spirited away (2002)


director: hayao miyazaki

voices of: suzanne pleshette, david ogden stiers, lauren holly, michael chiklis

Describing exactly what happens to Chihiro, the little girl heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime adventure Spirted Away, is almost beside the point, since the best way for a non-Japanese audience to enjoy the film is to simply let its outlandish visual world just wash over you. The plot is basically The Wizard of Oz, and at one point the world of Oz was doubtless considered fairly fantastic, but it’s probably because of our familiarity with stories like that of Dorothy’s journey to find the wizard that Miyazaki so promptly plunges us into a wild, haunting world that he’s painstakingly imagined as both ancient and modern.

Chihiro is a truculent little girl who’s first seen sulking in the backseat as her parents drive her to their new home. They take a wrong turn, discover what seems to be an abandoned amusement park, and sit down to a meal that transforms them into pigs, forcing Chihiro to plead for a job at an enormous bathhouse spa for spirits run by frogmen. There are river spirits, radish spirits, spirits who look like baby chicks and floating masks, and a memorable appearance by a “stink spirit”, whose repulsive odor is lavishly suggested by Miyazaki, all drawn from the animist traditions that still thrived in Japan during the director’s grandparent’s lifetimes.

There are twin witches, a giant baby, a multiarmed man and his army of living soot balls running the bathhouse boiler, and a melancholy commuter train that runs the length of the spirit world. There’s no way of predicting the plot twists, except for the certainty that Chihiro will get her parents back. There are things seen and things happening that no western director would imagine and no western studio would fund, which makes Miyazaki and his films - like his previous hit, Princess Mononoke - something of a phenomenon, the only anime auteur that Disney distributes.

Spirited Away is the best kind of children’s film, wildly imaginative and visually lush, strongly moral but entirely free of condescension. It also raises the question that, since there’s no limit to what can be animated, why are so few animated features willing to really explore the possibilities like Miyazaki does? While the wit and technical chops of studios like Pixar are undeniable, their work seems timid next to Miyazaki’s. Merely bringing toys to life somehow seems halfhearted next to a film like Spirited Away, and it would be nice to hope that the simmering success of anime in the west might sweep away the careful formulas that bind the best work to a level of imagination that hasn’t moved forward since Sleeping Beauty and classic Looney Tunes, fifty years ago.