Written around June 2003
The main reason that animation can be so much more than just “plot” is the director’s ability to control every aspect of his vision, frame by frame. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the current reigning champion of hand drawn beauty transcribed into film, and being the writer, director and concept artist gave him complete power over his work of art. The official English title is Spirited Away, but the original is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. The title literally means The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro, but the differences between the English and Japanese versions do not stop there. The Disneyfied version tries to spell out a lot more for the audience than the Japanese version, as Western movie goers are less enthusiastic about thinking about their entertainment. Unfortunately, Disney might find that their spell-checker is broken. The multiple meanings, clever puns and some of the more symbolic Japanese Kanji (Chinese writing system) will be lost on the English dubbed viewer. However, far worse translations have been done, and in all fairness to Disney, this must have been a monumental task.
The first thing that one has to discuss in analyzing an animated feature is the quality of the art work. Spirited Away uses color, light and even CGI to add to the experience of a superbly drawn movie. The animation is smooth, crisp, vibrantly colored, and the CGI effects are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The use of color in this film is so important not just because it makes everything look alive, but the bright vivid colors control the mood of every scene – just think of the warm glow and the accompanying feelings associated with the boiler room.
The incredibly fantastic nature of Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a product of his incandescent creativity. It is filled with dozens of gods, spirits, demons, witches and a few things that defied explanation. From the Radish spirit, to Kamaji the six armed boiler operator, to the three disembodied bouncing heads, to Haku the dragon river-god, all of Spirited Away’s characters are unique and memorable. With limbs impossibly stretching, dragons dropping out of the sky, characters transforming into animals, gods bathing, frogs talking and soot-balls turning into insect-like workers ready to feed the boilers, this film visually drags you in to every scene and completely captivates your eyes and imagination.
Our heroine Chihiro is the most unappealing girl among female protagonists created by Miyazaki (except perhaps Mei in Totoro). But Chihiro is intentionally set up this way. Miyazaki created her to represent the way that he views modern children growing up in the world, spoiled and overly protected. This is the story about a girl who stepped into another real world where both good and evil exist. She will go through many experiences, learn how important friendship and dedication are, and return to the human world with her wisdom. The result is a moving and magical journey, told with consummate skill by one of the masters of contemporary animation.
Spirited Away is intensely symbolic. Every scene is stuffed full with Japanese Kanji, many of which have multiple meanings, even in the context in which they are presented. For example, the train that runs through the spirit world has the characters for Middle Path written on the front, alluding to the Buddhist of the four noble truths. Chihiro literary means “one thousand fathoms” (under the sea) and Sen, her new name mean “one thousand.” These games that Miyazaki plays with his audience are slightly lost on mainstream Western audiences, but can account to the unparalleled success that his movies have in Japan.
There are too many themes in the movie to list, but the major motifs are inner strength and the dichotomy between nature and the industrial world. Chihiro, starting out as a spoiled, clumsy and frightened ten year old, emerges from her experience as a strong, confident, clever and loving young hero. Her transformation is largely due to the fact that she has been taken out of her modern existence and transplanted into a spiritual world, filled with traditional views, responsibilities, stories and even traditional Japanese characters.
The seconded major theme in the film is the battle between nature and the modern world. This is a major theme running throughout all of Miyazaki’s works, especially pervasive in Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away shows how team work is essential in cleaning up nature, when the river-god is mistaken for a stink demon, and Chihiro frees him by removing all the pollution from inside the unhappy spirit. But more than the obvious metaphors, Miyazaki draws us into the natural world with his stunning visuals and panoramas of the natural world around his characters.
Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli have created a modern masterpiece of animation in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, which has gone on to be the first so-called “anime” movie to reach such critical acclaim, being awarded the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival for best picture and the 2002 Academy award for best Animated Feature. Spirited Away has opened the door for many distributors to begin offering Japanese animated films to mainstream theaters, which are a staple overseas, much to the delight of the huge anime fan base in the US. Already, movies like Cowboy Bebop and Princess Mononoke are scheduled for release in major theaters. Unfortunately, Spirited Away will be Miyazaki’s final feature, as he announced his retirement shortly after the release. But what a finale!