Spirited Away was my first exploration into the world of Hayao Miyazaki, and it was also the first time I was able to fully appreciate an anime feature. Before then, I had always been kind of hesitant when it came to the genre, since my first exposure was to shows such as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon, none of which captured my interest. It wasn’t until watching Spirited Away in a film class that I saw how anime can be as captivating as many of the great American animated features, and, in some cases, have more depth to them.
Throughout the year, Fathom Events and GKids have brought several of Miyazaki’s great films to the big screen as part of Studio Ghibli Fest 2017. Spirited Away, which also played in theaters last year for its 15th anniversary, is the second to last of this year’s lineup. Howl’s Moving Castle, showing in November, is the final entry of the festival. If you didn’t get a chance to see Spirited Away on the big screen, that’s OK. It will show again on October 30 in subtitled format and on November 1 in English dubbed format in select theaters nationwide. Be sure to check the Fathom Events website for a complete listing.
Having not seen Spirited Away in more than a decade, I was wondering if I would appreciate the film more or just as much as when I had first watched it. It turns out that I actually found myself loving it more with every passing minute. Miyazaki’s film is rich in scenery and thematic elements that make it stand the test of time exceptionally well.
A young girl named Chihiro is relocating to the suburbs with her family, much to her dismay, when a wrong turn leads them to an area with which they aren’t too familiar. They come across a theme park that appears abandoned, yet it has fresh food. The parents decide to indulge, promising to pay for it all later. Chihiro wanders off, meeting a boy named Haku who warns her that she and her family are in danger. When she returns to her parents, she sees that they have literally become pigs. And the theme park isn’t as abandoned as it initially appeared. It turns out it is a town occupied by strange demons and spirits, all of whom spend a lot of time at a bathhouse run by a witch named Yubaba. Recruited to maintain the bathhouse, Chihiro must find a way to escape and return to her world.
What surprised me with this most recent viewing of Spirited Away was how it incorporated the seven deadly sins into its storytelling and didn’t beat the viewer over the head with its message or symbolism. Obviously, the parents symbolize gluttony, and there are several scenes in the bathhouse that illustrate greed and the other sins. It’s something that didn’t register with me the first time around, and having now noticed it, I was surprised with how subtle Miyazaki approaches the concept.
In fact, the whole movie comes across as subtle in its symbolism and animation. Miyazaki makes it so the viewer isn’t bombarded with too much color that we are able to appreciate the finely tuned animation and the attention to detail given to each character. The messages about society’s treatment of things such as trashing mother nature and how people can easily fall prey to someone who throws gold their way are effective without being too heavy-handed.
I think what Spirited Away does best is showcasing Chihiro’s uncertainty in this new world, and how it coincides with her uncertainty and fear about moving to a new location with her family. She’s about to experience something scary and unknown, and it’s something with which she’s not prepared. Entering this unknown world before experiencing what the real world has in store for her serves as a more extreme form of preparation, but it’s also a way to tell kids to overcome their fears and brave new adventures.
As a partnership with Fathom Events, I was kind of expecting some cool features preceding the movie, as the company has done with its TCM Series and other presentations. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that audiences were only given a few trivia questions prior to the showing. There is an animated short that plays before the movie begins, too, but I guess I went in expecting to see more like a behind-the-scenes feature or maybe an interview with someone involved with the feature. That didn’t happen, but it also didn’t ruin the experience as a whole for me.
Spirited Away is the only Miyazaki film to win an Oscar for best animated feature, and it rightfully deserves the award. There is so much for viewers young and old to take in and enjoy about this movie. It’s absolutely worthy of a big screen viewing.