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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Hayao Miyazaki spirited away millions into anime fandom!

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Cast/Voices: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi

Related Films: My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, The Castle of Cagliostro

Studio: Ghibli

Year: 2001

Verdict: 6/6

Introducing the Spirit World

Spirited Away might very well be the most famous anime film ever made. Aside from other Ghibli-films, it is probably only rivaled by Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1999), or the more recent Your Name (2016), in terms of fame.

Die-hard anime fans might argue that the above-mentioned old-school animes and Ghibli are in two different leagues altogether. For the sake of speculation, let's lump all Japanese anime together and make an «educated» guess that Spirited Away is the king of anime fame.

It's not hard to make such a bumptious claim, since Spirited Away is a masterpiece in the true sense of the word. The creative and narrative enthusiasm is truly spirited. The drawings are superb, the story is touching, and the score makes for a spellbinding atmosphere that takes us all away.

The Circumstances that Made Spirited Away

Spirited Away was the sixth film Hayao Miyazaki directed at Studio Ghibli. It was released in Japan in 2001, where it became the highest grossing film in Japanese history. In 2003, it won the prize for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards.

The idea for Spirited Away sprung from Miyazaki’s desire to make a film for tweens. He had already made children’s films, such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). Now he wanted to make a story directed at a slightly older demographic.

At first, he looked to shôjo manga for inspiration. This made him realize that he would make a film about a heroine that young girls could look up to, rather than conveyor belt-romance stories about teenage crushes.

«It's not me who makes the film.

The film makes itself, and I have no choice but to follow»

– Hayao Miyazaki –

Miyazaki took inspiration from his hometown when writing the script. The idea for the mysterious bathhouse came from frequent visits to a local onsen (hot spring), while the Chihiro-character was based on his friend’s daughter. (Seiji Okuda, associate producer of Spirited Away.)

However, Miyazaki did not enter the project with a finished script in hand. He came with half developed storyboards, and had only a vague idea about the unfolding of the plot. He famously said that he never had the time, and therefore let the story build itself organically.

A Story of Witches and Dragons

Chihiro is an only child traveling the countryside with her parents when a wrong turn leads them down a forest road. At the end of the road, there’s a dark tunnel that leads to an abandoned town.

As it turns out, the tunnel was a gateway to a magical place in which all the deities and mythological creatures of Japan reside. At the center of town, a huge bathhouse caters to visiting creatures and gods from all over the country.

It is here Chihiro finds herself exploring the halls in search of a way to lift the curse that was put on her parents. They didn’t think twice about helping themselves to a feast at a local food stall, but their gluttonous ways were no way to please the Gods it turned out.

On her quest for a curse-lifter, Chihiro soon encounters all kinds of fairytale beings. There are witches, sootballs, a dragon, a six-armed boiler-room manager, a stink spirit, as well as copious amounts of anthropomorphized creatures and Shinto gods of all kinds and sizes.

It is when Chihiro accidentally invites No-Face into the bathhouse that things get heated. No-Face would very much like to consume Chihiro, but she has no interest in his luring gifts. Instead, the two of them form some sort of strange alliance and set out to find the truth about the witch's curse, the dragon-boy, and how to save her parents.

Between the Lines lies Capitalist Greed

Like the two other most successful films Miyazaki made at Studio Ghibli – My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke – also Chihiro’s tale comments on Japanese capitalism. The references to environmental issues are less prominent in Spirited Away however, which arguably made the storytelling more focused.

That being said, the garbage heap exploding from the stink monster, or Chihiro’s greedy parents turning into pigs, are connotations that are not to be misunderstood. Yet, these undercurrents somehow appear more ingrained in the narrative than the raising of similar issues in Totoro and Princess Mononoke.

«There were people that «turned into pigs» during Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s.

These people still haven’t realized they’ve become pigs.»

– Hayao Miyazaki –

An even less obvious comment on the effect western capitalism had on Japan in the postwar era, is the contrasts between the headmistress witch and the bathhouse working staff. She wears western clothes and lives in western-style luxurious quarters. They wear traditional Japanese clothes and live in sparsely furnished dormitories.

No-Face also appears a dim reflection of Japanese society. He emulates the greedy ways of the bathhouse guests and takes it to extreme proportions. His intense consumption is only opposed when it goes as far as to endanger the prosperity of the house that shaped his greed in the first place.

Producing an Anime for the Ages

As with Princess Mononoke, the team experimented with computer graphics when making Spirited Away. The majority of the film is hand drawn, though. Digital enhancement was only applied as a «toner» of sorts, to ensure that the CGI did not steal any attention from the story.

That being said, even though the narrative is highly entertaining in its own right, the atmosphere in the bathhouse is a spectacle so enthralling that it almost overshadows the story.

The magnificent hot spring is crawling with all kinds of Japanese gods and creatures from Japanese folklore. Some are innocent and cute, while others are mischievous and cruel. The design of these characters and their surroundings made Spirited Away one of a kind.

Some sources claim that the old gold town in Jiufen, Taiwan, inspired

the bathhouse, but Miyazaki denies that there is any connection.

– Miyazaki-Interview with Focus Newspaper –

The bathhouse itself was partly inspired by real-life buildings at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. Secondly, it was based on a traditional Japanese inn called Notoya Ryokan, in the Yamagata Prefecture.

Not to forget the score, performed by the New Japanese Philharmonic (Orchestra). Like many great scores before it, it never strives to become the center of attention. Instead, it steps out of the shadows in a few key moments, and otherwise stays in the background, where it perfectly enhances the mood of the story.

The closing song, on the other hand, takes the lead and ends the film on a happy note. The tune is called Always With Me. It was originally written for another project of Miyazaki's, which never materialized. Later on, Miyazaki was cited saying that the song inspired him to come up with the Chihiro-character, and that she might not have come to be without it.

Chihiro & Alice - Wonderland Parallels

Spirited Away is comparable to Alice in Wonderland in more ways than one. Many have noted that both films concern a young girl trapped in a magical world. In order to find her way back, she has to deal with both helpful and mischievous creatures.

The main antagonist, or bad guy if you will, is a powerful female character, and her minions are mindless fools who do more damage than help to the cause. At times, the mood gets downright creepy, but still the film is child-friendly.

Even though the rabbit hole was changed into a tunnel, the parallels are many, yet not so close that it takes anything away from the Spirited Away-experience. The two films are clearly distinctive. It is rather the atmosphere of wonder that makes them appear like two peas floating in a slightly disturbing pond of surreal dreams.

Some argue that The Wizard of Oz are even more similar to Spirited Away, in the sense that Chihiro and Dorothy have more in common than Chihiro and Alice. Just like Dorothy, Chihiro is trapped in a place from which she ultimately wants to escape.

Chihiro forms deeper connections with some of the characters, like Dorothy does with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. Alice, on the other hand, has shorter tête-à-têtes with a series of more or less random characters.

A lesser-discussed parallel is that of Spirited Away and Pinocchio. Ando Satoshi argues that the witch turns people into pigs, just like the ferryman in Pinocchio turns boys into donkeys. To revert the transformation, the protagonist must go through a rite of passage to change a part of her/his own identity.

Final verdict for Spirited Away

«Spirited Away» is a fitting title indeed. Not only is Chihiro whisked away to a world of wonder, the audience is brought on a journey that can be as transformative for them as for Chihiro herself.

This is the kind of film that makes people fall in love with anime. To this day, it continues to make viewers around the globe curious about Japan, all the while, engaging children of all ages and nationalities.

In other words, Spirited Away transcends time and space. It is an experience that everyone should give in to, and let themselves be spirited away to a place of everlasting wonder.


The Hayao Miyazaki Web: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

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