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Spirited Away Review

You can do things in animation that would never be possible in live action due to limitations. Limits in budget, in technology, in practicalities. You can create epic cities that would blow a blockbuster budget. You can place the camera without worrying about if it will fit there. You can make a dog play the piano without a trainer and hours of persistence. But most of all, there are no limits on imagination. When concerns about locations, an actor’s ego and who can forge two-hundred sets of armour are solved with an artist design, all boundaries seem to melt away.

Director and writer Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is one of the best examples of imaginative freedom possible. It begins with a journey. Chihiro, a young girl, sits in the back of a car as her parents drive to find their new house. But this isn’t a happy day, instead Chihiro is miserable at the prospect of leaving her life behind, and reluctant to leave the car and adventure into the wilderness after her parents get lost trying to find a shortcut.

An empty holiday town appears before them, with masses of food laid out for the hungry travellers, which Chihiro’s parent’s dive straight into. They are transformed into pigs, a curse for eating the forbidden food. Chihiro is alone and is tasked with surviving a world with absurd rules and rituals before she can save her parents.

This is where the spirits go on holiday, and the central attraction is Yubaba’s spa: a fortress filled with baths, saunas, food and entertainment. A mysterious boy, Haku, rescue Chihiro (before she too is cursed) and helps to introduce her into the bathhouse culture and a job scrubbing the inside of scum-ridden hot tubs. Challenges pile up for the young girl, but the her morals and unique outlook on life wins her the aid of a growing group of acquaintances.

Epic scale and human detail at its best.

Walking heads, giant babies, paper assassins. The audience is never told who we can trust in a cast of characters that seem plucked out of ancient folk lore, yet so fresh and rich they avoid any clichés. The storytelling in Spirited Away is masterful, able to evoke fear, laughter, sorrow and pride throughout. The film doesn’t patronise the watcher, it goes at a pace and we have to keep up with the miasma of tasks, rituals and obstacles, just as Chihiro struggles to do.

The animation is stunning. Sometimes bloody, sometimes surreal. Other times we are charmed by a clump of coal, or intrigued by a jumping lamp. It’s a joy to see the inventions of a free mind not cease from start to end.

Animations are often pitched at a younger audience, and yes the journey of a young girl in a fantasy world akin to Alice in Wonderland would appeal to children. But there is a darker tone, a more adult tone that can only be understood by a mature mind. Sacrifice and love, as well as servitude and neglect are predominant. Capitalism is painted with a bold brush, with Chihiro the only soul not tempted by mountains of gold, but rather by love and honesty. The voyage to grow up is one forced on the protagonist, rather than sought out. We aren’t reassured, ‘it’ll all be okay in the end,’ and the hints of a history we aren’t completely aware of keeps me hooked each time I watch. In most films when every plot string comes together at the conclusion, it can be hard to swallow, but in great anime these censors of what is realistic are on hold, especially when it’s of the standard of Spirited Away. We are transported to a more imaginative mind-set, were young love willing to sacrifice itself, is as believable as witches or talking frogs.

Chihiro gathers a host of friends to help her.

However being an anime doesn’t mean an audience accepts whatever is in front of them, there are plenty of bad animations that self-indulge in style over content. But Spirited Away is able to push the boundaries of creativity not for the sake of it, but to enhance the story, and to make Chihiro’s journey in the spirit world that more poignant. It is a touching story. Perhaps the one thing I don’t believe is that it is over ten years old. There is a timelessness about Spirited Away, the story it tells and how it tells it, that has carved out a place for itself in cinema.


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