This evening I finally got around to watching Spirited Away in its entirety, and haven’t quite returned to this world yet.
It’s gathered a whole raft of awards, including the “Golden Bear” Best Picture award at the Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar® for Best Animated Feature this year. It’s also the most popular film in Japanese box-office history. There’s no question that it’s “mainstream”, then, and the US release was masterminded by John Lasseter of Pixar and released by Walt Disney Studios, but that doesn’t detract from its art.
I watched a third of it last weekend with two kids, six and four, who were totally engrossed and who might have made it to the end, but it was already past their bedtime. While it’s generally safe for kids, a few scenes might give Western kids some strange dreams..!
Hayao Miyazaki, writer and director, based his story around a little girl, Chihiro, who becomes trapped in a spirit world after she and her parents stumble on it. The parents are turned into pigs after gorging themselves on food from the world, and are headed for the abattoir unless Chihiro can get them out. She manages to talk herself into a job at the local bathhouse, run by a witch, where the gods come to chill out and get cleaned up, and finds herself in some very strange situations.
The idea of gods inhabiting every inanimate object is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Minzoku (Folk) Shinto is the best-known version of this concept, but it’s refreshing that they don’t take it too seriously. One awe-inspiring scene has Chihiro forced into helping what appears to be a “Stink God” – with even her hair trying to run away from the stench – until she notices he has something stuck in his side, and pulls. The result is totally over-the-top, yet somehow true to the story.
It’s truly amazing how much detail has been crammed into the animation. Little details, such as the way Chihiro taps her feet after putting her shoes on, or the fish swimming over the submerged train tracks. The bathhouse boilers are controlled by a gruff six-armed humanoid called Kamagi, who even appears to be trying to give up smoking, since there’s an ashtray full of barely-smoked butts. Then there’s No-Face, a god undergoing a serious personality crisis.
I don’t know if Spirited Away is the greatest animation feature ever created, but it’s right up there with Fantasia or Shrek. While it’s taken the USA by storm, it’s not been heard of much in Europe, which is a real shame.