Why ‘Spirited Away’ Is the Best Animated Film of All Time

On the 19th anniversary of Miyazaki’s cult animation, a look back on its huge global significance.

There’s a quote on Tumblr somewhere that says “Disney movies touch the heart, but Studio Ghibli films touch the soul.” As sentimental as that is, it’s also astute. It’s surely part of the reason that anime fans across the world will testify that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the best animation film of all time. On the 19th anniversary of its release in Japan, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi—_translated as “Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away”—remains untouched by rivals for its blend of the spiritual, the realistic, the fantastic, and the human. For balancing all of those realms, Miyazaki was the master, and since his retirement, we’ll continue to look on _Spirited Away as the film that was the masterpiece of his life.

At its most basic, the film follows a little girl, Chihiro, on a journey to free her parents. She has to navigate the spirit world she gets trapped in by working in a bathhouse run by an overlord called Yu-baaba. Miyazaki said he’d decided to make it based on the ten-year-old daughter of friend, associate producer Seiji Okuda, who came to stay with him every summer. With this in mind, he made the movie for ten-year-old girls. This is exactly why it resonates so well with people of all ages and why Chihiro feels so real. How often can you say a film has been made for young girls, rather than money or mainstream audiences?

Many male critics described Chihiro as a “sullen” and “spoiled” girl, and continue to describe her as such. This is hardly a fair criticism, nor is it an accurate one. When we meet Chihiro, she’s being driven away from her home and everything she knows to live in a new town. All she has to remember her friends is a bouquet. “The only time I got a bouquet and it’s a goodbye present. How depressing,” she says, only to be reminded by her mom that her dad bought her one for her birthday. She shrugs this off, understandably. Few ten-year-olds would behave so well given the upheaval. When the family exit the car, entranced by the lead up to the abandoned theme park that will soon trap them, Chihiro is “whiny” because her intuition is correct. She follows behind her parents, worried by the little shines and the appearance of the food with no vendor, warning that they shouldn’t be there. These critics will see that she spends the remainder of the film laboring not only for their ignorance but also the fact that they ignore the voice of a young girl.

What sets her story apart is that Chihiro isn’t forced to triumph over great evil and turn from a “sullen” creature to a good girl. Far better than that, it’s a film about honest development. Miyazaki shows her slowly forcing herself to adapt to her environment and be open to the tasks ahead, quietly tackling them as best she can. She has trouble walking down the steps to the boiler man, Kamaji, but eventually manages to make it down. Kamaji keeps ignoring her, but she knows she must get a job at the bathhouse to survive in this new spirit world, so doesn’t stop until he helps her. Her careful thinking and determination quickly reward her when she realizes a stinky spirit was actually a polluted river spirit who needed to be freed from all the junk surrounding it. The fact the film was made without a script only adds to this natural evolution of Chihiro. “I don’t have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film,” Miyazaki once told Midnight Eye. “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself, and I have no choice but to follow.” The entire team must instead live the character’s reality step by step, and you can feel this intuition.

Caught in the flow of narrative are some of the most beautiful stills in modern cinema, let alone animation. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film, each frame is made with an overwhelming amount of “generosity and love.” Dozens of different creatures are made for each moment, every last detail penned by hand in the corners or background, where anyone else would make shortcuts. Importantly, we have time to breathe and live in Miyazaki’s world. He said that these scenes where nothing really happens are called “ma,” or “emptiness.” “The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over,” he said. “They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time, doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions—that you never let go of those.” Interestingly, it’s the “ma” moments that have become iconic as the film has aged—Chihiro standing on the balcony outside the bedroom looking out to sea, lost; Chihiro and her friends, No-Face, Boh, and the Yu-Bird sat looking lost on a train.

This beauty is universal, but of course there’s subtlety that’s lost in translation. Plenty of Japanese speakers have pointed out the visual clues in the film that non-Japanese speakers wouldn’t know. When approaching the doomed theme park market in the opening, in one frame, we see the Kanji character, 狗 for dog, but this could suggest the homophone kuniku, which literally means “bitter meat,” meaning something that requires personal sacrifice. Another character here for “bone” seems to hint toward an idiomatic phrase hone-nashi meaning to lack in moral backbone. When the father marches greedily through an arch, a Japanese viewer would note that some of the characters on it are back to front, supporting the unease Chihiro is also feeling. Some viewers have highlighted the repetition of the characters yu and me in the film since yume means “dream” in Japanese.

Names themselves are important as a signifier of identity throughout. Chihiro’s name literally means “a thousand” and “asking questions” or “searching/seeking.” When Yu-baaba takes a character from Chihiro’s name to cruelly rename her and sign the contract handing the girl over to her, Chihiro’s new name, Sen, just means “a thousand.” She’s stripped of that meaning; she’s herself, but there’s a part of her that’s missing. The other characters’ names also have literal connotations. Boh means “little boy” or “son,” Kamaji means “old boiler man,” Yu-baaba means “bathhouse,” “old woman,” or “witch,” and Zeniiba means “money witch.”

As with any film that has quickly reached a cult status, you can fall down a hole of Spirited Away theories. One suggests that the whole thing is an allegory for child prostitution, with the bathhouse taking on more sinister undertones. Miyazaki did once say that Japanese society has become like the sex industry. Another reading is that the spirit world represents old Japan, one that is struggling alongside new Japan, the “real” world of Chihiro and her family. In this case, the moral of the story is that, like Chihiro, Japan should learn that both past and present worlds can exist alongside each other but must adapt and change. Some look to the opposing forces of gross capitalism and spirituality shown in the film. Chihiro is moving towns because her dad has a new job. When they approach the theme park, her dad comments that they were going to put a river there but didn’t—they built a failed money-making venture instead. The other day someone tweeted asking Studio Ghibli what the relevance was of Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs. They replied that the transformation is reflective of how people turned into pigs during Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, which was followed by a 1991 crash, and once someone becomes a pig, he or she will gradually have the “body and soul of a pig,” which “doesn’t just apply to the fantasy world.”

What anyone of any age can take away from Spirited Away is the importance of balance. There’s no evil character, despite poor motives. Everyone has a good side or the potential for good—even Yu-baaba, as seen in her twin sister. The mud monster isn’t actually terrible but underneath it all is a kama no kami, a “god of the river.” The opposite of balance is excess, and as seen in the parents gorging themselves until they become pigs or the greed and wealth displayed in the bath house, nothing positive can come of it.

This delivery of sensitive spiritual and emotional messages made Spirited Away the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It won awards across the world, including an Academy Award, an event that Miyazaki politely declined to attend because he was against American involvement in the war in Iraq. Significantly, it was with this film that he introduced hundreds of thousands to the films of Studio Ghibli, who might not have discovered the animation house otherwise. It’s a rare film that young fans will keep with them and show to their children and grandchildren. Ultimately, Spirited Away showed how breathtaking, heartfelt, and serious animation can be; its lessons ones that Pixar, Disney, and other mainstream animators have still failed to genuinely realize 19 years later.

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