Watching Spirited Away at the cinema upon its release was something of a personal event for several reasons.
For one thing, it was the first anime feature I'd ever seen on the big screen but it was also my first Hayao Miyazaki film and it was, on top of that, really bloody good. Coming at a time when 2D animated films looked like they were on their way out with Disney focusing its attention on CGI animation, the anime was a breath of fresh air and proved once and for all that this kind of animated feature more than deserved to stay.
The film follows a young girl called Chihiro who is about to move into a new house with her parents. She's reluctant to leave her old life behind and start a new one. Her father drives towards what he believes to be a shortcut but instead finds an abandoned old fair accessible through a creepy tunnel (as all the best fairs are). They wander aimlessly until Chihiro's parents decide to stuff their faces with random food they find lying around in an open market. To the girl's horror, she soon finds that her parents have, in fact, literally been transformed into overfed pigs. She's now left to her own devices in a much weirder place than she could have ever imagined, a magical world peopled by grotesque spirits who mostly hang out in bath houses and who are led by an untrustworthy witch called Yubaba. It looks like she might just end up being stuck in that world, forgetting who she is and vanishing into thin air but, luckily, she meets some good people who help her through this wacky yet perilous adventure: Haku, a young boy with strange powers, a spider-like boiler-man called Kamaji who helps get Chihiro a job in the bath house, Lin, a worker who teaches her the ropes and Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba. Using an Alice In Wonderland-style structure with bursts of The Wizard Of Oz and multiple other fairy-tales, Spirited Away may be derivative structurally but it brings so much fresh creativity, so much imagination to the table that it feels and is completely original. It's a beautiful-looking movie with some really colourful, really strange characters, a compelling surreal story set in a world where anything could happen and an overall nostalgic mood which helps make Spirited Away a coming-of-age story with heart where courage and intelligence are rewarded.
It's a film about moving on, about accepting the past, making your peace with it and using what you know to build a strong future for yourself and, ultimately, build yourself as a person. Chihiro learns a lot throughout the film and faces some really tough challenges: she is stripped of her parents, the entire logic of the world she knows and even her name but she learns to make new friends, she learns the rules of this new uncanny environment and, in the end, she learns that change can be scary and dangerous but it's also important and the past never truly leaves anyway, she can never forget who she was even if it's not who she is anymore. It's a pretty complete, pretty deep lesson for such a kid-friendly flick but Hayao Miyazaki tells it so ridiculously well that even if you watch the film without using any part of your brain or if you're a little kid watching the film purely as a mindless piece of entertainment it's still just as enjoyable and rewarding of an experience. It's refreshing to see an animated film which gives you some shady characters you're not really sure what to make of until you get to know them. Chihiro meets a stink spirit which is repulsive and intimidating as hell but she faces it head-on and finds that there's more to it than meets the eye. Same goes for No Face, a creepy spirit who stalks her during the film, offering her presents and being seemingly friendly yet suddenly ending up going nuts and eating everybody like a greedy, demented beast. By the end, you feel like Chihiro has these complicated entities pretty much figured out and that she's much more in control of that world and herself. Even through how the character is drawn, Miyazaki subtly makes her grow up before your eyes without noticing. I should also mention that the film offers us some of the cutest critters you're likely to see in any anime feature, a giant baby-turned-hamster, a trio of hopping heads, a buzzing little bird and adorable soot-balls being prime examples, and delivers some nifty twists story-wise.
Spirited Away really is a masterful piece in every respect and isn't only gorgeous to look at, really clever storytelling-wise and unique with its content but it feels special, daringly prioritising quiet, bittersweet, rather poetic moments instead of cartoonish action sequences you've seen a million times in kids movies.
Hayao Miyazaki has created a work of pure class and it remains one of the best animated films around.
An unavoidable timeless classic.