Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) is a terrifying fantasy. It’s full of the grotesque imagination that only animation can provide a release for. It operates within the guidelines of a child’s nightmare: presenting the main goal, reuniting with one’s parents, a shopworn subject, and then introduces side quests, unreliable accomplices, monsters, witches, magic and even the possibility for love. It’s a visual spectacle from one of the masters of the chimera, a man who can draw what can only be dreamed.
The story is roughly the tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A preteen girl named Chihiro (voiced in English by Daveigh Chase) is idling in the back of the family car as she and her parents are moving to a new home. Her father (Michael Chiklis) pulls off the road to investigate what appears to be a closed-down amusement park. Chihiro seems to be none too pleased to be moving in the first place and less so to be delaying that with a trip to the creepy, empty park. Soon she discovers that her parents are transforming into pigs, she can’t find her way back to the car, and strange and monstrous creatures are emerging from every direction. She is taken in by Haku (Jason Marsden), a boy about her age, who explains some of the more immediate points of this dangerous world, particularly that she has stumbled upon a bathhouse for the spirits, run tyrannically by the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) and her giant baby son Bôh (Tara Strong), and that she’ll have to listen to him if she wants to escape and return her parents to their human forms.
The intricate workings of the spirit world and Chihiro’s quest to escape it are of little importance because they are created on the level of a child making up a game. Each action is complicated by the necessity of a previously unmentioned item or the sudden appearance of an unexpected creature, both helpful and harmful. Though the plot seems immediate, Miyazaki roots the story in the real stuff of growing up: the idea of being separated from mother and father, the danger and strangeness of new worlds, the idea of identity, and forgetting the things that seem so important to young ones. Yubaba enslaves the workers in her baths by stealing their names so Chihiro becomes Sen. Eventually she begins to forget her real name, an occurrence that will lock her in the spirit world forever.
Miyazaki returns to shape-shifting often in his movies, an idea inherent to animation. Things often don’t appear as they seem, especially a disgusting “stink spirit” that enters the bathhouse that compassionately Chihiro discovers is actually simply a mass of water that has been covered in sludge and litter for years and years. This episode is a diversion that has little to do with the main story but it adds to Miyazaki’s message against prejudice. A message he reinforces by changing the shape of a number of characters and even giving us a character that looks identical to another but acts quite differently.For a movie that is mainly hand-drawn to afford as many narrative departures like the one involving the stink spirit is a testament to the commitment of Miyazaki and his team.
In many ways the movie shares DNA with Guillermo del Toro’sPan’s Labyrinth (2006), but that movie was made squarely for adults, raising the idea that the real nightmare world is our own and that the imagination is an escape from it. Spirited Away is a children’s tale, told breathlessly as a child would tell it but with an awful lot of sophistication behind it. Miyazaki’s skill as a filmmaker rests in his instinct for design, his ability to weave yarns that are elemental, and his gift for making original movies out of well-known elements. I’ve compared Spirited Away to a number of things in the previous paragraphs and yet I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s more than adding a new twist on a familiar story; these feel like new stories all together. They are too fantastic to have any traditional origin. In this way Miyazaki resembles del Toro, who has a similar eye for design and a panache for primordial storytelling. Miyazaki distinguishes himself because his creations are created by the mind of a child but the hand of a master.