Skip to content


Pulling Focus: Spirited Away (2001)

26 March 2017 | Features, Reviews | by Shane Scott-Travis

“Miyazaki has been crafting films more lusciously illustrated and rapturously imaginative than almost anything else on the silver screen.”

– Richard Corliss, TIME Magazine


Come sail away

Most assuredly there is no one else making animated films like auteur-director Hayao Miyazaki. Born in Tokyo in 1941, the personal universe he presents onscreen is absolutely unparalleled, a manufacturer of one of a kind miracles, consummate cosmologies, and as such, his delicately captured and elegantly rendered artisanal fantasies are surreal singularities, loved and cherished in the hearts of so many.

Japan’s highest grossing movie of all time, Spirited Away earned 30.4 billion yen, and was the work that got Miyazaki identified as one of Nippon’s greatest living writer-directors, and rightly so.

With its ample and teeming animation styles, not to mention its vicious-streaks, and often scatological connotations, Spirited Away denounces Disney’s silky-edged hegemony with speed. Offering recurring leitmotifs, Studio Ghibli presents vibrant fantasy realms populated with young, analytical, forward-looking, female protagonists and––above all––the suspicion that what is being shown is a dreamlike estimation of unconscious anxieties prompted by being in the real world.

“It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.”

– Hayao Miyazaki


Over the hills and far away

Dissident to so many mainstream animated films, Miyazaki constructs imaginative worlds without the condescending expression and over-sentimental characters. This certainly allows for the appeal his features have to both adults and children, elaborate enough for the former to appreciate yet simple enough for the latter to enjoy on an altogether express level.

Like so many of Miyazaki’s films, like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Ponyo (2007), Spirited Away rewardingly contrasts the differing and digressing behaviors of adults and children, which also adds to the prescription for what’s essentially universal appeal.

“Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.”

– John Lasseter (director of Toy Story)


Childhood’s end

Spirited Away tells the adventurous tale of 10-year-old Chihiro Ogino (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi in the original Japanese and Daveigh Chase in the Disney dub) and her parents (Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi and Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly) on their way to their new home when they take a strange detour and stumble through a remarkable and significantly figurative tunnel.

Once through the burrow, the shy and somewhat shaky Chihiro and her headstrong parents find themselves in an ostensibly abandoned theme park where things aren’t at all what they seem.

Foolishly satiating themselves on an unattended buffet of delicious and exotic food, Chihiro’s parents gravely and wondrously transform into a pair of giant pigs. As night descends on the funfair, actually more like a novelty town of objet d’art, the place becomes populated by spirits––supernatural beings––who need respite in the earthly sphere.

Chihiro must find a way to move amongst the entities, overcome her bête noire so she can rescue her parents, and figure out a way home. Befriended by a benign spirit named Haku (Miyu Irino and James Marsden), Chihiro toads her way deep within the town, where eventually she comes across a witch by the name of Yubaba (Mari Natsuki and Suzanne Pleshette).

Yubaba (who’s honeydew melon of a head seems modelled perhaps on the Duchess in Sir John Tenniel’s Alice illustrations) runs a successful, strange, and very embellished spa resort, a bathhouse, that seems to be the crux of the place, attracting a large clientele of eccentric, erratic, and occasionally hostile spirits.

It’s through this bathhouse, as Chihiro reinvents herself and mingles amongst the inexplicable and inconstant entities and accomplices that she can break free, or at least hope to. And though much in this film is unfamiliar, it’s rather recognizable heroic mythology that the heroine Chihiro has to pass various tests and troublesome trials to secure her return to normality and sanctuary.

“[Spirited Away] is the product of a fierce and fearless imagination whose creations are unlike any you’ve seen before.”

– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times


Seeing is believing

Taking after literary fabulists from Europe, Spirited Away is Miyazaki’s variation of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, with a dash of A.A. Milne. The hand-drawn scenes radiate with affection, energy, and wild invention.

Japanese architecture and design collide with East Asian bailiwick––the bustling streets and busy bathhouse were inspired by downtown Jiufen in Taiwan––making a pasticcio of character and temper. Miyazaki, with Spirited Away, shares the cultural disparity of his great countrymen, directors who rose to international prominence like Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) and Yasujirō Ozu (1903–63).

Also, and this of course is emblematic of Miyazaki’s body of work, he spins a fantastical yarn rife with sui generis spirits and solitary creatures who follow their own strange rules, governed by their own impermeable logic. Miyazaki’s lush world-building includes amphibious trains, baroque-gothic labyrinths, doppelgängers, dragons, and destructive spirits who pay in gold.

As Miyazaki’s tale deepens a dream logic dictates that some characters will change shape and even personalities without a wink. It’s no wonder that Chihiro reacts to each creature she encounters first with disorienting agitation, then with something akin to fear, and in consummation, with great courage.

It’s with mordancy that Chihiro is, to borrow a phrase made popular by Robert A. Heinlein, a stranger in a strange land, and yet the spirits and other odd inhabitants who dwell here consider Chihiro the strangest of all.

“You don’t remember your name?”

– Chihiro


You’ve got to see my bottle full of charms

The ruminative and mysterious dragon-boy half-caste Haku, cursed to forget his true identity and specifically his real name, is Chihiro’s enchanted paramour. Their relationship carries a delicate purity, but it’s not one of platitudes, predictability or libido. In fact, as their ties tighten and boom a shared history crests the surface.

Through their shared understanding Haku retains an earlier memory and the startling revelation along with it that he is the spirit of the Kohaku river, the same rivulet to which, as an infant, Chihiro fell in, and like a sluicing surge of foaming waves the twin topics of identity and remembrance squeeze ashore.

“Once you’ve met someone you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return.”

– Zeniba


Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky

Bewitchingly and brilliantly combining hand drawings and computer graphics, Spirited Away received the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival (sharing the prize with Paul Greengrass’ live action film Bloody Sunday) and later won the Oscar for Best Animated Film––the first ever anime to do so. And if you needed another reason to love Miyazaki even more, he refused to attend the 2003 Academy Awards in Los Angeles due to his opposition to the Iraq War.

A truly transcendental flight of the imagination, and one steeped in the manga tradition, Spirited Away may well be Miyazaki’s finest work. And as with all of Miyazaki’s work, a modicum of patience is a prerequisite that pays rich dividends.

The storyline is of the shaggy dog variety, it’s also scrupulously picaresque, with a nonstop procession of curious characters, thick with the dangers and deaths that seldom occupy the mainstream safety of Disney, and still all these disparate elements coalesce into a thematically unbroken conception.

Spirited Away generously offers a compassionate discernment on the ill effects of ecological loss, the perseverance of preparation, of rolling with the punches, the plums of altruism, the force of friendship, and perhaps above all, the gravity of celebrating where you came from and who you are. This is unmistakably one of the great animated films ever made, and an unbridled revelry.

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.




Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates
  • Lugh

    Can’t watch these manga cartoons, the animation is just too annoying.

    • Sergio

      Well thats just your opinion, that many people share, but how is it annoying? For me Disney animation is just Ok, their stories arent as imaginative as Miyasakis. Most Disney Animated films have a linear story, and once you watched a few of them, they are kind of the same, Always someone good someone bad and a hero. In Miyazaki, its not that way, is much more complex.

  • D Train

    Great article on a great film. I love Miyazaki.

    • Sergio

      Its a Very good experience, i watch it first in 2006 and then another go last Year, it s just a masterpiece that always give me nostalgic feelings. Very good, but must be in the mood.

  • Lugh

    Calling me a troll and racist for saying that I find manga animation annoying is possibly one of the most ludicrously stupid things I’ve encountered online in quite some time and that’s saying something. Grow up ya muppet. I predict your next post will show us who the real troll is.

    • shane scott-travis

      You’re beahaviour and subsequently gaslightinhg has all the hallmarks of a troll there, Lugh. And you referred to Spirited Away as a “cartoon” and as “annoying”. Did you even read my article before you dropped trou to take a shit on it?
      You’re not just a troll, you’re predictable, boring, and yes, as “D Train” alludes, you’re most likely xenophobic.

      • Lugh

        Yeah, I read your article Shane and I posted my genuine thoughts on manga, I’ve always found the animation annoying, deal with it. By the way, that’s not taking a shit on your article, you do understand that, right? I know you come from a generation that can’t handle any criticism, without having a hysterical meltdown but if you people really think that you’re going to continue to have free reign to spout your accusations of xenophobia etc at anyone with an opposing opinion, then you’re in for a big shock buddy. If you accused me of those things in the real world, I’d have you up for slander Shane. You, like D Train, need to grow up and be a bit more tolerant.

        • Gilles Ello

          Lugh, thou doth protest too much AND you come across like a total douche.

          • Epidii

            Calling someone a douche – what a childish term that is anyway – with a comment like that, is a bit rich.

          • Gilles Ello

            So sensitive! Hahaha! Maybe the internet isn’t good place for you??

          • Epidii

            Sensitive, yes you do seem to be Gilly but don’t worry, I’m sure that crushing loneliness and frustration – that lead to you picking an argument with someone… anyone, on a weeks old thread – has given some meaning to your life, at least for today. The internet’s a great place for me Gilly, showing little weirdos(such as yourself) the error of their ways, is very gratifying.

      • D Train

        Lugh, like so many trolls, is exhausting AF.

  • Lugh

    Thanks for proving me right D Train, you predictable, moronic little snowflake. If all of this free speech is too much for you, I suggest you retreat back to your facistic safe space.

  • Pingback: Spirited Away (2001): FILM REVIEW – Kabira Blogs()