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Spirited Away (2001)

September 27th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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As a sullen 10-year-old girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) mopes in the backseat of her parents’ car, her mother (Lauren Holly) tries to cheer her up. “Quit whining. It’s fun to move to a new place. It’s an adventure.” Winding up through the hills, her father (Michael Chiklis) seems to get them lost. Instead of finding their new home, he comes across what appears to be a deserted theme park. Walking through a long tunnel to investigate, Chihiro’s parents smell food. They make their way through a mock town, discovering a fully stocked buffet. Chihiro wants to leave, but as her mother and father gorge themselves, they transform into pigs.

As lumbering spirits rise from the buildings, Chihiro discovers that a river now blocks the pathway back. She also appears to be dissipating in mass. A boy named Haku (Jason Marsden) appears, giving her a berry that returns Chihiro to solid form. Haku promises that she’ll see her parents later, but warns her that others are looking for her. He uses a spell to make Chihiro invisible as they mingle with the fantastic spirits and creatures crossing a bridge to a bath house. Haku instructs Chihiro to seek refuge in the boiler room and ask the six-armed Kamajii (David Ogden Stiers) for a job.

With the help of the punchy Lin (Susan Egan), Chihiro is taken up to see Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the witch who rules the spectral bath house and hands out work assignments. Yubaba refuses to accept her. “You humans always make a mess of things. Like your parents, who gobbled up the food of the spirits like pigs. They got what they deserved. And you should be punished too.” But Chihiro persists, and Yubaba agrees to give the girl the most difficult job she has, working as Lin’s assistant. Lin advises the human that Haku is Yubaba’s henchman and not to trust him.


Though Yubaba has stolen Chihiro’s handwriting and taken her name from her, Haku warns her that if she forgets her name, she’ll fall under the witch’s control forever, like him. Chihiro and Lin are tasked with cleaning the biggest, filthiest tub in the bath house, which soon becomes the destination of a stink spirit that checks in as a guest. Chihiro discovers that Haku has the power to turn into a white dragon and has been tasked with stealing a magical gold seal from Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba. By using her wits to render help to all those she encounters, Chihiro begins gaining the power to save her parents and return home.

Production history
Hayao Miyazaki
had worked in animation for twenty-two years when in 1985, he joined Isao Takahata – who Miyazaki had befriended at Toei Animation Company – and producer Toshio Suzuki to found their own studio. Taking its name from a World War II Italian airplane, Studio Ghibli produced three critically acclaimed fantasy films Miyazaki co-wrote and directed: Castle In The Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In 1997, Miyazaki’s ecologically themed epic Princess Mononoke shattered box office records in Japan. This led to a deal with Disney to dub into English and distribute Studio Ghibli’s films in the West.

Miyazaki’s hands-on approach – checking all key animation, redrawing characters he felt weren’t performing right – had taken its toll during Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki announced he would never again direct, not in that way. On a group holiday, Miyazaki observed five daughters of a friend flipping through a manga. He was not impressed with the reading material. “I felt this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year-old girls, though, and looking at my young friends, I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.”


Miyazaki first considered an adaptation of the children’s book A Mysterious Town Over the Mist by Sachiko Kashiwaba. He later drafted an original story that ended up being about “a scary old woman sitting on the bandai of a bath house.” Toshio Suzuki suggested the director go back to a film that would appeal to young girls. Miyazaki began storyboarding panels for what became The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro, the tale of a 10-year-old girl whose parents make a wrong turn and end up trapped in a bath house of the spirits, a world which the young heroine Chihiro must find her way out of.

With a budget of $15 million USD, Spirited Away went into production February 2000 at Studio Ghibli in Tokyo. While Miyazaki had experimented with computer generated imagery in Princess Mononoke and utilized Softimage in his follow-up, the characters were animated largely by hand. In July 2001, Spirited Away opened in Japan with moderate commercial expectations. It became a box office sensation, the first non-American movie to gross $200 million outside the U.S. A screening at the Berlin International Film Festival was so well received that the animated picture shared the festival’s top honor – the Golden Bear – with Bloody Sunday.

Toshio Suzuki took Spirited Away to a screening at Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter – a friend and admirer of Miyazaki’s – was blown away. Lasseter eased Disney’s concerns that American audiences would be put off by the film. “I felt that it would be particularly accessible to Western audiences because it is seen from the point of view of a modern, materialistic young girl who is unfamiliar with her own cultural past. The way the story is told, it works as an introduction to a fascinating, rich culture whether it is the viewer’s own heritage or not.” Lasseter served as executive director of the English language version, supervising the dub directed by Kirk Wise.


Spirited Away opened September 2002 in the U.S., never expanding beyond 151 screens. But the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Chicago Sun-Times among others ranked it one of the ten best films of the year. At the Academy Awards, Spirited Away surprised many by winning Best Animated Feature, over Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age. Miyazaki did not attend the ceremony, issuing a statement thanking “the friends who made efforts to have Spirited Away open in the United States and the people who viewed it positively.” Alluding to the war in Iraq, he added, “I feel saddened by the fact that the world is now faced with a very unhappy situation that prevents me from rejoicing wholeheartedly.”

Musical numbers, furry creatures, pop culture jokes and a running time under two hours are just a few of the conventions of American animation not found anywhere in this extraordinary film. And it’s about time. Spirited Away is a movie with the kind of unique characters and magical – at times unsettling – qualities that fans of Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum books will embrace, but what makes the film a classic is that instead of trying to sell commercial tie-ins or toys to kids, the animators are more interested in moving the audience, kids and adults, with a beautifully told and original story.

The divide between the physical and spiritual worlds moves quite a bit in Miyazaki’s films. Spirited Away is perhaps the most vivid illustration of this philosophy to date. Parents might nitpick whether the film is too dark for little kids, while anime fans can debate the merits of the original Japanese version versus the English version. Daveigh Chase and the English voice cast (including Pixar veteran John Ratzenberger) are said to have listened to the Japanese voice performances to help gauge their own here and are commendable. What’s indisputable is the masterful level of character design, art direction and imagination that Miyazaki invests his world with.


Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “Spirited Away is one of those films that you are either into or you aren’t. It’s definitely going to hit home with people who admire a talented genius at work, and those who love unique characters and richness in adventure, especially if you agree with the moral lessons the film has to teach. As for me, the elements of the story reminded me a little too much of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, another Alice in Wonderland-like film that I found to be much more engaging, even if it isn’t as profound as Miyazaki’s creation. That Spirited Away is a remarkable achievement, I have no doubt. Perhaps it is just me that wasn’t ‘in the spirit of things’ to be carried away myself.”

Spirited Away is not just the best animated film of 2002, it is the best film of 2002, period. And perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying animated films ever made, in terms of both its visual splendor and thematic depth. It will amaze kids with its cornucopia of surprises – and the fact that it never talks down to them and gives them a role model more realistic than any live-action Disney Channel show. It will give adults plenty to talk about – artistically, politically, and philosophically – for years to come,” writes Mike Pinsky at DVD Verdict.

Dawn Taylor at DVD Journal writes, “During its two-hour length, Spirited Away contains more characters, ideas, laughs, thrills, and story elements than the last four Disney films combined – which is another area where comparison between Miyazaki and the products of the Mouse House falls apart. The third act of Spirited occasionally drags (just a tiny bit), but it still keeps the viewer wondering what will happen around the next corner – right at the same time that most Disney films devolve into predictable chase scenes, sappy song-and-dance numbers, and teary reunions. Never boring and never predictable, Spirited Away is already on its way to classic status, standing as an important achievement in the art of animation and – far more importantly – a damn entertaining flick.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Animation · Beasts and monsters · Coming of age · No opening credits

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Oct 7, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Miyozaki is a genius — no argument. I try to watch his animations with their original Japanese language casts (and subtitles) — it may be a little pedantic, but it seems to me that this presents the more authentic viewing experience, since I find the recognizable American voices a distraction.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 7, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Patricia: Are you saying American accents are distractive? You can definitely either watch this in its original Japanese language and still enjoy it, or without sound at all. I get goosebumps whenever I watch the ending.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Oct 9, 2008 at 4:42 am

    No, Joe — what I am saying is that I find a Japanese character that sounds like Kirsten Dunst, for example, distracting

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