Hayao Miyazaki is known throughout the world for his breathtaking animation, especially in a CGI world, Miyazaki’s more traditional drawings can feel like a breath of fresh air for adults watching it with children. For children, it may remind me them of older Disney movies or introduce them to an entirely new format.
Spirited Away is perhaps the most well-known of his movies in America, aided by winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. The movie is rated PG, and though it has great appeal for adults, it is intended for children. Miyazaki’s skill in animation is undeniable. The colors are bright and engaging, his landscapes feel as real as a picture. His world building is undeniable also.
Chihiro, a sullen ten-year-old, and her parents wander into what appears to be an abandoned theme park on their way to their new home. But it actually turns out to be a resting place for spirits. As the sun sets, the spirits arrive in all their various forms. There are large spirits, tiny spirits, frog spirits, radish spirits, and every kind of odd shape spirit you can imagine.
It is not only that Chihiro is stuck in the spirit world, but that her parents have turned into pigs. You read that right. Her parents begin eating at the abandoned park, devouring the food like they haven’t eaten in years. During this early scene, I remember thinking, “Man, they’re eating just like pigs.” Then, they turned into actual pigs.
The immediate comparison is to Alice in Wonderland and that is apt comparison. Chihiro doesn’t fall down a rabbit hole, but she certainly does enter a different world with different roles, unreal people and places, and food that alters appearance and perception. She eats something Haku (a boy at the bath house) gives her, and she’s able to cross the bridge safely. Later, Haku gives her more food that increases her strength and improves her mood.
Over ruling the bathhouse, and most of the spirit world, is Yubaba, an old woman with a huge head. Like, literally, her head is completely out of proportion with her body. Yubaba can also turn into birds, but keeps her human head. Joined by Yubaba is her giant baby (seriously, GIANT) that she keeps locked in a room. And the baby can talk.
There are too many other characters to mention by name, but know that the movie is far from simple. There is depth, metaphors, symbols, motifs, and commentary of everything from poverty, economics, greed, trust, family, and heroism to fear, trusting yourself, and trusting others. To touch on each of those topics would require a separate blog post for each one.
The film could be used in a variety of ways. For children interested in different types of animation, this film is a gem. It provides a great contrast to CGI and computer animated films like Toy Story and Frozen. It can also serve as an introduction to Japanese culture and history. The comment is made by Chihiro’s parents that so many amusement parks popped up all over the country but closed after the economy went south. There are also statues and shrines for the deceased, common in Japanese culture, which could open dialogue and research about Japanese customs and beliefs concerning the dead.
The only weakness in the film is that it may be disturbing to some viewers. If a kid is freaked out by Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, this may not be the film for them. However, for fans of those films, Spirited Away is sure to delight.
Spirited Away. By Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, & Susan Egan. Studio Ghibli, 2001. DVD.
Oscar for Best Animated Feature, 2003
Saturn Award for Best Animated Film, 2003
Silver Scream Award, 2003
Annie Awards, 2003:
Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Theatrical Feature
Outstanding Directing in an Animated Feature Production, Hayao Miyazaki
Outstanding Music in an Animated Feature Production, Joe Hisaishi
Outstanding Writing in an Animated Feature Production, Hayao Miyazaki
Awards of the Japanese Academy, 2002:
Best Song, Youmi Kimura
Golden Berlin Bear, 2002
Blue Ribbon Award for Best Film, 2002
Boston Society of Film Critics Award, Critics Choice Award for Best Animated Feature, 2002
And many, many others…. If I list them all this post will be go on forever
Alice in Wonderland
The Wizard of Oz
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Howl’s Moving Castle
My Neighbor Totoro