Spirited Away, released in 2001 from Studio Ghibli, follows 10 year old Chihiro who has just moved away from her home town. On the first journey to her new home, her dad takes a wrong turn and they find themselves at an abandoned village – which from which a strangely enticing smell emanates and urges them closer. At a food stall with no staff, her parents sit down to eat but Chihiro isn’t so sure, and she is right to be cautious. The food is not for them, it’s not even for humans…
Her parents now bewitched and trapped in an otherworldly land full of yokai, Chihiro must find her courage to save her parents, herself and her friends.
As with most Studio Ghibli animations, the detail that has been put into the design of the world is incredible. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s vision is clear. The bathhouse and the world surrounding it is beautifully drawn and becomes a character within itself.
Particularly, it is the creation of the bathhouse’s visitors that show true creativity. Yokai are Japanese demons that can be created from basically anything and the vast range that you see in Spirited Away show that. From the river spirit to No Face, each have their own unique look that is both very Ghibli and entirely undeniably the mythological creature they represent. It is also these characters that help to flesh out the world, to add dimensions to the story.
Paired with the amazingly whimsical soundtrack created by Joe Hisaishi, the world of Spirited Away is elaborate and wonderous, although a tad terrifying.
The story itself is uncommonly complicated for a modern film aged for a child audience. That is one of its strong suits. Spirited Away doesn’t shy away from the complex notion of emotions, of how it feels to be afraid, nor does give into the idea that children’s entertainment needs to be simple. There are a number of plot points that are developed and solved throughout the course of the story that have very little to do with Chihiro’s main task of saving her parents and getting back to her normal life.
Both Japanese and English speaking voice actors are suited for their roles. In the English dub, Chihiro’s voice (Daveigh Chase; Rumi Hiiragi) does feel gratingly high pitched as she spends a lot of her time during the film understandably freaking out, so it fits the character portrayal well. Her character goes through so much across the course of the film and her character arcs are incredibly well thought out to satisfying conclusions.
Haku is a harsher character, rough due to the circumstances of his presence within the story, and his voice actors (Jason Marsden; Miyu Irino) play this role incredibly well. Other characters of importance, such as Lin/Rin (Susan Egan; Yumi Tamai) and Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette; Mari Natuski), are well depicted and, honestly, they are characters you did find yourself wanting to know more about.
There is a slight difference in the film when you watch the English dub or the original version in Japanese. It changes some aspects of when certain pieces of information is revealed, although it is not clear why that would be the case. Just be aware that the story could flow slightly differently depending on the version you are watching.
Spirited Away is an iconic Studio Ghibli animation. A children’s film that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of storytelling. It accepts the dark and fantastical and the humorous, wrapping it up in this unique land and unfolding it for the audience with delicacy and care. A film for all ages, Spirited Away will no doubt work its way up your favourites list!