Anime has risen as a popular and accepted art form across the world. One of the best examples of this is the success of one particular anime film over a decade ago. There is no question that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away had a great impact, not only on the anime world or in Japan, but also across the world of cinema and art. The film was released in 2001 and in 2003 was the first anime film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It was brought to the United States in conjunction with Disney Studios, after its wide success after it’s first release – it actually is the highest grossing movie of all time in Japan, where it was first released. The reason for this impact will become clear as we discuss the plot, themes, and style of Spirited Away. It is a tale of magic and meaning, done with an air of confident whimsy. It is all of this that combined to make the film such a success.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl, who embarks on an “accidental” adventure, per se. This begins as Chihiro and her parents are on their way to a new home in a new city – Chihiro does not want to move. On their way, the small family discovers a hidden, abandoned theme park. While there her parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro meets a boy named Haku – who claims to have known her since she was little. The rest of the film is concerned with Chihiro and Haku navigating this amusement park-world of good and evil spirits, trying to figure out how to get her parents back. In the course of all of this, Chihiro is forced into labor by the evil Yubaba, Haku is turned into a dragon, and Chihiro makes friends and enemies alike. The magical story is hard to put onto paper, as it relies so much on the characters, themes, and imagery.
Compared with films and stories such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Spirited Away captures its audience with the story of a regular character entering a fantastic and magic (for good or for bad) world, filled with unusual characters. This comparison carries through the thematic elements of the film – food changes bodies, just as in Alice in Wonderland, and Chihiro wants nothing more than to just go home, much like Dorothy. The end is striking as well, when Chihiro finds out that she’s had the ability to go home all along – she just needed to muster her inner strength (with her figurative ruby red slippers). While these similarities are striking, there are other themes in the film that stand out on their own.
First and foremost, the line between good and evil is blurred in this film – each and every character is a “mixed bag” of both good and bad qualities (Haku is just one example of several). Chihiro herself, the protagonist of the story, is not a very likeable character until she goes through the transformation in the hidden amusement park. This theme departs from the usual in animated films, with almost no absolute villains or absolute heroes (with the exception of Yubaba). This theme, it seems, is an attempt to more accurately reflect the ‘real world’.
An additional theme that is unique to this work is the concept of entering adulthood and the reality of hard work. This transition is a difficult and ultimately transforming experience for some characters in Spirited Away – most notably, for Chihiro, as she becomes Sen at the bathhouse. Idleness is shown as a comfort of childhood – for example, the film opens with Chihiro lying in the back of the car while her parents drive. She does not have a care, and she does not care that she does not have a care. Even when Chihiro begins work at the bathhouse, she does so slowly and ineffectively – but only at first. Chihiro soon adapts to this world of hard work. The work turned Chihiro into a better, stronger person. It is clear that it carries with her after she and her family escape the adventure-turned-nightmare of the amusement park.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Spirited Away is its style of animation – at least in relation to its American and international audiences. The key is, Spirited Away is hand-drawn, rather than computer-generated. This method of animation has all but vanished in the United States. In this method, artists hand-craft individual frames for the work, and these are subsequently filmed in sequence. It is this method that gives Spirited Away such an air of magnitude and magic. Instead of cutting and pasting and relying on sequence and fast-paced editing to set the tone for the film, Spirited Away stands alone as an art form. The art takes the viewer out of the given frame, allowing him or her to enter the world fully – and all this is done without taking away from the story. Instead, the animation style adds quite a bit to the power of the story – especially one that is so steeped in magic and fantasy.
Spirited Away stands alone as a both a fantastic work of art and a unique example of storytelling. The characters are clear, yet relatable – without stereotypes. The world is both foreign and familiar. The story is new, but the truths are the ones we need reminded of. Finally, and maybe most importantly, the art of this particular work leaves the viewers feeling as if they had, truly, entered another world along with Chihiro.