In 2017, The New York Times named Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away the second greatest film of the current century, right behind Paul Thomas Anderson’s Very Important Masterwork There Will Be Blood. The Gray Lady’s top pick is undeniably vital and mighty (and, yes, maybe even the finest picture of the current century). But the paper’s runner-up is far more universal and humanistic, spellbinding and whimsical, disorienting and – best of all – fun. If My Neighbor Totoro endures as Studio Ghibli’s cuddliest feature, Spirited Away remains its artistic zenith and beating heart.

Miyazaki’s eighth film as a writer-director is visually and narratively wild, though not unprecedented. Imagine the crazed Pleasure Island sequence from Disney’s Pinocchio blown out to feature-length proportions. Spectral, transcendent and mystifying, Spirited Away traps its unwitting, 10-year-old protagonist Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) in a Shinto-Buddhist version of Dorothy’s Oz or Alice’s Wonderland. We may want to shield our eyes, or pull the bedsheets over our heads, while she boldly faces one nightmare-inducing encounter after another. But like her cinematic predecessors, Chihiro navigates an often-unnerving landscape with poise and verve.

Spirited Away begins as the simplest, most mundane version of adolescent dread. Chihiro’s upwardly mobile mother and father (Audi owners, naturally) move the trio to a bigger and better hilltop home in another town. She, of course, already misses her old surroundings and friends. Dad (Takashi Naitô) takes a wrong turn as they approach their shiny new home for the first time, an unexpected detour that leads them to the entrance of an abandoned amusement park. The adults decide to investigate, despite their daughter’s protestations. Mom (Yûko Ogino) and dad stumble on a strangely unattended buffet, gorge on ghostly delicacies and promptly transform into slobbering hogs.

So begins Chihiro’s trip through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole or, in this case, straight into the bathhouse. Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), a grande dame of a witch who runs baths for unclean apparitions, steals our protagonist’s name (so very Ursula of her) and hires the rebranded “Sen” for menial work. Sen soon befriends Haku (Miyu Irino), a teenaged boy and Yababa’s right-hand, and Lin, a lowly but kind bathhouse attendant. With their help, she seeks to escape the spirit world and save her parents through cleverness, cunning and compassion.

Walt Disney Pictures distributed Spirited Away in North America, at the urging of Toy Story director John Lasseter, who served as executive producer of the English-language adaptation. Despite winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, it barely made a splash in the US, which is unfortunate but unsurprising. After all, the haunting images Miyazaki employs – three hopping and murmuring severed heads, a terrifying harpy with a matronly visage, the masked ghost named No-Face (who balloons and contracts, accordion-like, as he swallows and expels fellow specters) – push the boundaries of a questionable PG rating.

Pixar’s own Inside Out (which the Times named its seventh best film of the century) comes closest to approximating its Eastern sibling. Chihiro and Riley are, almost, photonegatives. Both deal with the trauma of changing places against their own wishes. While one confronts outward distress, the other retreats into the psyche. Each end up, from an uncanny ordeal, in a different and (crucially) better place with their family. Somewhere a pair of ruby slippers click in domestic solidarity.

  • The Answer Is…: by Alex Trebek

    Page after page, despite a penchant for swearing and practical joking, the guy seems like …
  • Revisit: Pink Flamingos

    It may be even more shocking today than it was in 1972. …
  • Black Is King

    A glorious, if inharmonious, co-production between our greatest pop star and the Mouse Hou…
  • Oeuvre: Miyazaki: Ponyo

    Our goldfish-turned-human obtains her agency by adding to the human world the vibrancy of …
  • Criminally Underrated: Maleficent

    Maleficent is the quintessential strong female lead who doesn't need to adopt traditionall…
  • Revisit: The Elephant Man

    The Elephant Man acknowledges the basic desires that lie underneath the most seemingly hid…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Answer Is…: by Alex Trebek

Page after page, despite a penchant for swearing and practical joking, the guy seems like …