Hayao Miyazaki has directed only eight feature-length films in his lifetime, all of them animated and all of them featuring hundreds of thousands of his own key drawings. Almost none of them [as of 2002] have been released properly for American audiences. Imagine a director at least as important and with as big an oeuvre as, say, Stanley Kubrick, who has never been exhibited properly to English-speaking viewers (perhaps Jean-Pierre Melville, for a better parallel?), and you have a good idea of what is being missed by a whole generation of moviegoers.
All of Miyazaki's films are gorgeous to look at, but they are also smart and joyous, with a sly intelligence that appeals as much to adults as children. The last of his films, Princess Mononoke, has been widely acclaimed as the best animated film ever made, and it is not difficult to make a case for that. It told a deep and compelling story with fiercely beautiful visuals, and became the all-time box office champion in Japan. Approaching sixty, he stated publicly that he no longer had the stamina to do all the drawings required to direct a feature-length film, but he apparently had one more masterpiece in him. If Miyazaki intended it a way of retiring gracefully from directing, he found the best possible finale.
Many of Miyazaki's films are about the relationship between children and the world at large, whether the world of adults as a whole or a world that is even beyond the ken of most adults. Spirited Away gives us Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi in Japanese, and an excellent Daveigh Chase in English), a sullen and dispirited ten-year-old traveling with her parents to their new home in the suburbs. Chihiro has not wanted to move, and resents her mother and father for being forced to leave her old life behind — much as any ten-year-old would — and her parents are blithely indifferent to her annoyance. She'll get over it, they seem to be thinking.
Their car takes a wrong turn and winds up being stopped near what looks like a theme park. "They built a lot of these in the Nineties, before the economy went bad," her father says, "so you tend to find them just sort of standing around, falling apart." That doesn't make the place any less creepy, and Chihiro's preternatural unease only increases when her parents find a buffet table heaped with fresh food and begin digging in, despite no one else being in sight. Before she realizes what's going on, her parents have changed into pigs (Miyazaki's earlier Porco Rosso was also about a man changed into a pig), and she's running through the park scared out of her mind.
Somehow Chihiro has crossed over into a parallel world of sorts, one where the park is very much alive, and catering vigorously as a kind of vacation resort to the "Eight Million Gods." In a scene worthy of Kurosawa, Chihiro watches open-mouthed as a giant paddle-wheel steamboat docks and disgorges an apparently endless procession of spirits, all lining up for a fancy meal and soak in the hot springs. She also befriends (somewhat by accident) a young boy, Haku, who works in the resort and gives Chihiro tips on how to be employed there by the owners.
By this time we've seen how the film operates on a curiously consistent dream logic: after she witnesses the disembarkation, her body begins fading away, but Haku is able to stop this by force-feeding her something from their world. Unfortunately, that means she's stuck here, and has to make a living for herself in that place if she ever wants to go home again. Things don't always make sense, but at least they make sense in ways that have intelligible repercussions — unlike, say, What Dreams May Come, where the rules were made and broken with complete disregard for continuity or storytelling coherence.
The furnace-stoker, Kamaji, and his army of soot sprites keep the hot springs bubbling.
Chihiro endears herself with him as best she can.
Chihiro makes her way into the bowels of the resort, run by the mustachioed spider-creature Kamaji and his staff of "soot sprites" (another Miyazaki invention seen before in My Neighbor Totoro!). He doesn't want any help, and neither does the impossibly grotesque crone who runs the place, Yubaba, but by simply standing her ground and asserting what little will she has, Chihiro is able to finally be accepted. She's an unlikely heroine, but the story watches as she progresses from a moping outsider to a girl who has rediscovered her feelings for life. She also has a goal to work towards: in exchange for her servitude, Yubaba takes Chihiro's name and gives her a new one: Sen ("thousand"). Like Haku before her, she may soon forget her real name, and with it any reason to free herself and her parents.
The resort is run by stern rules and an unbending schedule, with the higher-ups and taskmasters getting all the privileges and the servant girls (of which Chihiro is the lowest) scrabbling for what few bonuses they can get. There's a nice, unforced way the movie springs all this information on us, as when Chihiro is assigned an unbelievably disgusting customer to bathe and cashes in a favor to get a chit for the highest-quality bathwater in the whole resort. The monster in question turns out in fact to be a river god — an immense snakelike dragon — and the way this is discovered by both the characters and the audience is spellbinding.
Chihiro manages to convince Yubaba to let her work at the resort,
and soon befriends the curious No-Face.
Chihiro makes other friends besides Haku and one of the other girls, who has resigned herself to her fate a long time ago: a curious ghostlike apparition called the No-Face. She sees it (him?) standing outside in the garden one night, takes pity on him, and lets him in. He pays her kindness back, but then begins to eat and eat, gobbling up not only food and drink but other patrons, until he threatens to destroy the whole place with his sheer girth. Chihiro realizes this is her fault, however distantly, and does her best to set it right. What is most interesting is that Miyazaki does not paint the No-Face as being evil; he is simply in the wrong place. Put him in the opulence of the resort and he becomes unmanageable. Chihiro finds a place for him in the world, and the way she does this is wholly unexpected and touching.
There is another plot, this one involving Yubaba's gigantic baby son Boh, lonely and cross from a lack of playmates. Again like so many other things in the movie it plays out as a drama of character, not a case where the director paints someone black and designates them the villain. Even Yubaba, scheming and greedy as she is, is seen as a fully rounded character with totally comprehensible motives. It's such a far cry, and such a breath of fresh air, from the typical Disney formula where someone is appointed villain status and is forced to live up to it against all logic or common sense. Mononoke had the same sort of care with its characters, providing them with fully-rounded personalities rather than just reactionary postures.
A horde of bizarre paper creatures attack Chihiro in an attempt to injure Haku.
The three green heads are Yubaba's servants.
I love just watching animated films, because by their very nature they have to be visually engaging. Movies are all too often about people just talking at each other, not about visionary things. But every shot in Spirited Away is rich with sharp details — like Herge's Tintin comics, which I grew up on and the style of which seems to be subtly influential here. When Chihiro is struggling with that horrible, stinking monster in the bath, you can practically feel the texture of the mud. When she soars over the landscape on the back of a dragon, there's no live-action movie that comes close to the same thrill. Miyazaki also loves to give his characters oddball sidekicks, and at one point Chihiro gets two of them, a puzzled-looking mouse and a very small bird. (One is constantly having to carry the other, and we often get funny cutaways to them fussing with something in the middle of other action in a scene.) The inside of the resort is a riot of color and architectural styles both Asian and European.
One of the odder reviews I read of the film interpreted it as an allegory of Japanese "comfort women," the female war prisoners who were forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese officers in special brothels. I could see, superficially, how a parallel could be drawn: a young girl is torn away from her familiar world, separated from her family, and forced to work in an alien, demeaning environment with any number of distasteful characters. But parallels are not themselves explanations. The movie is strong enough to work without such an explanation — so strong, in fact, that the best explanation of all to me was the one that came most naturally. This is a dream of the end of childhood, wherein the dreamer comes awake from the fear and uncertainty of her life, grows, and becomes a citizen of the world in adolescence. Where before she was a sullen young girl, caring only for herself, by the end she has done more good for others (and herself in turn) than she ever imagined possible.
I often find myself writing reviews like this to audiences that resist animated films, even ones created for adult audiences. There is an ongoing cultural prejudice against cartoons as being "kid stuff," but Japanese animation in general (and movies like Spirited Away in particular) are beginning to put a dent in that feeling. The best thing I can do, I think, is to simply say: See this movie. It has no peer. You will be astounded.