I’ve been watching anime for roughly seven years now, and some of the earliest anime I fell in love with were Studio Ghibli films. I’ve been a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli pretty much since the beginning. While I definitely haven’t enjoyed every movie of his equally, I still consider films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), and Whisper of the Heart (1995) to be among my favourite movies of all time. But strangely enough, I always felt a sort of reluctance whenever the idea of watching Miyazaki’s most critically acclaimed film Spirited Away (2001) came up. Over the years, several friends have told me the film is a must-watch, but I always got distracted by other anime and kept it on the back-burner, fearing that once I had watched the film, there would be no more exciting Ghibli films left for me to watch. Knowing how critically beloved the film is and that I would probably like it, I wanted to preserve it for a day when there really were no more good anime movies left to see. As of late, however, I’ve been totally disinterested in upcoming anime, and nothing has really grabbed my attention for months. Feeling melancholy and in need of a pick-me-up the other day, I broke down and finally watched Spirited Away for the first time. So, did it hold up to years of high expectations and build-up? Well, yes and no. But mostly yes.
This review is not exactly timely, as pretty much every anime fan has seen Spirited Away years ago. It remains the only anime film to win an Academy Award, and it was only just recently surpassed by Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) as the highest grossing anime film of all time. Since the film has been widely and continuously praised in the nearly twenty years since its release, there’s really no need for me to summarize the plot, and as it happens, there’s conveniently very little plot to summarize. Ten-year-old Chihiro’s family decides to move to a new house, and on their way there, they stumble into a fantasy world, where the parents are promptly turned into pigs. Chihiro must navigate her dangerous position as a human in a world of spirits in order to save them and ultimately return home. Despite the potential urgency of this premise, the story of Chihiro trying to return home is often relegated to the background, as the film instead focuses on lengthy, standalone episodes within this strange world. For this reason, Spirited Away can at times feel quite plotless. However, that actually isn’t such a bad thing in this case.
Spirited Away shines in the moments that have very little to do with the overall story. Its primary strengths are the captivating ideas and imaginative visuals that this bizarre fantasy world allows, rather than a tightly woven plot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read anything that captures the feeling of dreaming as aptly as this film does. While Spirited Away is technically an isekai anime, it feels far more like a classic dream fantasy like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. Dreams are difficult to replicate accurately in fiction. There’s often some sort of story or uniting idea to them, but that story can be forgotten or drastically changed at any moment. There’s a kind of internal logic during the dream, but as soon as you wake up, you have no idea how someone in a dream changed into a different person or why your goal within the dream suddenly shifted for seemingly no reason. Since dreams can be somehow simultaneously random and straightforward, most dream sequences in film struggle to accurately portray them. Dream sequences are typically far too logical and plot-driven, or occasionally, they are so random that there doesn’t seem to be any sense of purpose or cohesion.
Aside from a few awkward moments that try to force some kind of plot back into the movie, Spirited Away near perfectly captures the dreamlike balance of illogical, non-sequential events and a sense of narrative purpose. Throughout the film, Chihiro’s motivation and goals change so subtly and gradually that I almost didn’t notice or question why those changes occurred. She originally sets out to save her parents; then, she desperately tries to find a job so the witch Yubaba doesn’t kill her, an arrangement Chihiro never even questions. Next, the film becomes about her strange connection with No-Face, who transforms into a monster and returns to his original form with no explanation of who or what he is. Finally, the film becomes about Chihiro trying to save Haku from the witch Zeniba, only to find out that his curse was actually conjured by Yubaba, Haku’s mistress. Having saved Haku and given him his true name back—a name that Chihiro only vaguely recalls from a childhood memory—Chihiro, with only a few minutes left to the movie, returns to her original goal, saves her parents from their curse, and goes back to her own world.
By the time Chihiro saves her parents and the “dream” is over, the film has dealt with at least four different storylines which often have little to do with the main story, and Chihiro herself seldom mentions her parents past a certain point in the movie. That plot is forgotten for a huge portion of the film as Chihiro drifts from one strange moment to the next, without questioning the internal logic of this dream world once. Interestingly, the film chooses not to show the parents’ transformation back into humans or give them an emotional reunion with Chihiro. The initial plot to save her parents has become so unimportant over the course of the film that, when Chihiro finally does meet up with her parents, they have no memory of what transpired nor does Chihiro even try to talk to them about it. Haku instructs Chihiro to leave his world and never look back, and her doing so means we never see anything of the other world again after she is reunited with her family. It’s almost as if Chihiro’s journey never happened, and the only reason we know for sure it wasn’t some elaborate dream is the magic hair tie that Chihiro still wears when she gets back in the car in the final scene. The subtle disconnect between the various scenes and plotlines and the uneventful ending lend the film a random, dreamlike quality, and yet, the film never seems to be without purpose or unnecessary.
Part of what makes the film’s lack of plot and disjointed nature work so well are its incredibly imaginative sets, character design, and animation that transport viewers into an utterly captivating world that is interesting and worth watching even without a story. While there is a definite Studio Ghibli aesthetic to the film, I was pleasantly surprised by how different the character designs here are from Miyazaki’s usual fare. Haku in particular has a notably more angular face, narrower eyes, and a straighter hairstyle than Miyazaki’s usual heroes, but the real standouts in character design are the various eccentric spirits that Chihiro encounters in her journey. Because the new world Chihiro finds herself in does not operate by any clear rules of realism or consistency, each of its characters is uniquely bizarre and larger than life. Characters like Kamajii and Yubaba are instantly memorable and visually distinct from any other character Miyazaki has ever drawn. With his irregular, crawling posture and numerous far-reaching arms, Kamajii really seems like a being from a dream, and the design of his boiler room takes full advantage of his unique design. The high-vaulted boiler room, with its walls of one overly full shelf on top of another, really feels like a room optimized for a man with extending arms that can reach ingredients anywhere in the room. Kamajii’s design, combined with the concept of tiny soot sprites that transport coal to the furnace, makes any scene in the boiler room fascinating to watch, even if there is little narrative significance to the moment.
The witch Yubaba is also an insanely detailed and unique looking character, from her massive head and nose and tiny body to the elaborate and gaudy jewelry that adorns her person. There’s so much detail and creativity in her wild, erratic movements and facial expressions, and her use of the blanket to turn herself into a bird version of herself is a fun and creative visual every time it happens. Her environments, like her sitting room or her baby’s room, make for some very interesting set pieces as well. In particular, the scene where Chihiro hides amongst the pillows of the baby’s room while the witch looks for her makes great use of the cramped room stuffed with hundreds of pillows, as well as the size difference between Chihiro and the utterly massive baby. It’s a visually unique scene with fascinating imagery and without any sense of creative limitation, enabled by the film’s whimsical and dreamy nature.
The film’s compelling and vivid animation is another reason the movie never seems pointless or boring, even if a scene serves no larger narrative purpose. No scene feels like it drags on too long, and the realism and dynamism of the animation makes each moment so much fun to watch. The scene in which Chihiro and Lin struggle to bathe the foul-smelling Stink Spirit has little bearing on the rest of the plot, but the attention to detail and the fluid animation make it captivating to watch. Lin’s vigorous cleaning and scrubbing of the foul tub and Chihiro’s desperate wading through sludge to turn on the water make the scene feel real, despite its absurd subject matter. The realistic and clean animation amidst such fantastic sets makes every moment of Spirited Away exciting to watch. Although the film is two hours long with a flimsy plot, I never found myself bored by anything that was happening on screen, and that was almost entirely due to the strength of the animation and creative character designs. Like waking up from a dream where you don’t quite understand how everything connected or what any of it meant but you still remember certain key moments, I’m still enchanted by the strong ideas and potent images within Spirited Away, even if I didn’t understand or love how the film put them together.
On the subject of things I didn’t love about the film, Spirited Away’s biggest weakness for me were certain scattered scenes where Miyazaki was trying a little too obviously to get some moral message across. From the parents’ initial indulgence in food and transformation into literal pigs as a result to the frog’s greed for gold provoking the No-Face into devouring him, a recurring theme in the movie is the dangers of uncontrolled greed. Normally, I don’t mind Miyazaki’s commentaries on human nature and society and I think they often make his movies feel unique, but Spirited Away never quite figures out how to put all these fragments of commentary together into something that really shapes or enhances the rest of the narrative. With a film like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the environmentalist message is the film. Without that defining theme, there would be no movie. In Spirited Away, the anti-materialist, anti-consumer message feels tangential, pointless, and almost too constrictive. Tying several scenes down to some kind of half-formed message against greed seems counter-intuitive to the film’s whimsical and dreamy tone, and this commentary ultimately never connects into anything noteworthy or meaningful; it just drags down and muddles any scene where it becomes the focus.
Of course, there is far more good in Spirited Away than bad. One particular aspect of the film that has become pretty iconic in the last twenty years is the film’s score. I’m a huge fan of Joe Hisaishi’s work in Studio Ghibli films, and I was already familiar with this film’s theme, “One Summer’s Day,” prior to watching. Having now seen the movie, that theme has easily cemented itself as one of my all-time favourite pieces from any Hisaishi score, alongside such classics as “Carrying You” from Castle in the Sky and “The Legend of Ashitaka” from Princess Mononoke. There’s a soft and melancholy tone to the piece at the beginning, which captures the surreal beauty and sadness of this dreamlike world, but there’s also an undercurrent of hope throughout that swells as the song nears its climax, reflecting Chihiro’s successful journey home. It’s an instantly recognizable piece and one which elevates every scene it accompanies. Even if the film’s commentary didn’t resonate with me, the music certainly did, and I’ve already listened to the theme multiple times since watching the film.
So after all these years of friends telling me to watch Spirited Away, I can finally say I’ve watched it, but having seen it, I’m not sure I know exactly what I feel about the movie after all. There’s a certain brilliance to the movie’s disinterest in telling a coherent story. Like a dream, the film just unfolds as it may, and we’re given a handful of some of the most beautiful and intriguing moments in any anime film because of that lack of narrative limitation. And yet, there are moments when the film becomes too tied to a logical narrative progression, like when it attempts to preach some kind of message against greed or the rushed exposition when Haku’s true name and backstory are revealed, and in these moments the films’ shortcomings in plot are a little too noticeable. These shortcomings are not so extreme as to outweigh the film’s strengths, but I was disappointed with these moments where the film sat awkwardly between total whimsy and traditional plot structure. Perhaps I had my expectations set far too high from years of this film being recommended, and therefore I’m judging these scenes too harshly, because, when all is said and done, I can unequivocally recommend Spirited Away as an immensely entertaining experience. I can already see it being an amazing movie to rewatch and reevaluate, as its nostalgic tone would likely benefit from a rewatch years down the line. In the meantime, I urge anyone who somehow hasn’t seen this movie to give it a chance. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll still get some amazing animation, a beautiful soundtrack, and some memorable visual and creative concepts. Spirited Away may not be my favourite Miyazaki film, but its vivid, dreamlike world is definitely worth experiencing.