The highest-grossing film in Japanese history, Spirited Away raises the bar for animated fantasy tales. As in his kid-friendly My Neighbor Totoro and the more grown-up Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away shows Miyazaki's genius for both subtle and spectacular animated action, for crafting strong, distinct characters and giving them sharp conflicts without resorting to violence. His films aren't just about magic -- they are magic.
The U.S. release of Spirited Away is dubbed by American actors, with Lilo & Stitch's Daveigh Chase providing the voice of 10-year-old Chihiro. Sulking in the backseat while her parents drive to their new town, Chihiro seems a completely unlikely heroine. The family takes a series of wrong turns and impulsive detours until they wander, on foot, into a valley full of ornate but deserted buildings. The father suggests it's a bankrupt amusement park, but that doesn't stop Mom and Dad from eating dishes they find in an abandoned restaurant. Chihiro begs them to stop eating and leave, and is especially horrified when her parents turn into pigs.
As the sun sets, the place becomes crowded with translucent ghosts and half-human creatures, and a stalwart young man called Haku tells Chihiro how to avoid her parents' fate. We discover that the magic realm has a prosaic purpose -- it's a palatial Japanese bathhouse, a spa where gods and spirits can take it easy and replenish themselves. To protect herself and buy time to rescue her porky parents, Chihiro takes a lowly job there.
Japanese folklore inspired Miyazaki's screenplay, although Western audiences are more likely to notice the parallels to Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz, parts of The Odyssey and primarily Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, Chihiro must make her way through an upside-down world populated by strange beings, like Kamajii, the brusque, many-armed fellow in charge of the steam room. Spirited Away's Queen of Hearts is Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a powerful, greedy sorceress who takes possession of Chihiro's very name as a condition of employ.
We find ourselves in a similar predicament as Chihiro's, making our way through an alien setting with bizarre rules. But Spirited Away makes that uncertainty into a virtue, offering an archetypal story that's never predictable and instills a sense of mystery and wonder in the most jaded viewer. You never know what's around the next corner -- it could be a talking frog, it could be a lamp post hopping along on a single, white-gloved hand.
The story takes weird turns, but we get engrossed rather than alienated, thanks to Miyazaki's shrewdness at grounding the fantastical with the commonplace, like a scene in which Chihiro shares a quiet elevator ride with a lumbering Radish Spirit. The film takes a turning point when a massive "stink spirit" invades the bathhouse, and Chihiro gets the Herculean task of having to wash it. Joe Hisaishi's lush score heightens suspense as the frightened little girl rises to the occasion with pluck and ingenuity, reaching a surreal resolution that's completely consistent with the film's internal logic.
Like most fables involving children, Spirited Away provides a metaphor for coming of age. Two other characters serve as counterpoints to Chihiro's growing up, with one being literally a giant baby, who says things like, "Play with me or I'll break your arm!" The other is an ambiguous presence called No-Face, who resembles a walking shadow wearing a plain white mask. Like Chihiro, No-Face tries to define itself based on cues from its surroundings, but without control or judgment, until it causes chaos at the bathhouse. For much of the film, we're not sure if it's friend or foe, a monster or just a lost soul.
Miyazaki's characters are never all good or bad, with Yubaba being more than just a wicked witch, while noble Haku, whom Chihiro grows to love, has a shady background. The director shows a sensitivity to visual nuances that matches his mature approach to character. Miyazaki crafts a seemingly tactile animated universe, one attuned to the softest movements of wind or rushing water. He can alternate from the serenity of a supernatural train ride across a flooded landscape to the tension when Chihiro tries to help a sinuous, flying dragon swarmed by deadly paper dolls.
Spirited Away can be too intense (and one icky scene has too much vomiting) for very young kids, but it's otherwise a work that can speak to anyone. Miyazaki fosters the sensation of being a participant in the story, not simply a spectator, and you can't ask for more than that of any film. "Spirited away" is just how it makes you feel.