The people at Fathom Events are the ones that bring me out to Rifftrax events a few times a year. They’re also responsible for bringing some of my most favorite classic films back to theaters like Rear Window, From Here To Eternity, Jaws, and Animal House. The most recent release brings back a more recent film from the brilliant talent, Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away. I have been a huge fan of this film since its release and ones like these are perfect because few people saw it in theaters when it was released. This has been the highest-grossing film in Japan for a long time and has a pretty great reputation among anime fans in the United States. I haven’t watched it since 2005 and I was curious to see how it plays now.
The first thing that strikes me in this world of Disney Princesses and Pixar anthropomorphic characters and talking animals is that our lead character, Chihiro, is the most real ten-year-old that has graced the screen in decades. I am struck by the initial shots of her in the back seat of her parent’s car. She’s safe in a way that only a ten-year-old can feel in the backseat of their parent’s car. She’s laying across the seat and holding onto flowers she got from a boy as they were moving away. The journey is taking place without her noticing – a perfect symbol for childhood. Her sadness but respect for her parents in the first few minutes set the tone for the rest of the film and beautifully introduce us to everything we need to know about Chihiro.
I noticed the little pauses in the film. It’s revealing that they stick out. Modern American animation feels the need to fill all 120 minutes with action or music or comedy. Spirited Away isn’t a typical action film or traditional comedy. But it does have lots of plot development and action. Then there are these little moments like Chihiro stepping outside in the dawn as the sun rises over the ocean. There are clouds and isolated rainstorms in the distance and the sound almost disappears. The movie just breathes in these moments. As a viewer, these moments let the mind settle and the heartbeat slow. Films don’t understand the value in these moments. Not to raise our stress levels like quiet moments in a horror film but the safety of just being able to listen to the waves and watch the rain in the distance. It’s those little touches that Miyazaki understands more than any other director.
The reason to see this in theaters is just for the sheer depth of the animation. A majority of the film takes place in a magical bathhouse. Having seen the movie numerous times, I was able to look at the corners of the screen. The beauty of the details are amazing. Most hand-drawn animation would concentrate on the action and gloss over the backgrounds. This film doesn’t leave a detail to chance. There are tons of background characters that are fully realized. The bathhouse has the feel of something you just can’t always accomplish – it feels like it has history. The story didn’t need the bathhouse to feel so real but it is enriched for the attention to detail.
I love the Kamaji character. The old boiler character is a little bit of an archetype. He’s the ornery old man who is won over by the young girl in Chihiro / Sen. Then you start to see this other side to him. He covers her with the blanket while she sleeps and his heart grows like a Grinch. Then giving her the train tickets hint at a youth of lost loves. The way he’s drawn, so animal-like initially, makes him feel untouchable. The beauty is how his humanity is revealed scene by scene.
Watching it now, it would be easy to write the film off as an atmospheric poem of a film. It has the feel of an alternative take on Alice In Wonderland. But the unique telling of the loss of identity felt by young children of that age sets this movie apart from others. Chihiro loses her parents and her identity / name along the way. She works hard and does the right thing for even the ugliest (and smelliest) of our society. She falls in love and sacrifices to try to save him. Her good deeds lead her back to her parents. Like a modern-day Dorothy, she realizes there is beauty in her life. It’s a magical journey and worth taking on the big screen again.