I was sorry not to have caught Spirited Away when it was in theaters, but it was a distant regret, I see now, one that never really bothered me because I had no idea what I had missed. This tremendously original and beautiful film is supernaturally awe-inspiring on a small screen — I can’t even begin to imagine how seeing it on a big screen would have blown my mind.
As soft and strange as a dream, Spirited Away is like all the wonderful children’s books that fired my imagination as a kid, before my head got saturated by fantasy clichés and almost anything could surprise and delight and startle me. There’s barely a moment here that is predictable or conventional, and yet there’s a kind of coziness to anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, too — the simple and buoyantly lovely animation is like one of those children’s books come to life. For a tale from a culture that could not be more exotic to me, Spirited Away has a comfortable familiarity to it among all its strangeness, like a story I just barely remember from childhood.
Young Chihiro (the voice, in the English-language version, of Daveigh Chase: The Ring, Lilo & Stitch), separated from her parents after they inadvertently crossed over into a spirit realm, evokes both Dorothy and Alice in her steely determination to reunite with them, full of the wisdom and strength of a willful child. Caught up in the workings of a bathhouse for the spirits, Chihiro has no choice but to take a job there while she figures out how to rescue Mom and Dad from a terrible fate. Her journey through new friendships and self-discovery is both whimsical and profound, simple enough for a small child to grasp and intellectually penetrating enough to enchant the most cynical grownup, with no icky sentimentalism to drag it down.
The bathhouse is a place of peculiar wonders — trolls and talking frogs, bad witches and shape-shifting dragons and river spirits — many of them steeped in a mythology that transcends culture, which is partly why they feel like mysteries we’ve lived with all our lives. Other aspects are uniquely Japanese: placid ghosts, the ancient rituals of the bathhouse itself. A gang of disembodied heads is astonishing at first, bouncing around with a disquietingly jellyish blobbing noise, and then they become more unsettling each time they appear. The giant baby, on the other hand, is so bizarre that he’s more amusing than anything else… until repeat viewings make him alternately sad or scary. Spirited Away is a film that rewards a devoted viewer by eliciting new emotions each time it’s watched merely by being so disconcertingly odd that it keeps you forever off-balance.
And then that feeling that you’re dangling from some precipice in your mind is offset by much that is unexpectedly serene in the film’s imagery — a slender ladder running up the blank side of the bathhouse; train tracks under a shallow sea; undulating grassland populated by mysterious statues; steam rising from rusting pipes — imagery that inspired in me a kind of calm rush like the computer game Myst did. Myst and its sequel, Riven, sucked you into their tranquility and dared you to take the time not only to explore their worlds but to appreciate their beauty, and did so with a cohesiveness that hinted at the larger worlds beyond. Spirited Away, too, teases with the lushness of its world, full of barely glimpsed locales that suggest other unexplored and densely detailed realms just offscreen.
This is a movie you fall into and never want to leave. It’s almost like a nightmare that’s not at all frightening but instead marvelous in its alienness.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2001