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Retro Review: Spirited Away

Emily Shawcross looks back on one of Studio Ghibli's most beloved animations

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Image Credit: Working Title Films

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki
Running Time: 2hr 5mins
Rating: PG

“Once you meet someone, you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memory to come back to you”

There is something surreal about revisiting a beloved film in the cinema. It’s a strange feeling to see a film that is considered a classic at the cinema in general, I saw the final cut of Apocalypse Now and remember feeling gladly overwhelmed by the fact I was able to witness such a spectacle for the first time on the big screen. Yet with a film such as Spirited Away, one I have seen so many times, the experience was completely different. I grew up with Spirited Away; my grandad frequently recalls a family holiday in Norfolk where I would wake him up at 6 o’clock in the morning every day without fail to watch the film. It’s one of the first films I remember watching, so to hear the familiar music, to relish in the beauty of Miyazaki’s art on the big screen, filled me with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

The film follows the character Chihiro, a stubborn and temperamental young girl, who finds herself trapped in a magical alternative world after getting lost with her parents during their move to the suburbs. In an attempt to escape this world and be reunited with her parents Chihiro finds herself working in a bathhouse for spirits under the watch of the formidable witch Yubaba. While there she endeavours to solve the mystery surrounding Haku, a boy with the power to transform into a dragon and free her parents from a spell that transformed them into pigs. She struggles through increasingly surreal and impossible scenarios, going on a complex emotional journey of innocence to experience. Yet this is a Hayao Miyazaki film, so instead of becoming a cold, dejected character, Chihiro finds the importance of hope, love, and kindness in overcoming hardship.

This world is magical, beautiful, and terrifying, filled with a compelling and unforgettable cast of characters, from Kamaji the spider armed boiler man to the slightly unnerving but loveable No Face. It captures the inherently sublime nature of a child’s imagination; there are giant duck spirits and talking frogs, radish spirits and strict but loving witches resonant of grandmothers. Miyazaki understands the importance of imagination to a child’s understanding of the world, using that to his advantage to put forward valuable life lessons in an appealing and accessible way. What makes Spirited Away so endearing is the persistent wonderment and hope that permeates throughout the story. Miyazaki doesn’t rely on gloomy imagery to relay the darker themes he explores, instead using bright, vivid aesthetics and concepts. There are terrifying moments and distressing scenes, but also moments of tenderness and entertaining action sequences. It is a masterclass of cinematic layering, from the dreamlike, surreal scope of the world Miyazaki imagines to the infallible, necessarily human depiction of the characters.

Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated feature in 2001 and rightly so. It is nothing short of a work of art. Miyazaki’s world is fully realised, and the running time is no constraint on the mastery of his vision. The film is inventive and nuanced, bearing the signature style and beauty of a Studio Ghibli film, setting an incredibly high standard for what an animated film can achieve. It is arguably one of Miyazaki’s most famous films, and I’d go even further to suggest it is not even his best, yet it provides a wonderful introduction to the world of Ghibli. Joe Hisaishi’s masterful score deserves to be heard through the full surround sound of a cinema screen. His music beautifully compliments Miyazaki’s visuals, particularly the track ‘The Sixth Station’, which plays while Chihiro takes a train across the sea to try and save Haku. For me this scene will always be the focal point of the whole film, due to its melancholy depiction of a person coming to terms with their place in the world, told beautifully through silent, simplistic shots of Chihiro watching lonely houses on the sea pass her by.

In many ways the film is a testament to the power of storytelling, of how stories mould and shape us. The film highlights the significance of finding self-love and acknowledges that while the journey is perilous and difficult, enduring the journey and finding self worth is how Chihiro saves Haku and finds her way home. It’s a frequent theme of many of Miyazaki’s films, the importance of finding yourself and having the courage to stay true to who you are. This is why his films remain so resonant and endearing to both lovers of Ghibli and those experiencing them for the first time. It is in a way a lesson in agape, the purest form of love, philia, the love felt between friends, and storge, the bonds between family. The moral of Spirited Away is love, for it is what saves both Chihiro and Haku in the end. As the credits roll you are left with a simple yet powerful message; love is what sets us free.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen as part of their Vintage Sundays strand.

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