The United-States has Pixar and Disney, but Japan has Studio Ghibli. Its founder Hayao Miyazaki has directed many of its most successful titles, including 2001’s “Spirited Away” which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and became the highest grossing film in Japan. Like many of the studio’s greatest hits, it uses hand-drawn animation to create a fantasy world filled with creatures you can only dream of and then animate. The title is appropriate, as “Spirited Away” takes you for a ride into a spirit world.
I first saw this Ghibli creation in January of 2012, as my brother had received it for Christmas. That’s pretty much how it has been going during Christmastime for the past few years in my family: we buy each other movies or TV shows, watch a few in the days after December 25 and then we move on into the new year. It’s nice to take a few hours out of the busy holiday season to just sit in front of the television and watch a movie as a family, even if we don’t always have the same taste in movies. I am pretty sure our mom had never seen a Japanese animated movie, but it was one of the most family friendly titles on my brother’s Christmas list: we could have ended up watching the first season of Robot Chicken.
Set in a less crude environment, “Spirited Away” opens in modern-day Japan as ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino (voice of Daveigh Chase) and her parents (Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly) are travelling to their new home. Like most kids her age, Chihiro is not looking forward to adapting to a new home. Her trip takes an extended hiatus when her father makes a wrong turn and they end up at what they think is an abandoned amusement park. Starving, Chihiro’s parents eat at an empty restaurant stall. While they are busy stuffing their faces, Chihiro meets Haku (Jason Marsden) a young boy who warns her to leave before the sun sets.
Unfortunately for her it is too late. By the time she finds her parents the have been transformed into two pigs stuffing their faces and they are all trapped in the park. In order to help her survive in this world, Haku helps Chihiro get a job at the bathhouse, a massive building run by the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette). It is there that the animators go wild. The bathhouse is filled with ghosts, spiders, frogs, dragons and other assorted creatures. One of the most intriguing looking is Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers) a six-armed engineer who operates the bathhouse’s boiler room.
While working at the bathhouse, Chihiro learns the rules of the game. Yubaba controls both her and Haku through their names. Once she forgets her name, she will be stuck there forever. As she helps certain spirits and explores the world of the bathhouse, she forms a plan to free both herself and her parents.
This makes for a simple a strong storyline. A young heroine is stuck in a magical world and must embark on a quest to save herself and her family. All along she of course forges a friendship with Haku who ends up needing her as much as she needs him.
Then there is the story’s villain. You see a witch called Yubaba who can transform into a giant bird and holds a ten-year-old prisoner, and you immediately think this old crone is nothing but pure evil. Yet she is an interesting character who does care for at least one person in the bathhouse: her gigantic son, whom she keeps inside a room filled with toys and pillows.
All of these characters, creatures and spirits are brought to life thanks to gorgeous hand-drawn animation Studio Ghibli is known for. While most American animation studios have gone the way of computer generated imagery, Ghibli’s pencils remain firmly on paper. They still manage to create gorgeous backgrounds and creatures. One not-so gorgeous creature is a spirit of a polluted river that is carrying so much grim and filth it sends the bathhouse into a panic. Seeing all of the creatures in the bathhouse trying to wash that filthy spirit is one of the most impressive sequences in the entire movie.
This movie is a feat for the imagination for its story, characters and the animation that brought it all to life. If you like Japanese anime, or animated movies in general, it makes for a great Christmas present.