Spirited Away (2001)

First published by Movie Gazette

Here’s a recipe for an enchanting spell: carefully distil The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, add a dollop of Grimms’ fairy tales, a soupçon of The Sorceror’s Apprentice and a sprig of Cupid and Psyche, and then sprinkle liberally with Japanese demonology. Garnish with exquisite hand-painted backgrounds, just the odd bit of computer animation, and characters who range from ridiculously cute to menacingly powerful to just plain enigmatic. Mix it all up, and finish it off with a generous helping of surrealism, and you will have Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi), deserved winner of the Academy Award for best animated film and the top grossing movie of all time in its native Japan.

En route to their new home, grumpy 10-year old Chihiro and her mother and father become lost, and stop at a strange abandoned town “in the middle of nowhere”. There, while her parents help themselves to an unattended feast, Chihiro encounters a boy called Haku who warns her to leave before it gets dark. Immediately, the light starts to fade, ghosts begin appearing everywhere, her parents turn into pigs, and the whole town has become surrounded by a vast body of water. In order to avoid being eaten or transformed into an animal, Chihiro agrees to work for the identity-stealing witch Yunibaba in “the bathhouse where 8000 gods can rest their weary bones”. She endures a series of bizarre trials, occasionally assisted by the mysterious Haku (who she is sure she has met before) and others, in her bid to get home safely with her parents.

This brief synopsis does little to convey the rich complexity of the shadow world which Miyazaki has created in Spirited Away. With more ideas in its two hours than you will find in a dozen Disney cartoons, this animated allegory of the passage from childhood to adolescent responsibility (with a subtle environmentalist streak) replaces straightforward narrative with dream logic and hallucinatory metamorphoses, and constantly eludes expectations through inventive leaps of the imagination. It races along with the speed of a bullet train, visiting weird, enchanted places the likes of which have never been seen before.

With any luck, Spirited Away will open up the West to what the Japanese have long recognised – that Miyazaki is a visionary genius whose animated œœuvre shows an originality, beauty and awesome strangeness beyond comparison to anything else on the big screen. Take your kids, your parents, your friends and colleagues, and give in to Miyazaki’s sweet, haunting spell, and you will find yourself transported to a magical place, where you can, like Chihiro, forget for a time all the details of your everyday life. It is a masterpiece of animation that has more than enough in it to keep young and old alike entertained, enchanted and awestruck.

Anton Bitel