Spirited Away is the best animated film ever made, and is on the shortlist for best films ever made, period.
Just so we all know where I’m starting from.
Everyone has a boring preamble about how they first got hooked on Miyzaki, so I’ll go ahead and give you mine right here at the top: When Spirited Away first came stateside I was very fresh into my movie obsession that has gone for the last, uh, couple decades. I was very much a Disney kid, owing to that channel being one of the few things we were actually allowed to watch in my household, and that year I was all about Lilo & Stitch, which had a pantheon-level marketing campaign (Stitch literally crashing into other Disney movies) and a vibe that was so wonderfully different from the by-then calcified Disney Renaissance formula, the rip-offs, and Disney’s own shuttering attempts to shake things up (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, etc.).
I was also freshly aware and invested in this thing called ‘the Oscars’ where people actually gave out awards to the top movies of the year. What a concept! And that year, there were two movies I felt super-invested in seeing succeed: The Two Towers for Best Picture, and Lilo & Stitch for the second ever Best Animated Feature.
Welp, Two Towers got shown up by Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as dancing murderers, and Lilo & Stitch got upset by this strange Japanese movie called Spirited Away. Reading up on this usurper of my beloved Hawaiian /outer space romp, I learned that it actually shared a lead voice, with Daveigh Chase voicing both Lilo and Chirhiro/Sen in Spirited Away. And I learned about a taciturn gentleman named Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the greatest living director of animation, who retired after an illustrious career with the mind-blowing fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, only to then un-retire with a new film that put them all to shame.
My relationship with Spirited Away has evolved over the years. In a way, even though the film is so squarely rooted in the mindset and perspective of a child, keyed so beautifully to the fears and fascinations that fill and shape the adolescent mind, it’s only as an adult that I’ve been fully able to fully countenance the power and grandeur of this film, even as there are depths and meanings within the film that, thankfully, remain forever abstract.
Watching it as a 12-year old after convincing my Dad to let me rent it as our weekly pick from the video store (Sidenote: Fuck, am I old) I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the film, with its cheerful forsaking of anything resembling a traditional narrative structure, its dedication to nightmare imagery, dream logic, and spiritual insights over plot machinations, and its unapologetic roots in Japanese culture and folklore, international audiences be damned. Even as impressed and taken with the film as I was, it was more the imagery that captured my imagination and attention than anything running deeper beneath the surface.
The pigs stuffed into the parents’ clothing. The shadow people. Haku blowing flower petals. Kamaji’s eternally-stretching spider-limbs. A bicycle pulled free of a stink-spirit. No-Face. A train running across an endless ocean. A girl and her monsters sitting peacefully within that train. A dragon flowing through the sky.
These images and moments were not only iconic but almost totemic, embodying emotional and spiritual truths that I certainly didn’t possess nearly the language to understand, much less describe to someone else. Hell, I’m 29 now and spend a lot of time working with words, and yet Spirited Away remains a film that always feels maddeningly just out of reach. Which is of course part of its power: If this was a film that could be easily summarized, if it was something that could be placed into a box and exist comfortably within that box and never require another second’s thought, then we wouldn’t be sitting here all these years later still enchanted by it.
It was when I revisited the film as a teenager that I made a startling discovery: I remembered the entire film. Now, I watched a lot of movies growing up, and I’ve always had a weird, aggravating ability to retain too many details of things that you would be perfectly reasonable to forget ever existed. But when I rewatched Spirited Away, I was shocked to discover that, without actively thinking about the film at all during the intervening years, every frame of it was right there, just on the other side of memory and waiting to be recalled.
I’ve been assuming this whole time that we’re all on the same page here, but maybe this is your first time ever hearing about this film. Weird, but you never know. So, here are the basics, with the caveat that describing the plot of Spirited Away is a bit like focusing on the typeface of a Bible.
Our protagonist is a pre-teen girl named Chihiro, who is unhappily being forced to move to a new town with her pleasantly lame parents. On the drive to the new house, Dad takes an unnecessary short-cut and the family winds up at an isolated tunnel that leads them into what they fast take to be an abandoned theme park. Mom and Dad discover a stall containing lots of fresh food and begin to gorge themselves. When night falls, the family is suddenly transported into the realm of spirits and gods, beset by a collection of monsters and myths unlike anything else ever captured on film before. For eating food reserved for the gods, Mom and Dad are transformed into pigs and slotted for slaughter. Chihiro is whisked away by a mysterious boy named Haku, who brings her to a bathhouse/spa for spirits, where she is promptly re-named Sen by Yubaba, the miserly overlord of the establishment, and put to work. From there, the film follows Chihiro/Sen’s journey as she seeks to survive the bizarre obstacles of the bathhouse, save her parents, and find a way to escape the spirit world and return home.
You’ve seen this story structure before. It’s the Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz thing, which has been repeated to the point of exhaustion by now. Miyazaki himself has played similar notes before. But with Spirited Away, Miyazaki and his animators and production staff create a world that truly feels unlike anything ever captured on film before, an ecosystem of gods and systems and spirits and rules that feels both sustainable and self-contained while also having the looseness and free-flowing logic of a dream. Characters will casually invoke ancient laws that tie their hands and force their actions, but it never feels like cheating because, well, isn’t that the way the world works when you’re a child? You find yourself suddenly dumped into situations you weren’t responsible for bringing about and have no control over, that you can barely begin to understand, and then are left to somehow figure it out. With this as its guiding thematic North Star, Spirited Away is free to paint with both the whimsical and the grotesque, nowhere more so than in Chihiro’s evolving relationship with the silent No-Face, a creature that is by turns deeply sympathetic, quietly off-putting, and flat-out terrifying.
As a piece of craft, Spirited Away remains an unparalleled achievement in the field of hand-drawn animation. There are isolated moments involving computers (continuing an experiment begun with Mononoke, that would reach an apex in Miyazaki’s next film, Howl’s Moving Castle, before he swore it off and went back to hand-drawn) but the vast, vast majority of the film is breathtaking, lush traditional animation. Every frame could be a painting, but calling it painterly would do a disservice to the motion that provides so much life and personality to every character. The way the dragon curls and flails, the way No-Face flows and bobs, the bustling, busy energy of the bathhouse as a whole. Hell, the way Chihiro’s run evolves throughout the film is a signpost of her growth as a person.
It’s fair to say that the film has never looked better than it does in this new Collector’s Edition, with a transfer that puts even the previous Blu-rays to shame. You’ll feel like the colors are going to spill over the edge of your television, and the audio is top-notch as well. The Collector’s Edition also comes with a 40-page booklet stuffed with art and essays, and a CD containing Joe Hisaishi’s incredible score, which can turn from rousing and regal to gentle and soothing as a flower petal winding down the stream. It’s an incredible package that does more than right by such an achievement in the medium.
Yet what truly sets the film apart from the other great fantasy epics is not its technical bonafides which, again, cannot be beaten. No, when I revisit Spirited Away again (and again. And again. I pretty much never get sick of this movie) what strikes the most profound chord with me isn’t any of the eye-popping visual splendor that Miyazaki unfurls (OK, the dragon continues to fucking rule no matter how many times I see it). Instead, it’s Chihiro’s journey from spoiled girl to able young woman, a transformation that is just expertly charted.
Because, it’s not that Chihiro is a ‘bad’ kid who needs to learn a lesson and become a ‘good’ one. Her story is not one of changing who she fundamentally is. Instead, her story, and the story of most young adults, is about the process of actually discovering who she is. To that end, she’s more like unformed dough at the beginning of the film, and through the action of the film she is submerged into a cauldron of Japanese culture, history, and folklore, and through those fires she forges a true personality.
I don’t know what else to tell you guys. Even in Miyazaki’s long and illustrious career, a filmography stuffed exclusively with masterpieces, in which even the weakest film (Howl’s) is still lightyears beyond what anyone is attempting, Spirited Away stands above all the others. It’s the kind of masterwork that is both intimidating (because how could anything you create match up to this) and inspiring (because goddamnit if someone could work hard and bring something like this to life, you need to put your nose to the grindstone and keep making your own stuff even better). It is a film that zeroes in on one girl’s intensely personal evolution to tell a story that encompasses the universal experience of navigating adolescence. It is a film that is tied exclusively to one culture, yet it speaks to the spiritual conditions and connections within all people of all cultures and faiths. It is a film of wild fantasy that bellows ecstatic truths you can never again pretend to not know.
Spirited Away is the kind of film you dream of, the kind of achievement that marks your psyche for all the rest of your life, rewriting your heart and mind so that always some echo of it will forever sound. And it’s a privilege, a no-joke honor, to be marked so.
So, yeah, buy the goddamn movie.