Define what it is that makes the greatest animated film in your eyes. It can come from anywhere, it can be about anything, or it can just do anything. When I’m faced with this question, three Hayao Miyazaki films come to mind: Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro. But if I had to pick a singular one from all of them, then said film is none other than Spirited Away. For how captivating the beauty of Princess Mononoke can be or how touchingly innocent My Neighbor Totoro is, my heart goes out to Spirited Away – for as cliche an answer it may be when asked about Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest achievement, it is not only my favourite of his films, but to this day it also remains my favourite animated film of all time.
All of the wonder of Spirited Away starts at the Alice in Wonderland-esque story in which we have the young Chihiro and her parents stopping by what appears to be an abandoned site that turns out to be the outer shell of a magical underworld. Her father insists that they explore the world, and soon enough Chihiro finds herself wandering off into a whole different area in which humans are transformed into animals. It flows with such a beautiful feeling of simplicity, but in such a captivating manner that can be absorbed by children and adults alike – just as the very best of Hayao Miyazaki’s fare have done so. With the grand scale of Princess Mononoke and the innocence of My Neighbor Totoro, we have something else in Spirited Away, which renders itself the most wonderful.
Where all the beauty of Spirited Away begins to start comes about with how it handles a coming-of-age story within Chihiro’s character arc. When the ten-year-old Chihiro first appears on the screen, one impression comes to mind when we hear of how she is moving to a new school. It is a clever hint already for what is set to come before Chihiro enters this other world where she is unready to confront what already must come up. She is still trapped inside of one world of her own, but as shown from what happened as a result of her parents’ transformation into pigs, she is not one to confront her own problems and she instead runs away from them. Yet with her progression all throughout Spirited Away from the moment she enters this realm, her growth becomes more apparent and it adds more to what forms such a brilliant work all throughout, perhaps the best of its own sort.
When I looked at Chihiro as her arc develops from a sheltered child to a girl who found herself, there were clear hints laced all throughout that resembled that of a child confronting a barrier. The allegory that Hayao Miyazaki presents in Spirited Away, ultimately, is a key factor as to why the work is as enchanting as it presents itself to be. There are many personal beats to which it can hit upon and that ultimately is a key to the power of the very best films that Hayao Miyazaki has made. In Spirited Away, we are not looking at Chihiro as any animated child taking up the screen but soon afterwards she becomes more than just such, for she is a reflection of oneself growing up to find whom they really are. It is hinted already from the moment in which her name has been taken away and reduced to Sen by the antagonist Yubaba, a figure who represents a stage in confrontation.
What exactly is there to confront, to be exact? All throughout, we can see that the workers at the bathhouse have one goal on mind, it is the hard work that they put in all to collect gold. But why do they want all of this gold? What good is it going to do for them? It adds more to the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki’s commentary, that being how greed has consumed these souls to become what they are. Chihiro’s parents, the moment in which they first explore the spirit world, are eventually transformed into pigs as a result of their greed, for they stuffed themselves with food they just find out of the blue just like pigs eating at a trough. How exactly has it affected Chihiro? It was clear from there onward it was a state of her being neglected by her parents in favour of pleasure. I reflect back soon enough about those times my parents have taken me on trips and I was just alienated on my whole go, there’s a brilliant parallel to be found right in Spirited Away.
Just as all of the best fantasy films would, Hayao Miyazaki is never afraid to explore every nook and cranny of this universe which he created in Spirited Away, which is something that made Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro work for the atmospheres that they carry, whether it be a complex tale of war between man and earth or simply, a recollection of innocence. In Spirited Away, the dreamlike atmosphere only enhances the experience all the more when one looks upon how Miyazaki draws every last image on the screen and gets down to the bare bones of the world which he has formed. Every design so beautiful, and in turn, so hypnotic. When I think of the very highest points that animation can ever achieve, it is with how much Hayao Miyazaki mixes in just to form Spirited Away where I can find myself sure I’m watching the very best of the best.
I grew up on Studio Ghibli for the longest while already, and my journey with Spirited Away is still one of the most life-changing of them all. I still remember the first day in which I ever saw it, and on the many times I come back I reflect upon my life back in those days and the progress that has led me into what I am now. In a sense, that is what Spirited Away is. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films are never just animated films, but instead they are meaningful creations that speak so much even to the real world maybe in more subtle ways than one would ever imagine on the spot. But that alone is only one of my reasons for seeing it as my favourite animated film of all time. Everything about Spirited Away just hits so perfectly, from the exploration of its universe down to the details within the drawing, mixed together with some of the most beautiful pieces of music to associate with the mood, Spirited Away is not only the greatest animated film of all time in my eyes. It is truly one an experience that leaves me in a state of reflection in regards to where I want to lead myself. Yet an English translation of the final song, “Itsumo Nando Demo” (a piece of music which still has never left my head from day one) has said it all: even in the closing memories, there are always whispers that cannot be forgotten even on the shattered mirror shards, a new scenery is reflected.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Disney.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Starring Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara, Yumi Tamai, Tsunehiko Kamijo (Japanese version)
Starring Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Susan Egan, Paul Eiding (Disney dub)
Release Year: 2001
Running Time: 125 minutes