A new blu-ray release of Spirited Away is a chance to collect thoughts about a game-changing slice of animation that showcases Studio Ghibli at their very best. Animated movies have come a long way since Walt Disney’s Snow White in 1937, via Disney, Pixar and more, but even decades years later, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is always worth one more watch; a rabbit-hole story like Alice in Wonderland, but with an environmental slant, it’s every bit as much of a breath of fresh air as it was back in 2001.
Twenty years ago, I was working as an usher at the AFM in Los Angeles, and happened to see 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind while on my evening shift. At that point, Studio Ghibli films were a huge, known property, but mainly in Japan, although the genial Totoro and others were beginning to make impression in the US. Like many others before and since, I was entranced, not just but the stunning hand-drawn animations, but by stories that tapped into unknown areas; in Spirited Away we have a world where everything in nature has a spirit, making for an educational outing for children of all ages.
Chihiro is a ten year-old moving to a new house; her parents start to explore an abandoned building near their destination, and find an inviting feast laid on, one which promptly turns them into pigs. Chihiro manages to dodge the same fate, and ends up starting a new life working in a bizarre bath-house where the spirits come to cleanse themselves. After helping the river spirit remove various items of pollution, including some old bikes, Chihiro makes a friend, and slowly earns a positive reputation. But by allowing a potentially dangerous spirit known as No Face to run amok in the bath-house, she unleashes a train of events that only she can solve…
The scale and scope of the environment described is breath-taking, even more than you remembered when viewing on blu-ray. But the Ghibli touch extends to each and every character described, from soot monsters to the three yellow ducks who keep popping up on the edges of the frame. And the story is so simple and well-worked that the result is truly magical; do unto others as you’d hope they do unto you is the underlying moral, but Chihiro’s journey never misses a beat as it shows the rewards that being kind and sensitive can bring.
A metaphor for adulthood, perhaps, but Spirited Away never sledge-hammers home any of the points it makes; it just tells an engrossing, original story in a way that’s totally unique, and a perfect gift for anyone who loves movies or animation. I’ve included below a link to a piece I wrote for The List Magazine back in 2001: https://film.list.co.uk/article/116777-from-the-archive-the-beauty-of-studio-ghibli/. I hope that by continuing to champion this wonderful film, a few more readers might get to make the same journey, and find themselves, like Chihiro and myself, Spirited Away. Great animation is not just for kids; adults could learn a lot from the spirited worlds created by the great Hayao Miyazaki.
Thanks to Studio Canal for Advanced Access to this blu-ray, which is out now in the UK.
- Introduction by John Lasseter
- The Making of Spirited Away
- Meet Hayao Miyazaki
- Behind the Microphone – Voice Talent Featurette
- Alternative Angle Storyboards
- Original Japanese Trailers