By this point, sixteen years after its original release, there is no denying that Spirited Away is a classic. It is so good that I implore you that if you have not seen it yet, stop reading now and find a way to watch. I don’t want this to ruin anyone experiencing this world for the first time. We good then? Great. So please indulge me while I gush over one of the seminal pieces of animation of the 21st century.
One of the main reasons Spirited Away sticks with me is that it is still essentially peerless. There is more imagination, more whimsy, in this one film than there has been in most of the major animated features released since. It screams of an earlier time in animation, where ideas were experimented with and nothing was held back. And the world building is top notch. Does it matter at all to the story that the soot sprites eat little candy looking stars? Not in the least. But it adds another layer to the world that invests the viewer just a little bit more. Disney and Dreamworks could still learn a thing or two from this.
The comparisons to Alice in Wonderland are apt, a young girl sucked into a fantasy world who must learn to adapt to survive and eventually escape. On the surface, it is a classic coming of age story. But dig down a bit deeper, and there is so much more to it, which is why it it holds up as well as it does.
One of these elements that I really appreciate is the blurring of the idea of good and evil. Most stories have a clear cut idea of who is virtuous and who is not, with the story revolving around stopping the antagonist from doing whatever evil thing they are attempting to do. There are no real “bad guys” in Spirited Away. The one we would expect to be the main antagonist, the bathhouse owning Yubaba, isn’t truly pure evil. Sure, she puts Sen to work and is blinded by greed, but is she an actual villain? More of just an asshole boss who we are glad to be rid of and hope to never come across again. And what of No Face? While it does end up swallowing more than one resident of the bathhouse, it does so out of rejection (after all, it really just wanted a friend), and is the prime example in the film of a character whose evil actions come from a very personal space. By painting the characters as complex beings instead of the black and white good or evil, Spirited Away’s wonderous world feels much more relatable.
Spirited Away is very much the story of Sen’s journey of self discovery in learning how to deal with the complexities of the creatures in her new reality. We witness her grow from whiny child to a frightened girl who relies on the help of others, and finally into one who takes her own initiative and solves not only her problems, but those of the beings around her. The girl who outwits Yubaba is a long ways off from the one that struggle getting bath tokens from the porter. It’s a simple theme, one that is used in many tales, but that’s why it stands the test of time. It provides a very relatable tale that the viewer can take with them into real life, and in this case, while vividly capturing the imagination.
The other prominent theme on display here is the corrupting nature of greed and what happens when capitalism is left unchecked. Partly in response to Miyazaki’s view of Japan’s consumer centric society (Chichiro’s parents turn into literal “capitalist pigs”), it is a cautionary tale as to what happens to people when greed consumes them. It corrupts the previously gentle No Face and everyone around him. Yubaba lets all sorts of creatures in her establishment as long as they are paying. Spirited Away tries to teach a lesson that is more relevant now than it ever was. Hell, it even takes a few stabs at the impact over-capitalism has on the environment in Haku’s storyline, though environmentalism is played up much more in some of Miyazaki’s other works.
I could go on forever about all the little details and world building that make this such a magical piece of animation. The soot sprites, the eclectic cast of characters at the bathhouse, the feel of the abandoned amusement park at night. This is truly Miyazaki at the top of his craft. Spirited Away is a man given full creative license and running wild, and the result is nothing short of breathtaking.