I’m of the opinion that there hasn’t been an animated film as good as Spirited Away. It’s hard to find many non-animated films as good as it. It is nearly impossible to find a single person who dislikes it and those that do still respect it as a piece of art. However, I do know plenty of people who simply dismiss it as a children’s film; a really good one, but still something less than. That’s just wrong.
There’s so much to Spirited Away that it’s tough to tackle it from one angle. So I won’t. The first part of this piece will discuss how the film practically redefines what we should expect from animation (traditional or digital). The second part will dig into the film’s themes and ideas to see how Spirited Away not only entrances us with its visuals, but also with its content.
There will also be a third part. It will consist of me typing in caps and demanding Disney release the movie on Blu-ray in the U.S.
Much of what I’m about to say about Spirited Away’s animation stands true for many of Studio Ghibli’s films. There’s a reason that the studio’s movies are a cut above almost everything else out there and those reasons are epitomized in Spirited Away. As of now, this is the studios best film and thus can easily be used to exemplify what Ghibli is all about with its animation.
What are they all about? Bringing animation to life. The one thing that is most impressive about Spirited Away is how alive almost every frame of animation is. Even the hand drawn backgrounds, which are devoid of actual movement, sparkle with life. This “life” is clearly present in large scenes like our introduction to the bath house where what seems like hundreds of different and creative spirits are congregating. Every aspect of a big scene like this throbs with motion, creating an animated film that feels more alive than most non-animated ones. We’re thrown into a massive world of ideas, but the attention to detail on every subject we see is stunning.
It’s actually this detailed view of the world that separates Spirited Away’s animation from all others. Large scenes, like the introduction to the bath house, play out in animated films all the time, but the smaller scenes that are routinely present in Spirited Away do not. Take the Susuwatari (tiny, living dust balls who man the bath house’s furnace). While they play a role in the film, many of the scenes are almost completely irrelevant to the actual plot. Instead of attempting to move the story along as fast as possible Miyazaki pushes instead to establish a world by paying attention to (admittedly adorable) minutia. Most animated films veer away from extra movement in a scene as it means extra animation work, but Spirited Away not only puts extra animation into pivotal scenes, but also adds entire scenes that are not “needed.” In this way Spirited Away doesn’t just tell a story, it creates a world.
It’s an amazing world to look at, too. Miyazaki understood this and it’s so blatantly clear from the film’s direction how much the fine folks at Ghibli love what they do and the art of animation. This is apparent throughout the film, but once again it’s the less obvious scene that make the point. Take Chihiro’s family’s first steps into what they think is an old amusement park. The family walked into what looks like a small train station or waiting room. Instead of a quick establishing shot to the outside of the building to show where they are, the camera slowly pans across the beautifully painted background as if it is savoring every brush stroke. It then cuts to a shot of light streaming through one of the room’s windows. It’s not a special window and it doesn’t have any real purpose, but it might be one of the most important shots for establishing tone in the film. This devoted focus on presenting the art behind the film is not only a testament to Ghibli’s love of the medium, but creates a deeper world for the viewer to get lost in. If you’re invested in what sunlight looks like streaming through a window, how invested are you going to be in your characters animation?
The answer is obviously very, very invested. There isn’t a group of animators working who more perfectly capture human emotion on characters’ faces than the team behind Spirited Away. I’m not talking perfect reproduction here. That doesn’t capture emotion nearly as well as this film’s animation. No, it is in fact the ability to bend the rules that makes Spirited Away’s characters seem so much more alive than some motion-captured bit of CGI. From the exaggerated expressions and wrinkles on Yubaba’s over sized head to Chihiro’s steadily maturing face, Spirited Away depicts more emotion in a single frame than you can get out of any other film. Watch Yubaba fly into a rage and how the attention to detail on her face’s wrinkles and eyes creates an image that you could understand no matter what language it was in.
Beyond becoming fully immersed in the world, what is there to understand? Surprisingly, a lot. Even more surprising, for a film released in 2001, a lot of relevant issues crop up today. Looking at Spirited Away at its most basic level we see an adventure about a girl. Peeling back that level the film opens up to two other interpretations. The first is pretty easy to notice: growing up. Taking a cue from Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away turns the awkward move from childhood to adulthood into a fantasy metaphor. Anyone with even a cursory viewing of the film can easily see Chihiro’s growth from a scared girl crying out to her parents to a mature child growing into herself. She falls in love, learns about loss, and through her interactions with the spirits in the bath house discovers that the world isn’t so black and white. Played against the foil of Yababa this growing up metaphor becomes even stronger. Yababa steals Chihiro’s name effectively killing her child self and is the mother who won’t let her child grow up in contrast to Chihiro, who is forced to.
That metaphor is pretty obvious though as it’s part of the plot as well. What stood out for me upon my re-watching of the film this time around is how much it speaks to societies flaws, the burned economy and the constant pull between the past and the present. I’m sure these things have been noted before, but it’s incredible how much more appropriate they seem today after our current financial crisis. In 2001, Japan’s economy was already crumbling so many of the economic themes of the film relate back to that originally, but are now all the more appropriate post Great Recession. The bath house in general can easily be interpreted as the pre-recession economy as it explodes in wealth and luxury. No Face, a creature who usurps the identity and actions of those around it, sees the overwhelming consumption of the bath house (and to a lesser extent Chihiro’s parents) and duplicates it. In the process of his non-stop consumption he destroys the very house that is feeding him and yet no one thinks to stop him until it is too late. Sound like any pre-2008 country you know?
On a side note, and this is obviously just by chance, it’s interesting that the magic dumpling that Chihiro uses to cure No Face is given to her by the cleaned up spirit of a polluted river. If we continue down the path of No Face being a broken and destructive economy then the solution to fixing the economy would be strides towards a more environmentally friendly infrastructure. As anyone who has followed President Obama’s attempts to repair the US economy knows, that is actually one of the major aspects of his plan. You read it here first: Obama’s economic recovery plan entirely based on Spirited Away
This interpretation of the film puts Chihiro squarely in the role of the “next generation.” Much like a college student graduating into a depressed economy where they’ve been promised a job, she comes kicking and fearful into the bath house unsure of what or where she is supposed to go. However, she eventually recognizes the issues with the culture of the place she is in and realizes that personal sacrifice and growth are the only way to change what is happening around her. Her maturation as a person is what the film believes society needs to do to move beyond where we are. While the film has a clear and obvious fascination with (if not love for) Japanese past, it’s Chihiro, a modern child, who must act to move the world forward.
Obviously, since Spirited Away was released in 2001 none of these current metaphors were actually intentional. However, it speaks volumes about the film — not to mention the human condition — that all these themes and metaphors are even more relevant today than they were in 2001 (at least outside of Japan).
I’ve spoken a lot about metaphors, the economy, growing up and other issues here. Maybe too much (seriously, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were in a previous draft). Really though, those are side things to what make Spirited Away so great. It’s the passion and beauty that shine through every aspect of the film that truly make it a classic. It’s a rare film that comes along that you can mute and still enjoy just as much as you would with the sound on, but Spirited Away is one of them.
… But don’t actually mute it. The score is too amazing.
And now as promised: WHY HASN’T DISNEY BROUGHT THIS OUT ON BLU-RAY YET?