Miyazaki Showcase: Spirited Away

August 7, 2004 on 6:40 pm | In Spirited Away | Comments Off on Miyazaki Showcase: Spirited Away

Spirited Away is possibly Miyazaki Hayao’s most well known film, and is arguably the most widely recognised anime (that is, recognised as being anime). It’s a subtle work and much gentler than his previous hit, Princess Mononoke. As with that film before it, it was Japan’s greatest box office success until being surpassed by an American blockbuster phenomenon (Princess Mononoke being surpassed by Titanic, Spirited Away by The Matrix Reloaded).

At the beginning of Spirited Away, young girl Chihiro is reluctantly moving to a new town with her parents. They get lost along the way, clearly having bought the house sight unseen. Stopping at a roadside guardian, they follow a tunnel until they come to an expanse of grassy fields. They keep on walking until they find a deserted town – and a store full of food. Seeing that it is unattended, they start eating. Chihiro feels that this is not right, and chooses not to partake. She looks about the town, and when she comes back she finds that her parents have been turned into pigs. Chihiro seeks employment with Yubaba, the witch who runs the place as a resort for the gods. If she can work off her contract, then her parents will be free once more.

Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki’s most epic work on a personal scale. Not the intense personality of Porco Rosso, but full of major growth and depth. Chihiro is what makes the film, because there’s no real narrative to speak of. In fact, for the duration there’s barely any cuts at all. It feels almost like a free flowing film that follows Chihiro from start to finish. The biggest surprise is that only about three or four days pass during the entire film: Chihiro comes so far, and so much happens, but to watch it all it passes in only a few calculable moments. Not many notice, but Miyazaki’s films are epic on a small scale: this was Princess Mononoke‘s chief weakness, but Spirited Away’s chief strength.
Chihiro is a very different girl between start and finish: at first she has no courage or will beyond feeling “hard done by”, as only ten year old girls can feel. She realises that in order to get her parents back, she must become herself. It’s a strong message, and Chihiro becomes incredibly strong herself.

Miyazaki has some messages; but they’re not overpoweringly strong. None of the contempt that he could be accused of having for various aspects of modern culture comes through, other than the obvious and outlandish behaviour of Chihiro’s parents at the beginning. The clearest thing is the environmental streak, but for once the movie isn’t about that. It’s matter of fact, shown and gone. Miyazaki knows what is important; it’s not any message about society at large, but about one person’s change.

Miyazaki’s design aesthetic runs rampant here: he gets to design his own world that draws on Japanese culture. It could be argued that indeed all of his films draw on Japanese culture for imagery and inspiration (a very flawed argument, the more you consider it), but Spirited Away is heavy on tradition.
The music is some of Hisaishi Joe’s best, and Kimura Yumi’s ending song “Always with Me” is a beautiful example of the music residing in the voice.

Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki’s finest, and is quite different from his other films: something that makes it at once his most and least popular work. As something to send him to international fame (that is, American fame), it fares much better than the mishandled Princess Mononoke release. Spirited Away is a deceptively simple film; the simple frame work allows Miyazaki to weave complex characters, thus creating an excellent film.

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