The very facet of childhood can be boiled down to the very definition of mysterious wonder and awe-inspiring imagination. We’ve all had those moments where we would go off into our own little world of childlike imagination and try experience an entirely new reality different from our own. Films have tried to recapture the atmosphere that resembles this nostalgic feeling of experiencing the journey of childhood that either succeeded or failed. It just takes a man like Miyazaki to do just that flawlessly.
Miyazaki isn’t a stranger to making movies about childhood and things similar of its nature; Totoro would be an obvious example to this fact. He certainly has an eye of making these kinds of stories that could be reflected to everyday childhood experiences that we have since grown out of and are now living in a realist way of life. The fantasy elements that are a constant staple to the Miyazaki lore is what has made most of his movies so special to a lot of people, including myself, because of their originality and inventive folklore. Now, that isn’t to say that I’m the biggest Miyazaki fan as much as the next person. However if there is one film that could never lose its imaginative and beautiful vision in his filmography with each passing viewing, Spirited Away would win at no contest.
In describing what kind of story Spirited Away follows, coming-of-age would be the most logical way of putting it. In that, we follow with our main protagonist Chihiro and how she handles certain situations that would prove to be difficult for any other young person such as herself. When she first encounters this Spirit World she is lost, hopeless, and confused. Not knowing what is going to happen to her or her parents, after they’ve been turned to pigs, she finally finds help with other characters that are willing to help her be acquainted with this world that is unlike her own. Once she is acquainted with the Spirit world, we now see her as a strong individual once she is more aware of her surroundings and is able to take care of herself without the help of Haku. It is by the end of the film the most essential point to what makes not only Chihiro a wonderful character but also how Spirited Away paces its story structure.
Art and animation are nothing but superb in Studio Ghibli’s legacy in how they incorporate more emphasis on impressionist inspired backgrounds with traditional hand-drawn animation. The scope of Miyazaki’s artistic vision is vast and organic in each of his films that some other Ghibli films sometimes lack in minimal detail. Spirited Away may not have the biggest scope in terms of scale such as his previous films such as Nausicaä or even Princess Mononoke, but I would argue the minimal scope works magnificently with the show’s structure. From the wonderfully drawn buildings to the tiniest detail of rust and wood splinters to the hypnotic waters that surround the spirit world, it complements extremely well with Miyazaki’s ascetic vision and Ghibli’s artistic talents.
With regards to Art, the one aspect of it that Spirited Away shines the most is its creative art designs of the characters of each spirit you come across. Every single one of them looks absolutely original and not thought of from previous animation, despite most of them obviously inspired by Japanese folklore. It’s not as if most of them are forgettable the minute after you see them. They all stick with you as you go along with the film and even years after you’ll finish it from how memorable and imaginative all of them are from the amazing art designs.
To describe how the character Chihiro is treated, as in how she is portrayed in the film in her own personality, would come to the conclusion that Miyazaki approached her in a realistic fashion. You’ve often seen kids before that behave like Chihiro, or you may have been like her in her age, and that behavior would be considered “bratty” or “immature.” But these shouldn’t be seen as negatives since realistically that’s what kids are at her age, as you see Chihiro before she goes to the spirit world. We see Chihiro go through hardship when she arrives through the spirit world and then we have this sense of hoping for her to succeed due to bravery and strong courage to help her parents. It gives her a sense of humanity that could make you feel so much empathy for her as not only just some drawing in motion, but as a human being in the flesh in some ways.
Other characters such as Kamajii, Lin, Kaonishi, and Yubaba fill in the cast quite nicely. Kamajii and Lin filling in as nice slight comic relief character give Spirited Away a nice needed level of charm from the voice acting and dialogue. Yubaba at first does seem like the villain of the movie but from how you see around it, there really isn’t a villain in this movie. She’s nothing more than just a woman who just wants to run her bathhouse in a very authoritative way that has no ambition to do anything evil in nature. Kaonishi, the spirit that follows Chihiro in the bathhouse, gives the film a vulnerable side to it from his troubles of being alone, all through no dialogue at all, at least from his own voice so to speak.
Now we come to music. Composed by Joe Hisaishi, who has been Miyazaki’s main collaborated in almost all of his films as composer, it is pure excellence in Hisaishi’s backlog. This shouldn’t really be surprising considering how so well he composes his scores. From listening to his songs on how they interact not only with what is going on currently in the film but also how it leads the story from each scene to another just from how Hisaishi makes the songs so vibrant and adds a whole new way of looking at the films he scores. I guarantee that there is not one person in the world with a clear conscience to listen to “One Summer’s Day” and not burst into tears.
It is with utmost sincerity that Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus. Though many will claim this to be his most “accessible” film in his filmography, especially the Miyazaki “purists”, it is, for me, the film with the most heart out of the rest. It’s the type of film that almost hurts to love, in that you feel so vulnerable watching this yet you feel a sense of awe because of how your absolutely mesmerized by how much sublime creativity was put into making Spirited Away. From all of its likeable characters, its brilliant pacing, its memorable score, and great coming of age story, from what little minimal flaws there are to be found in the film, it is all worth while to take in what is grandeur and admire it wholeheartedly. Just as with its atmosphere, nostalgia plays a part in how special Spirited Away is. Not nostalgia in the sense of how you were a kid when you first see it, but from how it invokes nostalgia from the film’s ambiance itself of showcasing childhood curiosity and adventure. Something of which more kids films really need to learn from in future generations.