by Studio Ghibli 

September 2002

Spirited Away

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Although dubbed into English by a talented cast, “Spirited Away” manages to retain a fundamental Japanese flavor which sets it apart from other films, especially Western films which are set in Japan.  One reason for this is the look of the film, both in the characters and in the backgrounds.  Miyazaki’s story is about a young, insecure girl, Chihiro (Daveigh Chase), who is moving to a new home with her parents.  When her father (Michael Chiklis), takes a wrong turn, the family finds itself outside an abandoned ruin and explores.

While “Spirited Away” works very well as a whole, specifics do not work as well, although some of those may be beause they work in a Japanese cultural setting, but not in the Western tradition.  Upon finding the ruins, Chihiro’s parents push into the ruins, curious, but unquestioning.  When their curiosity gets the better of them, Chihiro finds herself on her own and is only saved from panic by her chance meeting with a young boy, Haku (Jason Marsden), who acts as her guide into the strange world of the ruins which are, in actuality, a bathhouse for the spirit world run by Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette).

Perhaps because of the similarity in their ages, Chihiro unquestioningly believes in Haku (or perhaps it is because she has inherited her strange form of curiosity from her parents), despite warnings from others that Haku is not to be trusted.  Little things like that come out throughout the film.  The servant Lin (Susan Egan), initially recoils from Chihiro because the latter is a human, although it is never revealed what Lin is if not human. 

As the film progresses, Chahiro not only comes to rely on herself, but she acquires a sense of duty, although the film labels it more love, which sets her apart from those she meets in the bathhouse of Yubaba.  No matter the job that is foisted off on her, and no matter the distractions which may be more pleasant or alternatives which may be easier, Chahiro focuses on her assigned tasks, whether it is cleaning up a sludge monster or trying to save Haku’s life.  Her sense of duty even gets in the way of things which start out as more important.

Portions of “Spirited Away” almost seem as if they come from a video game in their problem solving complexity.  Near the beginning of the movie, Haku provides Chahiro with details on how to get a job, notable for not accepting a negative response from the spidery Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers).  Other puzzles include how to get from Yubaba’s bathhouse to her sister’s Zeniba’s house (also Suzanne Pleshette) and back.  These puzzles help built and reinforce Chahiro’s confidence in herself.

In design, the images of “Spirited Away” are every bit as complex as those which adorn the latest Pixar film, yet the animation technique is more reminiscent of the style used for “Speed Racer.”  This works to the film’s benefit because rather than watching the animation with a sense of wonder, the viewer is able to focus on the characters and the story, occasionally marveling at the detail of the setting.

While it would be nice if “Spirited Away” had explained some aspects of the plot and specific characters in more detail, in the end, those details are not necessary to the main story, simply adding a sense of depth that Miyazaki knows more about the world Chahiro inhabits than he’s willing to let on.  In fact, one could see the lack of knowledge as an extension of Chahiro’s own stunted sense of curiosity channeled through the film.

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