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Isadore Hart

Released in 2001, Spirited Away, is one of the best movies I have ever watched; every frame is packed with so much love and fine detail, the story is wonderfully told through a comprehensive and complex world, and this brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki is filled to the brim with creatures from folklore.


The story of Spirited Away is fairly simple yet effortlessly woven. Chihiro Ogino, a ten-year-old girl, is transported to the mythical world of the Kami (spirits) whilst moving to her new house with her parents. Upon arriving in this world, her parents - mistaking the place as an old, abandoned theme park - are promptly turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba after unknowingly eating the spirits’ food. In order to rescue her parents from being eaten, and to free her family from the spirit world, Chihiro must take up a job in Yubaba’s bathhouse. However, this simple plot has its share of twists and turns along the way.

The first thing that you realise when watching the film is the incredible animation. Everything, from the movement of clothing to the grand, beautiful bathhouse, was painstakingly hand-drawn by the amazing animators at Studio Ghibli. Be it the tightly packed town, the imposing architecture, or the wide and empty countryside, the animation makes the world of Spirited Away feel alive. It is no surprise that Spirited Away won an Oscar for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ in 2003, becoming the first non-American film to do so. The film was, and remains, at the pinnacle of animation. It nails the simple things, like the wind rustling through the grass or the subtle movements of clothing, as well as the more complex wide shots. When Chihiro first stumbles upon the Bathhouse, it is composed of so many moving parts it’s hard for the eye to keep track. Some scenes have managed to cement their iconography in history, such as the scene of Chihiro and the No-Face waiting for the train to whisk them away from the town. The animation can also be dark and gritty, and I even felt decisively creeped out at points; for example, the scene in which Chihiro is introduced to Yubaba has a surprisingly unnerving tone. Whether it was the myriad of doors, the fearsome reputation that proceeds Yubaba, or the disembodied heads that act as pets and guards of hers - the scene diverges from the typically upbeat nature of the movie. The oddness of the movie and high detail of the animation can combine to create some darker scenes and therein lies the beauty of Spirited Away. This is a movie that can enthral you with artistic scenery and communicate a powerful message of love for one’s family, yet it can turn on a dime and completely shift away from the established tone.

The individual character designs take inspiration from figures in Japanese folklore, Kami, as well as foreign folk characters. Yubaba, for example, takes inspiration from the Slavic folk tale of Baba-Yaga - the witch who rides in a cauldron and pushes herself along with a broom. Similarities between Baba-Yaga and Yubaba don’t stop at cosmetics: the characters themselves share a large number of traits, be that from the obvious cruelty and affinity with money, to the hankering for human meat. They also possess specific penchant for abducting and eating children, just as Yubaba abducts a young Chihiro and initially threatens to eat her. However, Yubaba also has a level of complexity that a folk legend like Baba-Yaga doesn’t have. She’s a maternal character, driven to protect her colossal baby, and one also finds throughout the film that she isn’t as evil as one may initially think. This pattern of reinterpreting and reinvigorating from folklore ubiquitous throughout the movie: from the wonderfully dressed “Kasuga Sama” based on the Zoumen mask wearing Bugaku dancers, to the various spirits like the River Spirit who we see in the middle of the movie. Hayao Miyazaki creates a plethora of weird and wonderful new characters by utilising something well known, at least to the Japanese public, and adding his own imaginative twist and his zest of life persists and invigorates the film.

The music, composed by Joe Hisaishi, compliments the movie masterfully, and helps construct the vivid world of Spirited Away. Vast, epic scores such as ‘The Dragon Boy’ build tension and magnitude at vital points in the plot, whilst ‘The Empty Restaurant’ slowly creates a feeling of unease and awe as the viewer explores the ‘abandoned theme park’, where we accompany Chihiro as we gradually unravel that this place may hold a darker secret. ‘Night-time Coming’ crescendos the arrival of the Kami into their realm as night falls. Hectic and fast, filled with strings and trumpets, the score immerses us into the boots of a terrified Chihiro, in a foreign and disturbing world. ‘One Summer Day’ is the most recognisable score in Spirited Away, and as the opening score, it is arguably the most important for setting the tone. It does so perfectly, with the light piano notes softly opening the movie and preparing the viewer for the experience. Even smaller, less important songs - like ‘Sootballs’ - seem to encapsulate the mood as it dances about mischievously just like the sootballs themselves.  Joe Hisaishi’s work on Spirited Away is awe-inspiring and essential to the creation of the beautiful world that the movie takes place in.

A scene that personally resonates with me is located right at the beginning of the movie, when the family pass through the temple and enters the world which Spirited Away is set in. It perfectly juxtaposes the opening scene of the movie where we experienced the hectic car journey to the forest shrine. Sandwiched between the opening scene and the realisation of the darkness behind the ‘abandoned amusement park’, the scene is a breath of fresh air, it’s a moment to collect our thoughts before the true plot gets under way. The walk through the meadow and up the ramshackle steps, past the shrines and towards the small cluster of buildings, is probably the most beautiful set of shots ever animated. The landscape appears to be alive, with the gentle rushing wind pushing through the grass, all set to the magnificent score by Joe Hisaishi. Yet, behind this façade, there is a deep feeling of unease that slowly nags away at the viewer as well as Chihiro. The large, abandoned temple behind them seems to force the family through the environment, and the apparent abandonment of the town is eerie to say the least. The grotesque way that Chihiro’s family tucks into the food lain out in front of them, as if already pigs, is highly disturbing yet intriguing as the tension escalates. The scene draws the viewer in with beautiful animation as the quiet mystery unravels in the background, peaking the viewers interest.

All in all, Spirited Away is a masterpiece that everyone needs to watch. The beautiful and heart-warming plot all set to wonderfully grandiose music creates the perfect viewing experience for any person of any age.

Spirited Away – An Animated Masterpiece: News
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