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rrramble retrospective: Spirited Away

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

In Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away, Chihiro finds herself trapped in the spirit world and must find a way, not only to get back to the human world, but to save her parents who have been turned into pigs.

Twenty years have passed since Hayao Miyazaki's classic animated film first transported us to the Spirit Realm, so we had our writers watch this fantastical tale and tell us if they think it still holds up today...


A close up illustration of the face of Spirited Away's Chihiro, wearing a beige top with a green trim. She looks shocked, staring off at something into the distance out of our sight.

Illustration by Quinn Hair


Sophie N


The only thing scarier than being trapped in a spirit world is the knowledge that two decades have passed since this story first graced our screens. And you’ll be glad to know that twenty years on, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away remains as unsettling, beautiful, and wonderfully weird as ever.


The plot follows Chihiro and her parents, who take a detour on the way to their new house, and unwittingly enter the world of Kami - spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore. When her parents are transformed into pigs (a scene which still disturbs me twenty years later) Chihiro takes a job working at the witch Yubaba’s bathhouse to try and free her family and return to the human world. The result? A beautifully crafted coming-of-age story that still holds up as one of the best films ever made. It won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Oscars, showing that stories inspired by Japanese folklore can appeal to a wide range of audiences.


Watching it again, it is clear to see why the film holds this level of appeal. Spirited Away encapsulates something that I have found to be a common theme throughout Studio Ghibli’s collection: it isn’t afraid to slow down and focus on the smaller details that other films may overlook. This could be a moment taken to allow for characters to respond to an emotional situation, or something as simple as showing how they get from Point A to Point B.

The iconic train journey scene remains one of my favourites in all of cinema; the use of music, dream-like scenery and stunning animation all work in tandem to create a scene of idyllic stillness in a film that, up until this point, has been relatively fast-paced. Like the protagonist, we are often left feeling out of our element as Chihiro struggles to adjust to this new, fantastical world that she has found herself in. The train journey scene comes as a relief; Chihiro has found allies among the strange beings that inhabit this realm, she has a plan and, for the first time, she is taking charge of her own destiny. And we as viewers are lucky enough to be invited along for the ride.


In the midst of seemingly endless saving-the-universe Marvel releases and action-thrillers, Spirited Away remains, despite its age, a refreshing rewatch. This is in part due to its focus on the personal journey of its protagonist, rather than a large-scale ‘end of the world’ scenario.’ The stakes, with the exception of Chihiro and her family, aren’t that high; there’s no great villain to be bested, no world to be saved. The characters are settled in their roles, even the film’s antagonist, Yubaba, is just trying to run her bath house the best she can. Not that I’m condoning turning people into animals, but in the grand scheme of movie villains, she’s definitely on the lighter side.


As well as a coming-of-age story, Spirited Away also deals with a variety of themes: there’s an environmental element that remains just as prevalent today as it did twenty years ago, as well as issues surrounding the loss of identity through the rise of Western capitalism, as seen through the character of Haku. Perhaps that’s why the film works so well: it remains just as relevant to today to its wide range of audiences as it did back then.


If you haven’t seen it already, then it’s definitely worth a watch. Though, as with every Studio Ghibli film, I strongly recommend eating beforehand, as there’s just something about that animated food that makes it look so good! It’s easy to see how someone could find themselves lost in the spirit world for a taste of it.


An illustration of the train from Spirited Away. The train is orange and red, and moving across an expanse of water. A dark grey cloud dominates the backdrop, with only a strip of blue sky visible at the top of the picture.

Illustration by Quinn Hair



Wayne


Hype is dangerous. It imbues mediocrity with undeserved reverence, especially in the current era of toxic, unflinching fandom. It also robs those of us who instinctively rail against the “you have to see this” brigade of some actual treats. I’ve resisted the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki for a long time, particularly Spirited Away. I’m still not sure it deserves the countless awards and praise heaped upon it. The plot meanders, the run-time is bloated, and I didn’t like the Disney-upping of such a culturally rich tale. A bit of the magic got lost in translation - that’s my fault for choosing the American audio though. Anime dubs can be like milk on the turn. Sometimes you get away with it. Other times…


Minor gripes aside, I did get caught up in it. With touches of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, the characters were engaging. You can’t help but root for central character Chihiro, the ten-year-old trying to free herself and her unlikeable parents from the spirit realm.


It's audaciously inventive for its time, visually and narratively. The animation is a beautiful blend of hand-painting and CGI that belies the film’s age and works harmoniously with the story to keep everyone and everything distinct and unique. Whilst it can be foreboding, sinister and grown-up, as the best children’s stories are, it’s also full of lovely moments of whimsy and chuckle-out-loud physical gags. I was slightly distracted by boiler geezer Kamajī though, who looked like Sonic the Hedgehog’s nemesis Doctor Robotnik/Eggman.


Spirited Away’s real success, why it doesn’t feel dated and still generates the same feels as it would’ve 20 years ago, is its handling of timeless themes. What kid hasn’t felt unheard, unseen, and that their parents are ambivalent to what they’re going through? Fear of change, fear of not fitting in, fear of loss. Not knowing who to trust at times. Navigating responsibility and starting that tricky transition from child to adult. Miyazaki masterfully distilled these themes into a phantasmagorical, striking adventure, as well as a fascinating look at how Japanese culture has changed, particularly in the face of Western greed and consumerism.


It was also quite forward thinking in its exploration of environmentalism and how we destroy the things that sustain us because of our want for more things that don’t. Which I liked.


The stink spirit that causes havoc in the bathhouse is actually a river spirit that’s been dangerously contaminated by the human world’s carelessly discarded rubbish. The scene of everyday items pouring out of it is a stark reminder that the world Chihiro yearns to return to is just as dangerous as the new world she’s found herself in. One of her few allies, Haku, is actually a river spirit who’s forgotten his true nature after his river was destroyed and replaced with apartments.


Whilst I'm still not a full Studio Ghibli convert, I'm going to give the original subtitled version a watch sometime, which I think will be more nuanced. It's certainly made me more open to trying more of Miyazaki's work.



A close up illustration of the face of Spirited Away's Chihiro, wearing a beige top with a green trim. She looks shocked, staring off at something into the distance out of our sight.

Illustration by Quinn Hair


Sabrina


I had very, very high expectations going into this iconic anime.

It’s one of my friends’ favourite films, and the hype was only boosted by my mum enthusing about how good it was when I mentioned what I was watching. I was also particularly intrigued as one of my recent reads (The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh) included Spirited Away as a ‘comp’ title – not that I would know which themes were similar, as I had miraculously managed to avoid any spoilers whatsoever for Spirited Away. Back to the point, though: did it meet my expectations?


Absolutely.


The plotline moved briskly and I was completely engrossed, partly because I never knew what was going to happen next. Every time I thought things couldn’t get any stranger I was proven wrong! I will never forget the Turnip guest, the Poop monster and Massive Baby Foot (not their official character names, of course). There’s even a ‘jump scare’ that somehow led to me bursting out laughing, which aptly illustrates the constant build-up and release of energy throughout the film.


Whilst the story rolls on with gusto (I never felt it dragging, in fact, I hoped it wouldn’t end), there are also some tranquil pockets of breathing room, courtesy of absolutely magnificent landscape paintings. I especially loved seeing that train slipping, impossibly, over a vast expanse of water reflecting billowing clouds. It reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Railhead by Philip Reeve – as though I needed more reasons to love this movie!


For me, a solid storyline and atmospheric artwork still need to be anchored by compelling characters to make a good film great. Our protagonist, Chihiro, is easy to get behind even from the very beginning. Despite starting out sullen and afraid of change, she’s still relatable (let’s be honest, we’ve all been like that at least once). I felt particularly great fellow feeling for Chihiro when she was inching her bum with great trepidation down some steps. I had a flashback to my own recent outdoor adventure of moving my bottom from one boulder to another (on flat ground), which is obviously completely comparable to a vertiginous staircase in a dangerous spirit realm.


I found Chihiro’s character arc inspiring precisely because she seems so realistic. She’s not a hidden ‘chosen one’ – she is resourceful, brave (even when terrified) and kind, all of which are possible too for the average person. The emphasis on staying true to yourself, which Spirited Away highlights through the importance of names, still rings true today amidst the pressure to ‘trend’ or satisfy the social media algorithm.


The secondary characters in the Spirit Realm are so creatively designed, and include many charming figures (especially the soot sprites!) that provide a welcome dose of sweetness, balancing out what at times could quite an unnerving film. It was also really interesting how there was never anyone who seemed straight-up evil throughout. Instead, the true villain seems to be greed and careless consumption. I enjoyed the fluidity of the antagonists, who had their own vulnerabilities and moments when they’re on Chihiro’s side. This shows how essential teamwork is to Chihiro’s quest to free her family; another message with lasting meaning.


There are so many layers in Spirited Away from surface aesthetics to timeless themes, that it’s no wonder it has been so highly regarded for so long. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think that Spirited Away’s fame will fade anytime soon. I for one will certainly rewatch this in years to come.


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