Let's get this out of the way first: Spirited Away won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film back in 2002. As of this writing it's the only animated film from Japan to have ever won that honor, which means that among people who pay attention to anime, it's treated with the kind of gravitas and importance that you normally see reserved for prestige live-action films. It's also one of the only anime films the regular viewing public has ever heard of (or seen); even with masterpieces like Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky under his belt, for your average moviegoer, the name Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with Spirited Away. In Japan, the film is a point of national pride – not only does it have that Oscar, it's still the highest-grossing film in Japan's history, bringing in a whopping $230 million that has never been seriously challenged until Disney's inescapable sensation Frozen nearly took the crown in 2014. In Japan, My Neighbor Totoro will always be the most beloved child, the one that makes everyone laugh and smile, but Spirited Away is the one whose picture you display on the mantle, the one you brag about to your neighbors.
This film is a Big Deal, and the hurricane of highfalutin’ accolades that swirls around it can make it feel like it's supposed to be so much more than what it actually is. Films that come with this much prestigious baggage can wind up feeling diminished on reflection, chiefly because the audience's expectations have been fired into the stratosphere thanks to all that gushing praise. Thankfully, when you strip away all of that and engage with Spirited Away as simply a piece of art from a dedicated and highly opinionated artist, it truly shines as a gorgeous, confident, occasionally surreal piece of tough love for anyone who ever was or happens to be ten years old.
On the surface, Spirited Away is a pretty basic adventure story with a coming-of-age flavor packet dumped in for good measure. An unhappy child, moving to a new home, winds up in the middle of the spirit world, her parents transformed into enormous pigs. There's a scary old lady who steals her name – a powerful word which defines her very being – and she winds up challenging her by working in her bathhouse, serving all the spirits who come there to relax. Chihiro comes out the other side of this little journey through a dangerous supernatural world a little stronger and a little wiser. It's classic, crowd-pleasing stuff, absolutely overflowing with lush, wildly creative visual representations that pull from every corner of Japanese mythology.
Aesthetically the film is an ornate treasure chest, lid pulled back, glittering diamond lucre spilling out everywhere. Like all the best Miyazaki films, there are images in Spirited Away that are burned into our collective cultural psyche – the frightening visage of No-Face gobbling down everything in sight, desperate to find someone to cling to, to give himself a persona. Chihiro's thrilling encounter with the polluted river god, and his otherworldly laugh as he bursts out of the bathhouse's doors. Her tearful breakthrough with Haku, soaring through the sky, that brings her emotional journey full-circle. Those floating, dancing slips of paper that materialize into an opulent procession of Japanese gods on their way to the bathhouse. It's an embarrassment of visual riches, a film so pregnant with aesthetic splendor it threatens to overwhelm the ultimately very simple adventure story at its center.
Spirited Away has to be more than that, though, and it is – this is a film that connected on a very deep level with millions of people, and here's why: it isn't really a coming-of-age film. Miyazaki himself has said so several times in interviews (his writing on this film, collected in the book Turning Point, is crucial for understanding what this movie is supposed to be about) and while that's a bit reductive – “coming of age” generally refers to any film where a young person learns something while growing, which is what happens in this film – he's right. At the center of Spirited Away is a very potent message about shattering the cushy world of modern entitlement that “kids today” grow up in – to use Miyazaki's own clichéd grumpy-old-coot language – by realizing your innate ability to make change, take command, get out there and truly live while being responsible and kind to others. Rather than sinking into a lifetime of complaining about how things are never easy enough, how your allocated portion of luxury in this life is too small, you can instead dig in, work hard, fight, push yourself and overcome all the obstacles modern life puts in between you and being a fully-realized person. Spirited Away tells us we have the ability to become someone who walks confidently through life and can truly take care of themselves, leaving a path of altruism behind us that helps the world become a better place.
The secret sauce in Spirited Away is that it tells you, very directly, that you can do all of this without superpowers, without the help of magical friends, even without any direct encouragement. The film argues directly that you can – and should – go through all of this self-actualization without your parents, without anyone older than you being there to guide you through it with kindness or wisdom. There are very few family films that touch on this theme without irreparably softening it to generic “you can do it!” platitudes, suggesting you need help to succeed (or in the case of most movies for little girls, that a prince is going to come along and do it all for you). This film is about using the will we already have, innately, even as children, to forcefully break through the wall of entitled comfort we live in, to take command of our lives, and embrace the responsibility we all have to this world and to each other. It's a powerful, touching, deeply relatable message that obviously struck a chord with audiences around the world. That it centers around a little girl is even more remarkable – this sort of tough, frank encouragement, rooted in an indiscriminate, unflinching belief that you are unequivocally capable and that your ability to take charge of your life is innate and assumed – it's the kind of message little girls don't get a whole lot from their entertainment.
The film is so thematically polished and complete on this point that every obstacle the film throws at Chihiro strengthens it and makes it clearer. It's all made almost painfully literal when Yubaba steals her name and frames the film around Chihiro's journey to literally reclaim her identity through the hard work of pushing herself toward being a complete person. She'll get back her name when she's earned the right to have it – by dealing directly with all the things life will throw at you as a problem-solver, someone who rises to the occasion. Chihiro's journey through the bathhouse encapsulates so many of the things we deal with in life, albeit they're turned gorgeous and metaphorical in her fantasy world. She gets a crappy job, but she took it on herself, so she does the best damn job she can and excels at it, even though it categorically sucks to be scrubbing bathtubs ladled with the goop and filth of centuries. She deals with No-Face (a character so desperate to be simply wanted that he threatens to eat her alive) with quietly heroic altruism, enriching both herself and him. Chihiro's humane and caring solutions to these problems are entirely her own – the film never once robs her of the ability to solve her various metaphorical predicaments by giving her help or an easy way out. In its own unforgiving way, Spirited Away is uplifting. There are no easy answers and the world is a harsh place, but you can navigate it on your own terms while spreading kindness in your wake, without any help, if you stop waiting around for someone else to fix things.
The bluray presentation is a little better than what we typically get from Disney releases of the Ghibli back catalog, if only because it doesn't appear to be dubtitled (there's a subtitle script for the dub and a different subtitle script for the Japanese track, which is significantly different). Like most of their other releases, though, there aren't any new extras to speak of – just a wad of standard-definition oldies from the ancient DVD and nothing else. The HD transfer is gorgeous – there isn't a better way to watch this film shy of a 35mm print – so that makes it worth the price of admission, but if you were hoping for updated bonus features, there's nothing else here. The dub, which is about 15 years old at this point, fits in with the other Disney Ghibli dubs – it isn't particularly special, and has the same hushed, monotone cadence of the others.
There are very few animated films from Japan that are as celebrated as Spirited Away, but if you look past all the pomp and circumstance surrounding its success, the real quality of the film reveals itself. It is at once a dreamlike fantasy awash in spectacle, and a message to the young rooted deeply in a sincere yet grounded optimism about the sort of good, hardworking person you can
become if you forge your own path and reject the philosophy of apathetic dissatisfaction. Family films like this are so rare as to almost not exist. We're lucky to have this one.