Movies I Love: Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki's wonderfully wacky and poetic mind had thoroughly explored two spectrums of the imagination before taking on Spirited Away: broad realms of fantasy filled with castles in the sky and valleys of the wind, and pragmatic use of curses and magic in the lives of coming-of-age witches and veteran fighter pilots. The true power of the director's sole Oscar-winning feature, however, rests in how he's able to weave together those two sensibilities, telling a smaller-scale story of a brokenhearted girl who's transported to and lost in another realm beyond her existence. His tale of Chihiro evokes a tremendous amount of emotional complexity and visual splendor within its premise, discovering broad whimsical scope and significant expressions of individual growth within a confined setting that's just as breathtaking as Miyazaki's sprawling fantasies. Bathed in bravura imagery that marvelously balances wittiness and peculiarity, it's a radiant piece of artistry with a strong, meaningful undercurrent that speaks to all ages, easily earning its place among the director's finest creations.

Chihiro's story begins during a car ride, where the young preteen girl expresses sadness over moving away from her prior home and friends. Her parents get lost on the drive out to their new house, taking a wrong turn into the rural outskirts outside of an abandoned amusement park, to which the parents insist on exploring against Chihiro's nervous and emotional wishes. Further in, her parents discover a buffet of food at an vacant stall, proving too tempting of an invitation for them yet not enough for their addled daughter to indulge. Shortly after they start to eat, the abandoned town begins to shift in the gloominess of its atmosphere, transforming the parents into beasts as Chihiro flees from the town's fantastical transformation. Just as all hope seems lost, a kindly young stranger, Haku, offers his aid to the young girl, guiding her towards a majestic bathhouse where she might be able to hide out until they figure out what to do about her parents' transformation ... and how she'll escape the realm.

While oozing boar gods and eerie spore forests created some trepidation in Miyazaki's previous works through disquieting imagery, Chihiro's entrance into the spirit world generates a degree of surreal uneasiness that's far more haunting than anything he'd made before. Grotesque animal transformations, darkening alleyways, and tubular specters underscore that the young girl has ventured beyond a point of no return, a place where her options are limited and her friends are few and far between. That feeling continues as she forces her way into working at the bathhouse -- assumedly Chihiro's first real job -- as she scrubs floors and preps tubs for unfathomably powerful gods, all while staying away from the scornful gaze of the sorceress and establishment owner, Yubaba, in a realm where consuming and exploiting humans isn't off-limits. Miyazaki makes this situation seem hazardous in profound ways, where it's unclear what'll happen to the girl as she interacts with all manner of ethereal, visually warped beings.

Watching how Chihiro copes with her dilemma, both her triumphs and her emotional breakdowns, becomes an exceptionally rewarding and oftentimes tense experience in Spirited Away. In the halls of the immaculately-detailed bathhouse, which brings whimsical beings together with a mysterious but grounded atmosphere reminiscent of an establishment from Miyazaki's past, Chihiro is forced to grow up rather quickly from the dramatically despondent kid she was while riding in the backseat to her new home. In that, the fear embedded in the setting becomes a surreptitious metaphor for coming-of-age and the adolescent fear of transporting to a new place, enhanced by Chihiro's clumsiness and lingering sorrow. She's not a hero, nor does she ever really become one as she works to flee the realm and reverse her parents' transformation, but the way she steels her resolve and responds to the world around her reflects on a different kind of grounded courage that speaks to a wide range of people.

The events that transpire in the bathhouse are utterly hypnotic, a collage of fantastical encounters where it's entirely unknown who or what will slip into the establishment at any given time, or what Chihiro will be required to do to get beyond them. Through the presence of stink spirits, No-Face creatures, and metamorphic dragons, Spirited Away touches on themes built around greed and the deception of appearances, steering the audience through a relatively small-scale and strikingly-illustrated philosophical journey. A constant, satisfying fusion of humor and oddity guides Chihiro through this personal adventure, yet it's not made entirely clear how personal it is until the young girl arrives at its end, armed with everything she's learned in her time in the spirit realm. With the glimmer of a purple hair tie and a look of disbelieving uncertainty on her face, Miyazaki lets a bittersweet sensation hang in the air during those moments where the audience builds their outlooks, an experience which continues to leave me in awe after this capricious masterwork stops casting its spells.

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