Winner of the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli’s best-known and most critically acclaimed work, and a modern classic of the animated film. After they move to a small suburban town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents discover what seems to be an abandoned amusement park which mysteriously contains a restaurant with plenty of food, but no customers. When her parents are turned into pigs after sampling the restaurant’s cuisine, Chihiro discovers that the park is a haven for hundreds of spirits and monsters ruled over by the bobble-headed witch Yubaba. In order to save her parents, Chihiro is forced to work all manner of odd jobs in the spirit world, where she finds herself in the midst of a feud between Yubaba and her gentle twin sister. Featuring some of Miyazaki’s most dazzlingly imaginative creations — most notably the alarmingly immense masked spirit called “No Face” — Spirited Away is a visual wonder and a uniquely philosophical take on the standard coming-of-age story. “One of the year’s best films” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times).
When I was a child, I nearly drowned (several times in fact). The first time this happened my curiosity and incomprehension of perspective got the better of me.
My brother and I were in a row boat, docked at a small, uninhabited island. I remember pine trees that seemed to be the size of mountains. My parents had left us there for not even 5 minutes with explicit instructions to stay put while they went up onto the island for a moment to gather some pine cones.
Peering into the lake, I saw what looked to be oysters seemingly just within my reach. I had visions of gathering them up, and my Mom returning to the boat delighted as I had somehow crafted an amazing pearl necklace for her in the time it took her and Dad to collect said pine cones.
Suffice to say this didn’t happen.
I stuck my arm in the water, but came up short. The next step was truly brilliant of my child self. I took my life jacket off because it was bulky and leaned over the boat, feet in the air trying to reach down to get an oyster.
Next thing I knew, I was in the water and everything from there on it completely slowed down.
The first time I saw Spirited Away was in a small independent theatre in Berkeley, California. Always my favourite way to see a film – red velvet curtains, slightly squeaky chairs, a small box office and the feeling of being surrounded by such a rich cinematic history.
Besides the cinema, the film felt so familiar, even on first viewing. The flashbacks in particular that Chihiro have of drowning really struck a chord in me. Miyazaki captured that feeling and those moments in perfect animated stillness, and I have yet to see this done so well in other films.
Too often people are dismissive of animation. I strongly disagree with the notion that animation is somehow juvenile and less deserving of serious consideration in film, much how Sci-Fi & Fantasy novels are often written off too as they’re somehow not “proper literature” (another sentiment I whole-heartedly disagree with too!)
Case in point – Spirited Away is a breathtaking, visual masterpiece. The score is absolutely beautiful, the story deftly told, and the characters and relationships heartwarming without being too saccharine. It’s my favourite film. Not my favourite *animated* film, but my favourite film, period.
It’s a film I can watch again and again. From the get go it was so familiar, like a half forgotten dream. I think part of why I love Spirited Away so much is that I see myself as a child in the main character Chihiro.
Currently on in Toronto till January 3rd at the Bell TIFF Lightbox is a Studio Ghibili retrospective with special screenings showcasing 18 Studio Ghibli masterpieces. I’m incredibly happy that I’ll still be in town for this and have already caught several films already at TIFF.
And I’m particularly looking forward to rewatching Spirited Away tomorrow, nothing beats watching it on a large screen.