Chihiro is a young girl who is moving with her family to a new home, which she dislikes because she has to leave all her old friends behind and make new ones. Before her family can get to their new home, her father took the wrong turn and end up being blocked by a strange statue and a long tunnel. They all decide to explore, despite Chihiro’s doubts, and find what they think is an abandoned theme park. Went Chihiro later explores on her own, she later finds that this isn’t at all a normal abandoned theme park, but a Land of Spirits. As the day turns to night, spirits start appearing and her parents turn into pigs. To avoid any more danger, a new friend of hers named Haku leads her the way to work in the main attraction of the town, the Bath House, ran by an evil witch called Yubaba, who makes spirits and people slaves forever by taking their name. Chihiro now needs to use all her strength and skills to free herself from Yubaba, save her parents and leave this strange world behind.
In 1998, Studio Ghibli had hit a really hard curve, as long time art director and long time friend of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Yoshifumi Kondo, died of an aneurysm at the age of 47, with the most likely cause was exhaustion from excess work. In the same year, Hayao Miyazaki said in an interview that because of his age and the amount of work he did from Princess Mononoke, he stated that Mononoke “will be the last (feature-length) film that I make in this way”, since he checked every key frame of animation, and redrew them himself. Many people thought he was going to retire completely, and he even built up a new studio, formally leaving Studio Ghibli. Fortunately in the end he moved back to Studio Ghibli, willing to help with productions for writing and producing.
The inspiration for the film came from meeting a group of long time friends on a regular summer vacation at a log cabin, where he wanted to make a film about a 10 year old girl that other girls could look up to. After three project proposals, the film was finally in production in 2000. A lot of scenes were hand drawn, but digitally coloured and processed, and to keep with the deadlines, Studio Ghibli doubled their staff, and were successfully able to release the film on time on July 27th 2001.
The animation is overall very good; a large portion of it is very smooth and realistic, and the very small 3D effects blend very well with the 2D effects. There is a lot of action that still keeps the flow and detail of the more calm scenes, so you can tell how much effort was put into this production.
The art style is more natural, even when a lot of the film takes place in spiritual settings. The design of the backgrounds and environments are possibly the best since Pom Poko.
The music is brilliantly composed but not memorable, I do give credit to Joe Hisaishi for the amount of effort he put into the orchestra scores, since they definitely add atmosphere and tension to some of the early scenes, and the traditional Japanese style pieces really work well with the spirits. My only problem is with the music that plays in the credits and the main theme song of the film, it definitely fits the overall theme of the film lyrics wise and it’s possibly the most memorable track in the film, but its style is a large contrast to Joe Hisaishi’s work.
The voice acting in both Japanese and English are very good, but I’m not entirely sure which one is better overall. On one hand, I find Daveigh Chase does a better job at portraying Chihiro than Rumi Hiiragi, performance wise, and both versions have a decent cast. On the other hand, Yubaba’s portrayal in the English version done by Suzanne Pleshette is slightly weaker when compared to Mari Natsuki, and for some reason Disney thought that more people needed to talk or have extra lines, and while it does at a little bit more atmosphere to the idea of a populated bathhouse but it sounds strange that all the spirits speak English in thick accents and was it really necessary? I guess if you prefer watching animes in Japanese, then you are better off watching it in Japanese, but in the end you’ll get the same exact experience if you watch it with English, minus the subtitles and with a little extra dialogue.
Like many people, this was the film that got me into Studio Ghibli and anime films in general, and the main reason if for the story. It is very well done, and the main character Chihiro is very likable and recognisable, and how she progresses from nervous to strong and confident really makes people want to encourage her to go on with her adventure. Other protagonists such as Haku, Yubaba’s henchman who knows Chihiro from sometime in the past, Lin, one of the bathtub cleaners who helps Chihiro with her time and Kamaji, a spiderlike wizard who works in the boiler room are all very well written and likable too. Even the villains are really well presented, there’s even a side-antagonist only known as a “No-Face” whose presence always gives a bizarre yet exciting impression whenever it appears…up until the end when it goes fat and greedy and ends up becoming just bizarre.
From beginning to end this film is wonderful in one way or another, and to me, this film never gets old. It is easy to see why this is Hayao Miyazaki’s best work and one of the best anime films in history, so if you haven’t seen it then you must have been living under a rock for way too long.
Spirited Away is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. A film comic adaptation is available from Viz Communications, but unless you like screenshots from the film arranged like a manga, it is a waste of money. A novel called Spirited Away (The Mysterious Town Behind The Fog) written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, which Miyazaki used as an influence early on in the film’s development, was translated into Italian but is officially unavailable in English.