In 2001, Studio Ghibli blessed us with Spirited Away. It’s a whimsical tale filled with a horde of unique, flamboyant creatures, a twisting, turning plot-line that never lets up and a beautiful soundtrack, not to mention the stunning animation that Ghibli is so well-known for. It’ll have you laughing and crying in equal measure – it might even freak you out a little – but what it won’t do is leave you feeling unsatisfied. The entire film is a rollercoaster ride that will take you on an exhilirating adventure, packed with everything we’ve come to love about a Ghibli movie; but of course, those few sentences I’ve just typed out don’t even begin to do the film justice.
Our heroine – 10 year old Chihiro – is honestly a bit of a brat at the beginning, but therein lies the point; the film follows her as she makes her way (often clumsily) through the maze of a premature adulthood, with all kinds of responsibilities suddenly thrust upon her. She has to find herself a job, undertake hours of backbreaking work under an intimidating contract and save her parents and Haku to boot. Amazingly, she manages all this and more while keeping her composure, a pretty incredible feat for a 10 year old. As the film progresses, we see Chihiro grow from a selfish, spoilt little kid into a respectful, mature person. Without all of the hardships that she was made to face she would never have become that person, and she seems to understand and be grateful for that fact. We in turn can respect her for her growth; she’s beautifully developed, and shines as an admirably vivacious and strong character.
It’s not only Chihiro that benefits from a brilliant personality in Spirited Away though. Literally every character in the film comes complete with three whole dimensions, totally unique from one to the next. Even the soot sprites are full of their own little individuality and they can’t even talk. We meet Kamaji pretty quickly, who works in the boiler room and who at first appears hot-headed and a little cruel. As we get to know him however, he turns out to be one of the warmest characters throughout the movie, perhaps second only to Zeniba, Yubaba’s kindly twin who enjoys weaving in her cottage.
Even Yubaba, who is for the most part rather harsh and a bit of a slave-driver has her softer side, particularly when it comes to her overgrown baby, Boh. Despite all of her efforts we know that even those as tough as Yubaba have their limits, which shows when she finally relents and gives Chihiro a job. Lin, Chihiro’s assistant, becomes a fast friend and fiercely protective of the young girl, getting her out of many a scrape with her quick wit and guidance. The spirit No-Face blends the right amount of adorable with the right amount of creepy, until he completely manages to lose it. And of course, who could forget the elusive Haku? The mystery surrounding him keeps our interest piqued, and the way his past intertwines with Chihiro’s is the sweetest touch; who doesn’t love that pivotal scene where they’re free-falling through the air?
Now let’s be honest, every single Ghibli movie is just as beautiful and captivating as the last. But what makes Spirited Away stand out for me are the numerous, magical settings that are the backbone of the film. The bath house, the little village at the foot of it, Yubaba’s cottage in Swamp Bottom, the train tracks stretching across the vast body of water, even the sloping, hilly suburb that we catch a fleeting glimpse of at the very beginning of the film; it’s hard not to fall in love with these places, with their striking hues and intricate, pain-stakingly designed details that have become classic staples of a Ghibli movie. The bath house is perhaps where the heart of the story lies; its towering structure and labyrinthine interior provide the perfect backdrop to Chihiro’s eccentric adventure, often leading her down seemingly endless staircases, through the narrowest of passages, across bridges and through countless doorways. Despite the somewhat happy ending, we’re almost disappointed when she has to leave and return to her otherwise normal life.
If there’s one thing that Studio Ghibli is incredibly adept at, it’s knowing how to tell a story. For me, Spirited Away is one of the best examples of a Ghibli film precisely because of the story that’s weaved throughout the aesthetic landscapes and moved along by the characters, a story of love and friendship, of determination and self-growth. The scenarios that unfold are so wide-ranging and bizarre, from No-Face’s mad obsession with Chihiro to her pulling a bike out of a spirit as he bathes, that we begin to believe anything can and will happen, that nothing is off-limits, to the extent that we become lost in the world of Spirited Away; and what a world to get lost in.