I don’t often sit down to write a review intending to convince everyone that reads it to go see the movie in question. You’ve got your blockbusters, and chick flicks, action movies and art house films and raunchy teen comedies and sci-fi and kiddie stuff and so on and so on… and most people seem to know what they like. But Spirited Away is an extraordinary picture – for everyone. Still, an astonishing number of perfectly sensible adults refuse to go to an animated feature unless it’s Disney and they have to have some wee ones in tow. That is the dumbest of reasons to miss this.
Spirited Away is the latest work by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master who is a god to the Disney animators, which has been flawlessly dubbed into English by John Lasseter (Toy Story). It was co-winner of this year’s Berlin Film Festival running against non-animated movies; it outsold Titanic to become the top-grossing film in Japanese history; and it is the first film ever to gross more than $200 million before opening in the US.
Drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, Spirited Away is told through the eyes of Chihiro (voice by Daveigh Chase), a 10-year-old girl, travelling to a new town with her parents. She is deeply unhappy about the shift and leaving her old friends and schoolmates. As they drive through the woods, her father decides to take the family for a little exploration of a mysterious tunnel at the side of the country road. On the other side is what he believes is an abandoned theme park, but strangely the food stalls are overflowing with freshly prepared meals, but with no one to serve them. As Chihiro’s parents help themselves to a free meal, she wanders away and comes upon a wonderland, a towering bathhouse.
A boy named Haku appears as her guide, and warns her that the sorceress Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse, will try to steal her name and thus her identity. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) is an old crone with a huge face, reminiscent the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, who dotes on her grotesquely huge baby named Boh. Ominously, she renames Chihiro, who wanders through the structure, which is populated, like with little balls of dust that scurry and scamper underfoot.
In the innards of the bathhouse, Chihiro comes upon the boiler room, operated by a man named Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers) with eight arms, which perform a bewildering variety of functions. At first he seems as fearsome as the world he occupies, but he is no friend of Yubaba, and agrees to help Chihiro rescue her parents who have been turned into pigs.
Chihiro is forced into drudgery, scrubbing and cleaning the numerous tubs for a menagerie of guests. Trouble erupts when she accidentally allows Okutaresama, the spirit of the river, into the building. His body has absorbed the debris, waste and sludge that has been thrown into it over the years, so he is filthy and reeks so that no one can bear to be anywhere near him. She must prepare his bath, and as the detritus he has absorbed sloughs off, at one point actually yielding up a discarded bicycle, he is transformed from apparent victim to apparent predator.
Japanese myths often incorporate shape-shifting motifs, in which bodies conceal a hidden reality – and animation is the perfect vehicle for shape-shifting. Miyazaki does wondrous things with his characters: Okutaresama reveals his true nature, and Haku, Yubaba and even Boh are much more than they seem at first.
Miyazaki’s drawing style is rooted in classical Japanese graphic art, with subtle use of colour, clear lines, and realistic portrayal that suggests the true nature of the characters. Not fond of computers, he draws thousands of frames himself with painstaking attention to detail that brings the animation to life. This is one of the year’s best pictures in any genre. Bring a child if you must (though not a small one, as they would find much of Spirited Away quite distressing) – but don’t miss this exceptional film.