Watching this film for the first time when I was 11 years old (fittingly only one year off the age of the main protagonist), I was enchanted and terrified by the spirit world it brought to life. Imagining myself lost in the bath houses of old Japan, surrounded by strange creatures of all shapes and sizes, I was transported into a world entirely foreign to my own, but one in which I felt strangely at home.
Chihiro is like most 10 year old girls in the modern world; spoiled, moody, confused, and caught adrift in that strange space between childhood and young adulthood, in which one’s outlook on life shifts, and morphs into something deeper and darker than before. Hayao Miyazaki chooses the perfect character to carry his story of transformation and memory, as we watch a young girl at a pivotal stage in her life, swap naivety for wisdom. Ironically, it is through being ‘spirited away’ to a place of antiquity and fancy, that Chihiro experiences such maturity.
There are mounds of metaphors at work throughout the film, not least the loss of childhood innocence experienced through various encounters with Gods and spirits. The ‘stink spirit’, for example, who turns out to be a river god, is a classic lesson in not judging a book by its cover; and ‘No Face’ is a warning to young Chihiro of the trappings of adult greed and consumption. The witches Yubaba and Zeniba represent conflicting faces of parenthood, with one smothering and restricting whilst the other warms and comforts. And Haku is the rollercoaster-like encounter of first love, made obvious by the fact that Chihiro, in a moment of great danger, is engulfed by the river Kohaku, only to be ultimately carried by it/him to a greater understanding of life and memory.
And yet all of these ‘messages’ can be taken or left as they appear, each one adding to the story despite not being vital to its core strength and magic. The beauty of Studio Ghibli is in its innate ability to give meaning to moments of child-like reverie, where fantastical images packed full of minute and exquisite detail consume the viewer in a way that few other animations do. The colours, the shadow, the lights, the framing; each aspect of Miyazaki’s visual worlds is brought to life with such awesome power and elegance that it is hard to focus on metaphor and meaning, and easier to simply get lost in the intoxicating artistry of it all.
Every scene and moment of Spirited Away is lent a tangibility that contradicts its hand-drawn nature. From the glorious representations of food, to the very water that surrounds the setting of the main action of the film, each element of the cinematic landscape is a portal through which the viewer is transported into an otherworldly realm. By the story’s end, Chihiro has experienced some of the transition into adult life through transportation to her own enchanted realm. Surrounded by the unknown, she has been made ‘Sen’, a serious worker and a loyal friend, journeying and facing great peril for those she loves. We journey with her, and when she returns to her human life and becomes Chihiro again, we feel the great nostalgia for what she left behind, but also great wonderment and apprehension for what lies ahead. This is what makes Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli so great, that ability to encapsulate the indefinable ache of growing up. How perfectly it is epitomized here, where a child is lost in a maze of dazzling wonderment, only to come out the other side more serious, but with a flicker of light and magic still intact.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★