Spirited Away

Spirited Away ★★★★½

Frequently cited as Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest work, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (or Sen as she is later renamed), a young girl who, while moving to a new neighbourhood, enters a strange world where she must find a way to free herself and her parents, after they were mutated into pigs by a powerful witch.

Earning Miyazaki his first (and only) Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Spirited Away is a typically beautiful and poignant offering from the great man, who manages to evoke a great sense of nostalgia and child-like sensibility while still looking at complex themes, often hidden deep within the film’s surface. Heavily informed by Japanese Shinto-Buddhist traditions, the film is full of such great depth, an element I deem typical of a Miyazaki feature but crucial nonetheless. Themes of greed and opulence are detailed intensely and are applicable to the real world, with Miyazaki stating these themes are related to the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s, which, while garnering short term prosperity, saw immense decline in the preceding decades. Miyazaki argues this is due to human greed and he uses ‘the pigs’ to represent these people. Aside from this connection, we can also see further connections with Miyazaki’s wider oeuvre, as he furthers his analysis of man’s relationship with nature and how our actions can significantly affect a broad universe of people and beings. These environmental issues are shown through the character of Haku, who was formerly the spirit of the Kohaku River, which was destroyed to make room for apartments, showing the tragic consequences of human intervention in the environment. 

While most of the film’s characters are morally ambiguous, there is a strong sense of justice within Miyazaki’s world; those who often do wrong and act selfishly are punished and those who adopt wider responsibility with their actions thrive, a sentiment that provides great comfort to its audience. For that reason the characters Miyazaki creates here are some of his most memorable and the creativity invested in the character animation ensures they linger in the memory well after the film is over. The whole spirit world itself is astounding, complete with quality animation and attention to detail which is second to none and a great celebration of the director’s vision and his unprecedented imagination. He deserves his status as an absolute master. 

VERDICT - While the film did not connect with me as much as Porco Rosso or My Neighbour Totoro, its clear that Miyazaki has crafted another poignant masterpiece, driven by outstanding animation, brilliant storytelling and a phenomenal Joe Hisaishi score.

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