Studio Ghibli has become synonymous with the magic of animation in the minds of audiences all over the world. Throughout its existence, the celebrated Japanese studio has produced multiple masterpieces like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro among several others. These beautiful gems have provided uniquely immersive experiences for children and adults alike. It is extremely difficult to extricate one particular Studio Ghibli film from its wonderful oeuvre but if there was one such work that stands out from the rest, it would definitely be Miyazaki’s 2001 magnum opus Spirited Away.
Designed as a very special coming-of-age tale, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who navigates the labyrinths of life in a mystical microcosm inhabited by ancient spirits. Over the course of her journey in this alternate world, Chihiro learns valuable lessons about the fundamental nature of the universe as well as the importance of friendship. Through the use of soft world-building, Miyazaki constructs a memorable heterotopic environment that is infinitely nuanced and densely packed with mysterious entities that we don’t quite know or understand. These magical creations linger on in our minds long after the film is over, shaping our own memories of the indelible experience of witnessing Miyazaki’s mastery.
The primary reason why Spirited Away has resonated with audiences all over the world despite the existence of cultural barriers is because of its brilliantly devised universality. Miyazaki explained: “I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathise. It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.”
Unlike many other anime films, Spirited Away does not lose its essence even when its narrative is translated for the ‘dubbed in English’ versions which has contributed to its phenomenal success overseas. Pixar’s John Lasseter was so moved by the film that he worked tirelessly to introduce Miyazaki’s masterpiece to American audiences who were blown away by Spirited Away’s undeniable beauty.
An indispensable element of Miyazaki’s work is the intricate hand-drawn animation that he employs. Extra emphasis was placed on the animation instead of the narrative since Miyazaki and his team started working on the former before a final draft of the script was ready. It certainly paid off because Spirited Away’s visual appeal is almost unparalleled and forms a major part of the magic it creates for audiences of all ages. While the bland character design for Chihiro is done that way so as to create an essential blank slate upon which viewers can place their own experiences, other characters like the iconic No-Face are quirky, unique and simply unforgettable. It is structured like that to reassure us that although we might be ordinary and our lives might be monotonous, the world around is full of spectacular secrets.
However, what really makes Spirited Away one of the finest animated features ever made is its ability to generate fascinating multiplicities which morph according to the age of the viewer. Children can relate to Chihiro’s feelings of alienation and loneliness brought on by her father’s transfer to an unknown town. They understand her innocent apprehension of the unknown, amplified by the forbidden world which she stumbles into. More mature audiences have found Miyazaki’s film to be an intellectual commentary on the excesses of consumerism (Chihiro’s parents literally turn into pigs). Like Miyazaki’s 1997 work Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away also raises eco-critical questions about the dangers to natural ecosystems through very simple but poignant methods like the stink spirit which is an allegorical representation of pollution. In many ways, Spirited Away symbolises Miyazaki’s hope for a secret world that still exists somewhere without being tarnished by modernity.
Spirited Away’s legacy is also important because of the recognition it brought to anime after becoming the first anime feature to win the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Miyazaki didn’t show up to the ceremony because he was against America’s involvement in Iraq: “The reason I wasn’t here for the Academy Award was because I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq. At the time, my producer shut me up and did not allow me to say that, but I don’t see him around today. By the way, my producer also shared in that feeling.”
20 years after its release, Spirited Away is still fresh in the minds of omnipresent admirers who get just as lost in Miyazaki’s mesmerising world during their 20th visit as they did the first time.