It's time to plug one of the biggest gaps in my review database. As someone who takes a special interest in Asian cinema and has a soft spot for animation, it's probably a little baffling that I never got around to reviewing Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away [Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi]. It is the anime landmark, the first Japanese animation feature-length film that went on to win an Oscar, finally putting Ghibli on the map (internationally that is). It's been more than 15 years since I last watched the film, so a rewatch was long overdue. Last week I finally found the time to give it another whirl.
It's not that I think Spirited Away is a bad film, it's just that I feel it doesn't live up to its reputation. In part that's because I prefer Miyazaki's more subdued work. While he certainly has the ambition and budget to make epic films, they never come off quite as majestic or overwhelming as they were obviously intended to be. But even with that in mind I think Spirited Away still doesn't compare favorably to certain other Ghibli films. To me, Spirited Away is a poster child for a film that just happened to be in the right place at the right time, profiting immensely from a load of overdue praise.
Spirited Away is probably Miyazaki's grandest film to date. It features an Alice in Wonderland-like setup with a bustling bathhouse as its centerpiece, a place where spirits and phantoms come to hang out and relax. It is the stage for a sprawling adventure, full of odd and magical characters, many of which find their origin in Japanese folklore. For people unfamiliar with some of Japan's more peculiar yokai it no doubts creates an extra layer of wonder and creativity, personally I would've preferred it if Miyazaki had gone the extra mile to design slightly more original creatures.
The plot revolves around Chihiro. On the road to their new home Chihiro's dad takes a little shortcut, and they end up at an abandoned amusement park. The family decides to do some urban exploring, but they get separated after Chihiro wanders off on her own. When she returns to her parents they have transformed into pigs and the park is surrounded by water. They've been put under the spell of a witch who controls the area, but Chihiro finds help from a young boy who hides her in the boiler room of the bathhouse and promises Chihiro to get her back to her old life.
The animation is impeccable, then again what did you expect. Miyazaki and Ghibli are at the peak of their game here. Complex scenes are full of life, the detail in the character movements is exemplary and the original character designs are distinctive and memorable. There are also a handful of very stylish tableaux scattered throughout the film, quite novel for Ghibli. There's some minor (and unnecessary) experimentation with CG going on (the scenes are easy to spot but blend in well enough with the traditional animation) and I do wish the yokai designs could've been a bit more imaginative, but overall Spirited Away looks amazing and is yet another testament to Ghibli's excess talent when it comes to animation.
The soundtrack's a little disappointing though. Hisaishi's work for Miyazaki has never been my favorite, but usually there are at least some memorable tunes that linger well beyond the end credits. Spirited Away is one of the few Ghibli films where the soundtrack simply disappears in the background and never really makes a sizeable impact. It's a fitting score that's certainly not low on quality, at the same time it feels a little bland and generic, especially considering the aspirations of the film. The dub on the other hand is up to Ghibli's usual standards, with strong performances of the entire cast. Like always it pays to seek out the original dub, unless you're truly allergic to the Japanese language.
The first hour is a little bumpy. It takes a while to get a feel for the characters and the introduction of the fantasy setting is a little haphazard. It lacks the sense of adventure you'd expect from a film like this and there are too few scenes where the film slows down enough for the audience to soak in the atmosphere. The second hour is better, especially with the introduction of No Face, the magical train ride and the sprawling finale. Miyazaki raises the bar considerably and finally delivers the fantastical journey that Spirited Away was meant to be in the first place.
Spirited Away is by no means a bad film. The animation is splendid, the setting is original, the characters are golden and the adventure really comes into its own during the second half. At its best, it's pure Ghibli magic. But it isn't as consistent as Miyazaki's best work, and it bares his weaknesses when he's trying to be big and bold. For me, it's definitely not the anime landmark others makes it out to be, but history decided it will be forever looked at in that light. Regardless, if you like anime (or just animation in general), it's a film you simply have to see. Chances are you won't be disappointed.