Hayao Miyazaki has spent much of the last two decades of his career attempting to refine and perfect the types of films that he made as a young director. Porco Rosso (1992) felt like a return to the rambunctious action of Castle of Cagliostro (1979), but with a stronger personal stamp and a greater emphasis on bizarre character quirks. Princess Mononoke (1997) was in some respects a remake of the eco-themed epics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), but with an even larger scope and less reliance on fantasy genre clichés. Spirited Away (2001) continues the pattern by returning Miyazaki to the theme of adolescent maturation previously explored in My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). But where those films were markedly kid-friendly and charmingly simple, Spirited Away is a darkly surreal work that may top even Princess Mononoke with its wildly baroque animation. The result is Miyazaki’s best film to this point, and one of the very finest films of its decade.
The basic outline of Spirited Away’s plot is similar to My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with a young girl moving to a new town and gradually learning to overcome her insecurities until she becomes a self-reliant, mature individual. But the menacing form that the new film’s protagonist’s fears take makes the stakes feel much higher than in the earlier stories. Where the heroines of Totoro were simply struggling to come to grips with their mother’s (ultimately minor) illness, and Kiki was trying to fit in with the other kids, Spirited Away’s Chihiro is separated from her parents (who turn into pigs after eating too much food) and thrown into an Alice in Wonderland-style world full of inexplicable rules and terrifying beasts. Though virtually everything that happens in the film, from the moment Chihiro’s parents’ car breaks down on their way to their new home, could be interpreted as a dream, Miyazaki does nothing to encourage that reading of the story, and the unclear distinction between the “spirit world” and everyday existence gives the film’s strange world a weight and power that wouldn’t be possible in a more conventionally plotted animated movie.
Of course, the sheer quality of Studio Ghibli’s animation plays the biggest role in selling the illusion of the film’s spirit world. Their technical skill has improved with every subsequent film, and though Princess Mononoke brought them to what seemed to be the absolute peak of excellence in hand-drawn animation, they have once again outdone themselves with Spirited Away. What Mononoke had in breathtaking scale, this film has in ornate, unforgettable character design. A six-armed, bushy-mustached boiler room worker provides some of the film’s early visual highlights, but his memorable scene is merely a warm-up for the many fantastic sights to come. These include a gang of man-sized talking frogs, a mute but imposing “radish spirit” that is essentially a more sinister version of Totoro, three green severed-yet-living heads that bounce around like jumping beans, an enormous baby whose full girth isn’t revealed until late in the film, and a number of kabuki-masked spirits whose shadowy bodies can change size and shape almost at random. The most striking figure of all may be Chihiro’s bath house boss, an elderly lady with a tiny, bird-like body that is usually hidden by her preference for baggy dresses and gaudy jewelry, and is dwarfed by her massive, wrinkled head.
The bath house is also the site of a vividly strange scene in which Chihiro is tasked with washing an enormous “stink spirit,” a creature that appears to be a mobile, sentient hill of dripping mud. Chihiro’s efforts to clean him up result in a surprisingly intense action scene that is a true tour de force for Studio Ghibli’s animation team, and arguably Miyazaki’s most impressively directed scene to this point. After being cleaned, the stink spirit reveals itself to be a polluted river that has been ignored the spirit world’s inhabitants for years.
Environmental messages are nothing new in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, but they haven’t always been well stated in past films. Spirited Away’s generalized message about protecting the earth and overcoming greed threatens to become a bit too blunt for the film’s dream logic plotting (Chihiro’s parents literally becoming pigs after eating too much is hardly subtle), but Miyazaki gets away with his criticism of careless materialism by depicting the characters in the film as misguided rather than villainous, and by sticking to a coherent point of view (thereby avoiding the muddled moralizing of Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky). As usual, Miyazaki does not shy away from presenting the natural world as an ominous and dangerous place even as he revels in its beauty and wonder. The other spirits’ fears of the stink spirit are entirely understandable.
While some of the morals that Miyazaki is imparting may seem simple, he consistently states them in the least obvious and most mesmerizing ways possible. A long sequence involving a masked spirit known as “No Face,” who is allowed to consume and destroy as much as he wants in the bath house as long as he keeps throwing gold at the employees, simultaneously provides the film’s most obvious moralizing (“don’t be greedy”) and some of its most stunningly bizarre nightmare imagery (No Face’s body rapidly growing as food dribbles out of his mouth and plates smash all around him). The combination of a clear moral and vividly animated dream-logic plotting makes Spirited Away a wonderful modern fair tale. It is Miyazaki’s most powerful and beautiful film to date, and one of the greatest triumphs in the history of animated film.
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