

    None of this takes away from Spirited Away of course – it’s like comparing two beautiful landscapes. Neither is better, just different.