Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki
Running time: 124mins
The lowdown: Still the only anime movie to win (and have been nominated for) the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Spirited Away has lost none of its power to surprise and charm in the years since it was released. Telling the story of Chihiro, a young girl trapped in a fantastical realm working in a bathhouse for the Gods, it is a treasure trove of rich visuals and fairy tale storytelling, and a delight from beginning to majestic end.
The full verdict: Watching Spirited Away an astonishing thirteen years after initial release, three things hit you.
Protagonist Chihiro would now be 23 years old. It is the last 5-star movie produced by Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli. The studio’s best looking movie was made for the Blu-ray treatment.
With production at Ghibli now on indefinite hiatus, it is unclear whether there will ever be another masterpiece from the House of Totoro. Particularly as Miyazaki’s latest claim he has quit directing may actually be true. All of which is a shame as Spirited Away is the one Ghibli film that could arguably warrant a sequel – come the end of the film we want to know what that little girl is doing now.
This still leaves us with a Blu-ray release to shout about. From the dazzlingly detailed animation design bringing to life the unusual, compelling story, Spirited Away getting its long awaited HD release is cause for celebration.
Blending Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and Cinderella with Japanese children’s classic Night on the Galactic Railroad, folklore and ecological messaging from Miyazaki’s past movies, the movie contains the dread and excitement of the best Grimm tales, with the exotic and stunning (and sometimes bewildering) array of fantastical creatures that have peppered Ghibli’s output from the get-go.
Chihiro (Hiragi), a sullen ten-year old, is plunged into the fantastical parallel world of The Land of Spirits when her parents stumble into a deserted, beautiful looking town. Ignorantly mistaking it for a theme park, mum and dad eat a banquet intended for gods and are transformed into pigs, to be fattened for another feast.
To rescue her parents Chihiro requires the help of Haku (Irino), a mysterious young boy doing the nefarious bidding of Yubaba (Natsuki), an aged sorceress managing the magical bathhouse.
Humans are unwelcome in this world of wonder and peril, so Chihiro must gain employment at the bathhouse to prove her worth. In the process she unwittingly “sells” her name to Yubaba, becoming “Sen”, the Japanese number for 1000 (is she the thousandth person to have been trapped in the land?).
Like most Miyazaki stories, Spirited Away is a rite of passage movie, with children accepting responsibility as they take their first steps into an alien adult world. It’s also about identity (another Miyazaki preoccupation, seen in the 5-star Nausicaa and Porco Rosso), and the danger of losing yourself when moving into a life of duty.
So assured is Miyazaki’s fantasyland, the mundane chores of bathhouse cleaning rest neatly alongside flights of imagination that illuminate the screen. Including an eco-friendly sequence when Chihiro removes a bicycle and detritus from a sickened, putrescent river god restoring him to his original resplendent self, based on an episode when Miyazaki helped clean out a local river.
The animation (hand drawn and digitally enhanced) is superlative, from the character designs, particularly the gallery of gods and grotesques who populate the bathhouse, to the incidental details and attention to character movement – note how many times Chihiro slips and stumbles then consider the effort made on those small nuances.
The director has the confidence to climax quietly with Chihiro taking a magical train journey to right a wrong Haku made when under the control of Yubaba, aided by the timid “No-face”, whom she rescues from the murkier side of his character brought out in the fevered atmosphere of the bathhouse (and which had some critics claiming disguised messages of prostitution).
Original criticisms of Spirited Away claim the two-hour running time dragged and the plot was too opaque for younger viewers. Yet, the ambition here in both story and theme can be felt in Toy Story 3, Frozen, and How To Train Your Dragon 2. And that wonderful Simpsons tribute.
The film may have been a modest success outside of Japan (of its $330m box office only $39m came from other territories), but its impact continues to be felt.
Transport yourself away now.
DVD details: Nothing new for those who bought the original DVD. The usual and essential full storyboard comparison that tends to grace every Studio Ghibli DVD release. Pixar founder John Lasseter’s heartfelt introduction, his brief interview with Hayao Miyazaki, the original Nippon TV 47min special), voice talent featurette, trailers and TV spots.
But, those upgrading are doing it primarily for the Blu-ray transfer and it does not disappoint. The wealth of visual detail on captured makes a good argument to get that 50” screen you’ve been promising yourself…
Spirited Away Blu-ray edition is available to buy from Monday 24th November 2014.