Moving away can be a tough situation, especially when you’re still a child. Your parents probably have a good reason to relocate… Changes in the economy, lucrative opportunities at work, declining property values and rising crime rates… But how is that supposed to matter to you when you’re being uprooted from your routine, removed from the home you’ve grown attached to, and being forced to say goodbye to your friends? Anybody in that situation would be bummed out, and Chihiro is no exception, sulking in the back of her family car, hugging the one reminder she has of the life she’s leaving behind, a bouquet of flowers. There’s nothing she can do but pout as her family gets closer and closer to their new home, but when her well-meaning father takes a shortcut and winds up getting them lost, that sense of worry and disappointment gives way to something far more ominous.
At the end of a lonely, suspiciously unpaved path, past a wasteland of ancient shrines, Chihiro and her family are stopped in their tracks by an old statue outside of the mouth of a tunnel. Guided through said tunnel by sheer curiosity, Chihiro’s parents wander through it, with their reluctant daughter in tow, and what they find on the other end was more than they could have possibly imagined. Thinking the structures at the other end to be an abandoned theme park, her parents find a booth of fresh food, which they almost immediately begin to chow down on, even as the whole world seems to go to hell around them. As the park’s true inhabitants begin to make their ghostly selves known, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, and the terrified girl suddenly finds herself stranded alone at a bathhouse for wayward spirits, and if this unwitting stowaway wants to have any chance of rescuing her folks and escaping this supernatural spa of spooks and spirits, she’ll have to leave her spoiled, selfish upbringing behind and grow up fast under unforgiving circumstances.
This is only the second Studio Ghibli title that I’ve reviewed(Yes, this is the first one I’m posting… remember, I do things weirdly), and it couldn’t be more different from the first one. To start, this film was actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, and not by the recently departed Isao Takahata, and you can tell the difference from the visuals. It’s worth mentioning that in some of Ghibli’s films, the animation budget is, perhaps, much higher than it needs to be, as there isn’t always much going on in terms of action, and aside from the obligatory flying scenes, some of their work can skew heavily towards realism. In Spirited Away, however, the animation is just as fluid and lavish, but it’s being used for so much more. Studio Ghibli doesn’t really have any bad looking films, with even it’s lesser titles at least being nice to look at, but even among a filmography that’s full of beautiful artwork and vivid animation, Spirited Away still manages to be right up near the top as one of their best looking, if not THE best looking, titles ever released by the prolific studio.
In any Ghibli title, you’re going to be able to expect a very high visual standard, consisting of… At the very least… Fluid animation, graceful character movements, expressive faces, and highly detailed, immersive environments. Spirited Away has all of these, but it also adds so much more that helps it to stand out among it’s peers. The bathhouse, as well as the spirit town surrounding it, is a huge setting with no shortage of different locations to explore, and every single inch of it that we’re allowed to see is rich with detail and personality. The cast of characters, from the main ones all the way down to the hundreds of spirits inhabiting the area, are incredibly diverse, offering enough unique designs to fill out an entire here’s Waldo book, and while a ton of them were obviously pulled from Japanese mythology, they’re still drawn in such a way that the youngest of viewers probably won’t be afraid of them. They also all have their own individual mannerisms and styles of movement that must have taken an unbelievable amount of effort to nail down.
Purely in terms of aesthetic and style, Spirited Away is probably the most visually identifiable title of the Ghibli canon, which is probably why it’s lived on to become the Studio’s flagship title. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly, but once you get past the instantly recognizable creature designs of Haku, Yubaba and the Noface, Chihiro and her parents just have a certain quality that none of Miyazaki’s other human characters have. It’s like a slightly realistic look, not so much as to make them look realistic themselves, but just enough to distinguish them from more traditional-looking anime characters. Look at any other of Hayao Miyazaki’s human characters, and they most likely have the big eyes and simplistic facial structure that Chihiro and her parents were somehow able to avoid. If this was intentional, then it was an especially brilliant move, as it adds another layer of separation between Chihiro and the denizen of Yubaba’s business. I’ve seen this kind of design choice in Takahata’s work, but I can’t think of any other Miyazaki project like it.
Being that this is a Studio Ghibli production, the animation isn’t the only thing you can expect to be top notch. The music, composed by longtime Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is amazing, the kind of whimsical full-orchestra score that you’d expect to see in a Disney or Don Bluth production. If you think I’m pulling that comparison out of my ass, then please, listen to Reprise and try to get through it without thinking of An American Tail, or any heartfelt movie moment when characters are tearfully reunited. Of course, that’s also kind of my only real problem with this soundtrack… As tearfully wonderful as it can be, it also feels a bit generic, like a lot of it’s tracks just sound like they’d be from some other movie. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, and they do their job with the story, it’s just that when all’s said and done, it’s just a little forgettable. Even the ending credits song, Always With Me, which is a charming song with a folksy indies feel to it, was just recycled from a scrapped movie that it was originally written for.
As for the English dub, well, my thoughts there are a bit more complicated, and that’s mostly due to the fact that the sub and dub for this film are radically different creatures. It’s a very Disney-sounding dub, especially when compared to the Disney output of the early 2000’s. The adaptive trade-off can be broadly boiled down to ‘personality vs. subtlety,’ as the new version adds a bit more life to the cast, but also skews the dialogue to be a lot more accessible to the average English speaking child. For most of the cast, the acting in the dub is really good, with a couple of obvious stand-outs being Jason Marsden in the role of Haku, which he knocks out of the park despite sounding nothing like the original(and noticeably female) Japanese seiyuu, and the legendary Suzanne Pleshette playing the dual roles of Zeniba and Yubaba in a performance that’s far superior to the original. Fun fact, this isn’t actually the late Pleshette’s only anime role… She also had a small role in Trigun, believe it or not!
Of course, there are other surprisingly big names in the cast… Michael Chilis and Lauren Holly play Chihiro’s parents(I don’t think their last name is mentioned in the movie, but I’ve found them credited as The Oginos), and I’m guessing they were instructed by the director to make them sound like ignorant yuppies, because that’s kind of how they come across, with a few minor dialogue changes and their over-all delivery. One particularly weird choice was Susan Egan as the character Lin, who sounds uncannily similar to Meg from Hercules… Which makes sense, because she also played that character. I don’t know if that’s just how she naturally talks or what, but it’s still such a strange connection. You look at Lin, you don’t think “Hey, she probably sounds like Megara!” And yet, you’ve got the same voice actress, doing the exact same performance. David Ogden Stiers, a certified Frasier and Disney legend who passed away this year, played the role of multi-armed boiler man Kamaji, and he did a much better job creating a new performance.
And that leaves us with Daveigh Chase, a somewhat forgotten child actor who had this as one of her three defining roles when she was still a child… Chihiro is one of her signature characters, along with Lilo from Lilo and Stitch and the little girl from The Ring, and I’m sad to say, any brilliance she might have shown in those other two roles is lost here. Well, okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. She doesn’t do a terrible job, and I’m willing to give her the benefit on the doubt and chalk her performance up to bad direction, but DAMN is she hard to listen to at times. The original performance by Rumi Hiiragi, who was only slightly older than Daveigh at the time, sounds a bit too old for her role, bringing a deeper register to the character, but she also did a stellar acting job, with emotion and voice control beyond her years. Daveigh’s performance, on the other hand, is mostly full of screaming and lines that sound like they just used the first take each time, but she does sound more believably childlike, but for my money, I’ll take good acting over authenticity any day.
If you’ve only ever owned the original Disney DVD, then you won’t know anything about the adaptive script, which, ho boy, they made a ton of changes when they dubbed this title. I’ll be fair, none of the changes were so bad they had to be removed in later releases, like that disastrous mistake they made at the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but it still comes off a little condescending at times. It’s well intentioned enough, but it goes too far at several points. There were a lot of dialogue changes to put events in a more clear context and add more foreshadowing to the story, but adding pig noises to the scene where the Oginos have just started eating the spirit’s food was a bit ridiculous. There’s more explanation given to certain Japanese ideas, with the ‘break the seal’ bad luck curse scene being a smart and necessary example, but I don’t think kids need to be immediately told that Haku’s a dragon just because we don’t see him transforming before flying off, and the last words added to the ending come bafflingly out of nowhere. Also, it puts a lot more emphasis on a romance between Haku and Chihiro, which kind of misses the point of their relationship. It’s a fine dub, but I prefer the original Japanese.
A few years ago, I was reviewing a series called Petite Princess Yucie, where I pondered the merit of reviewing children’s media. On the one hand, yeah, kids will watch anything, but as adults, is it our job to judge the quality of the media we show them? I had a tentative answer for this question, but I’ve changed my tune a bit recently. As long as it’s subjectively safe, and doesn’t contain any harmful lessons, yeah, kids should be able to watch anything. The Magic Voyage is a piece of shit, but I still liked watching it as a kid, and I’d have bitten you if you tried to stop me. I hate Nightmare Before Christmas, but I’d still rather let a kid watch that then Coco, which advocates how noble a choice it is to give up on your hopes, dreams and personal fulfillment just because your toxic, unsupportive family arbitrarily says so. Yeah, I really hated Coco. But from that perspective, Spirited Away is a fantastic movie to show to children, as it’s full of imaginative visuals, bright colors, and it teaches a lot of important lessons, which I’ll get back to in a minute.
Having said that, even if children’s media is safe for it’s target audience, that doesn’t exempt it from criticism, as adult like to watch that kind of thing too, and I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of kids out there reading reviews. You read reviews to see that reviewer’s opinion, and in my opinion, Spirited Away is not one of Studio Ghibli’s best titles. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means, but in terms of writing, it comes up short in a lot of areas. To start, Spirited Away is severely lacking in characterizations. One of the reasons that I feel the actors for Haku, Zeniba and Yubaba did the best job is because they had the most to work with… Particularly with the old mutant biddies, both of whom sport deliciously fleshed out identities, personalities and an interesting dynamic between each other. The character of No-Face feels confusingly pointless and could have been written out with nothing really being lost(Insert Sin Cara joke here), and while Lin has a more important role in the story, I can’t say I know anything about her by the end.
The same could be said for Chihiro. She does manage to grow and develop through the story, but the change is vague, as she’s basically just tougher and slightly more wise by the ending. Aside from refusing to eat with her parents, it takes her all the way until the third act to start showing agency and making decisions, and none of those decisions are ever more complex than ‘do the right thing.’ She’s a likeable character and you do feel for her, you do want her to strive, survive and succeed, but out of all the things in this movie that might stick with you after seeing it, she’s just not one of them. Some of the dangers she gets into don’t even wind up coming back… She starts to fade away, which gets dealt with and resolved by Haku and never comes up again. She signs away her name, which she remembers again when Haku reminds her, but between those two points, I couldn’t recall her forgetting her name ever being a thing in the story. Like, okay, I guess that’s important, but where was it stated that she forgot her name at all?
Part of this weakness is probably due to Miyazaki’s writing style. I’ve heard several rumors about the conception of this story, like that it was written as a present for Miyazaki’s niece, or that Chihiro was based on someone’s daughter, and while I can’t find source information to prove these rumors, they do explain a lot, like how the story seems to be woven together from a bunch of mismatched morals and fables, and how it teaches a lot of small lessons to the viewer, and why Chihiro is such a lego brick. It feels like a story that somebody wrote so they could hide a bunch of these lessons underneath the story so a young viewer might subliminally pick up on them. As I said before, most of these lessons are good ones, and there’s really nothing wrong with teaching them, but there really doesn’t seem to be any sort of unifying theme between them, making the story feel like more of an anthology held together with a tenuous thread of a story than any sort of grand fable.
Of course, there’s one more problem with that approach, and it’s a much worse one. Out of the lessons that this film tries to teach, you’ve got all of these important gems like ‘don’t be greedy,’ ‘be respectful,’ ‘finish what you start,’ ‘be grateful to those who help you,’ ‘good deeds will come back to you,’ and ‘if you help one person, everyone else will expect it and take advantage of you…’ Okay, I said they were mostly good, give me a break. Anyway, the problem with these lessons is that you never actually get to see anyone learn them. I’m serious. These lessons are taught directly to us, and not to any of the characters. The only lesson Chihiro actually learns is that the working world is hard, but was that ever important? I know the pig scene comes to mind, but Chihiro already knew not to steal food, and her parents had their memories of the event wiped. Most of the lessons are things a character already knows, or something completely inconsequential that only the observer will pick up on, like the lesson revolving around Yubaba and her sheltered baby.
All of this feels indicative of one other major rumor I’ve heard about the film, although this one has a bit more backing… Miyazaki is the kind of story-teller who doesn’t like to put story first. From what I’ve heard, he was still writing this movie while it was being animated and story-boarded, which is a distinct departure from the norm, but I believe it. Out of every movie of his that I’ve seen, the only one I refuse to believe was written this way was Princess Mononoke, which had a superb story. But Spirited Away feels way too underwritten in contrast, and it shows in some very weird ways. I wouldn’t go as far as calling Chihiro a Mary-Sue, but her flaws are way too simple, she never has to struggle in making her decisions, and it feels like she was just created to be a role model. There’s also a ton of small contrivances I can’t get over, like the Boiler man having an extra train ticket, or the river spirit just happening to give her an object that would wind up helping her twice, or Yubaba just happening to have taken an oath to give a job to anyone who asks.
I don’t even feel like Haku’s relation to Chihiro, which I won’t spoil as it’s supposed to be this huge revelation, really mattered in the end. It’s foreshadowed in some strangely disconnected ways, with a brief line from Haku early on being the only really connection it gets to the story, and it just kind of winds up feeling random. But hey, if you look at it as a story of a girl trying to survive in a perilous situation where both her and her parents’ lives are on the line, it’s still a fine movie. The pacing is great, the story never drags or gets boring, and the larger writing issues can be ignored by anyone who just wants to sit back, enjoy the visuals, and root for Chihiro as she struggles against all odds to save the day and get back to normal society. Also, I like how there’s no clear villain, and there’s actual nuance to the conflict. As I said before, it’s not a bad movie, in fact it’s more than competent enough to be worth your time, but I don’t think it deserves to be held up among the greats… Not among the anime film medium at large, or even among it’s Studio Ghibli peers. Could be worse, though… It could be Earthsea.
Spirited Away is available from Gkids, on both DVD and bluray formats. The original Disney DVDs are out of print, but it’s still fairly easy to find. A manga adaptation that’s mostly just a compilation of still from the movie is available from Viz Media.
If I’m being brutally honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Studio Ghibli. It’s not that I hate them or anything, and it’s not like I have any specific issue with them, it’s just that it really doesn’t appeal to me personally. I’m not really into Miyazaki’s approach to story-telling, and while I strongly prefer Takahata’s approach, it also doesn’t always work. There are only about three or four titles of theirs that I’ve come to love, two of which I’ll be reviewing this month, but as for the rest, I’m just ambivalent to them. Unfortunately, Spirited Away falls into the latter category. I respect it as a children’s movie, but I don’t really understand what people get out of it when watching it as adults. Sure, there are movies in the Ghibli canon that have a lot less plot than this one, are plotless, but they use this shortcoming to their advantage, whereas Spirited Away is all plot with little sense of character or cohesion, and that’s worse in a lot of ways. I don’t regret seeing it, I’d be happy to watch it again, but I still expected more from it. I give Spirited Away a 7/10.