Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away came for many with built-in expectations. After the exhausting but highly successful production of Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1998), the director announced his retirement from filmmaking. It was a promise he reneged on when meeting the ten-year old daughter of a friend.
This girl provided the inspiration for Chihiro, the little heroine at the centre of Spirited Away, a film aimed at ten-year old girls but universal enough in its appeal to break every box office record on its home turf, going on to not only become the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, but attaining that status in record time. This widely publicised commercial triumph, which even made Western headlines, is richly deserved: Spirited Away has emerged as one of Miyazaki's best works to date, striking a delicate balance between the joyful simplicity of one half of his oeuvre (My Neighbour Totoro / Tonari No Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service / Majo No Takkyubin and Porco Rosso / Kurenai No Buta), and the sprawling spectacle of the other (Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind / Kaze No Tani No Naushika, Laputa: Castle in the Sky / Tenkuu No Shiro Laputa and Princess Mononoke). It's a best-of-both worlds creation, in other words, an almost free-form fantasy piece which feels at once sweepingly large and touchingly intimate.
As we've come to expect from Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away is an animation film of the highest technical calibre. A visual triumph, both in set and character design, providing a delightful cast of spirits, spectres, talking animals and imaginative hybrids. These are all encountered by Chihiro, a ten-year old girl whose parents are moving to the countryside. In a forest near their new home they encounter a tunnel and, at the instigation of dad, decide to explore it. Chihiro, more then a bit scared of the dark, clutches her mother tightly (the physical likeness between the two is one example of the marvellous attention to detail in the film), but they arrive safely at the other end. There, amid vast grasslands, they find the ruins of a small community, which Chihiro's father guesses to be a rundown theme park. When they sense the smell of food coming from one of the stalls, he and his wife invite themselves to a free meal, while Chihiro continues to explore. Returning when twilight sets in, she finds to her shock that her parents have turned into pigs, slobbering over their meal. What's more, the way back home is now blocked by what seems like a vast, deep lake.
As night sets in, spirits start appearing from everywhere, but just as she is about to panic she meets a boy called Haku, who tells her that there is both a way out of this fantastical dream world and a way to save her parents. This involves following the parade of spirits and creatures to a giant bathhouse run by the villainous old sorceress Yubaba. There, Chihiro must find a job or risk being turned into a pig herself. At Haku's insistence, she visits Kamaji, an old man with spider-like arms who runs the bathouse's boiler room and asks him for work. He in turn passes her on to Yubaba herself, a mean-spirited old woman with a giant head who puts her to work and gives her a new name. In this world, no one can go by their own name and Yubaba rechristens her Sen (meaning 'one thousand', derived from an alternative pronunciation of the first kanji in her given name Chihiro - one example of the word play and use of double meanings which abound in this film).
Her initiation comes in a standout scene where she is confronted with every bath house employee's worst nightmare: Okutaresama, a river god covered in stinking, putrid sludge, whom Sen/Chihiro not only gets into the bath but liberates from the bicycles, oil vats and refrigerators that have been dumped inside it over the years. Admirably built up, this scene is exhilarating, funny, tense and touching at the same time, while the eco-friendly comment inherent in the character of Okutaresama is far more effective as an environmentalist message than all the non-stop hammering of Princess Mononoke.
This more subtle approach to its messages is characteristic for the film as a whole. What struck Miyazaki about the real-life girl who served as the inspiration for Chihiro was not only the fact that she seemed jaded to the attention her parents were giving her (something he subsequently noticed in other girls of that age), but also that she was one member of an age group largely overlooked by the film industry. This combination of signalling a negative social tendency and finding a positive challenge is what puts Spirited Away in its central position within Miyazaki's oeuvre as stated above.
The problem of child rearing is broached here not only in the relationship between Chihiro and her parents at the start of the film, in which the girl carries a sense of detachment from her parents, but also in the portrayal of the overprotective care of Yubaba for her giant baby, which says that the problem is not entirely to blame on the attitude of the children. Indeed, the story revolves around how the jaded child of the film's opening scene changes her own life by using her own abilities for kindness, endurance, devotion and honesty. It's with these tools and a bit of help from others that she surmounts the challenges and obstacles on her path, including the policy of name changes decreed by Yubaba, which constitutes nothing less than an Orwellian method to rob people's identities and force them into submission. This has had its effect on the other employees of the bathhouse, who are driven by fear and greed and the constant demands of their work. Chihiro on the other hand doesn't judge anyone on appearance or reputation, but on character. Since her inner self is her only tool, she never falls victim to Yubaba's program of enslavement. Chihiro's survival depends on her self-discovery.
Spirited Away celebrates basic and simple human virtues, which the more cynical among us may dismiss as obvious. But as with all things that are basic and seem obvious, there is a real danger in overlooking them and this is exactly where Miyazaki cautions us. Those who scoff at the outside world might well find the solution to their problems inside themselves.