Director/Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
There is something that's both haunting and horrifying about just how quickly Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" jumps us right into the middle of Chihiro's world. Both the enchanted abandoned amusement park that turns into a city for the spirit world at night, but also into Chihiro's world. All we know is, her family is moving, and she is not happy about it. She clutches to her friends goodbye bouquet of flowers 'til they begin to die and her parents we know even less about, which is odd considering what happens to them once they enter this spirit world. You'd think, maybe we'd open with a scene of the family packing their van or saying goodbye to the city they're leaving, but instead we're almost at their destination. Sure, it's animation, and the less work needed the better, especially for brevity's sake, but this is Hayao Miyazaki; he's never cared about meeting a deadline or trying to give us only as much info and exposition as possible.
No, it's quite deliberate. Before Chihiro falls down her rabbit hole into Wonderland, we barely have any time to contemplate where we, or the characters are, or who they are, before the movie casts it's magical spell over us. One of my biggest issues with fantasy is how I think the genre over time has completely misunderstood it's strengths. One of it's biggest storytelling strengths is discovery, and arguably "Spirited Away" might be the single best use of discovery in fantasy in film. We barely get an introduction, must less an "Over the Rainbow", and suddenly, we're thrust into an unknown world of magical creatures, and we're just like poor Chihiro. A small ten-year-old girl in an uncomfortable, oversized shirt and small shorts, whose entire world has been guided by her parents, who suddenly aren't there to help her. She has no idea where she is, she doesn't want to be there, and according to Haku, the one seemingly human-like creature she's run into and has decided to help guide her through this mysterious place, she has one shot to possibly get out, and it requires getting a job. "Haven't you ever held a job before?" asks Lin, the Yuna worker who gets assigned to look over Chihiro, or Sen as she's called when she's working, but she's a ten-year-old, so, no, she hasn't. (There's haunting implications there),and like Chihiro, we're both scared and curious as to what's going to happen next.
There's a lot of interpretations of "Spirited Away" and many ways the movie can be read. I think I once wrote one for an English class where it's looked upon as a coming-of-age fairy tale narrative, which is probably the most common laymen interpretation, but that's almost too simple a way to look at it. Unless it's not, and in that case, there's some deep undertones and references there...- If you want to scour the internet, scene-by-scene and look for theories and meanings of the movie, you can, and be careful, 'cause some of them, like many fairy tales, especially ones about females coming-of-age, get really dark. That said, honestly, it's one of the few films where you can really go frame-by-frame and analyzed every detail, and come up with several, meanings and double-meanings and-..., personally I just want to go frame-by-frame of the film, 'cause it's one of the beautiful films ever made. And, yes it incredibly detailed; even by Miyazaki standards, everything stands out. To go over it all, you have basically have exceptional observant knowledge of Japanese and Chinese characters as well as details about modern and historical details of Japanese history, mythology and culture, as well as knowing about Miyazaki's own political biases and preferences...-, not to mention that, unlike most of his movies, he actually didn't have a finished story when he started making and animated it, which absolutely blows my mind, especially for an animated movie, but this led to the animators focusing more on those details.
This film earned Miyazaki an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, to this point, the only foreign film to win that category (Although Disney, on the pull from John Lasseter, distributed the film). All his movies have that incredible painterly look towards them, but even for him, this movie just takes my breath away. So many extra scenes and moments, "Ma"s they're called in Japanese art, it's a term for empty or negative that's between things, in movies like these, they represent the sense of time and place. For instance, when Chihiro, No Face and her two friends are taking the train to see Zeniba, the twin sisters of the Bathhouse Witch owner, Yubaba, Miyazaki takes the time to show the stops and the ghostly creatures who board and exit the one-way train, seemingly randomly but perhaps they're just lost on their own journey. He didn't have to do that, but the sense of time that is created by doing it, as well as more discovery, more mystery.... part of it, is that it's easier to do scenes like that in animation, especially if you own and run your own studio, but I can't tell you how often some great filmmakers just don't understand how to use scenes like that and it just comes off as boring emptiness, and wastes of films, and here, the movie doesn't work without them.
Every viewing I see new details all over the screen, and at some point I stop trying to interpret and just get, swept along. I think that's ultimately the key to great fantasy. I'm usually more of a sticker for completion of the rules of the universe working or else, to me, everything falls apart, but certain portal fantasies have a way around this by simply getting caught up in the world and being swept up by it. It's not the what or why things are like this, but how we find out about them that's far more interesting and compelling. We can basically explain away every detail of this spirit world bathhouse as from the living soots to how Yubaba can have a giant baby, to where do the tokens come from to simply, "Because magic", but because the movie is about how we, and Chihiro find out about this world as we explore the world through Chihiro's dark journey, all of it becomes more enchanting and special.
The journey is dark, even for dark children's media, everything's some level of scary. And yet, there's so much wonder. There's a feeling that one gets when watching any of Miyazaki films, and trying to explain what exactly that feeling is one of the most difficult things a film critic can do. No single English word seems to be able to encapsulate this emotion, and arguably no Miyazaki film encompasses this feeling more then "Spirited Away". I can talk about the symbolism of the movie, theories, metaphors, give you readings of the movie from environmental perspectives, cultural perspectivess, social perspectives..., so many different readings, and interpretations, the importance of details like flying, like food, like water and nature and spiritual figures like witches and shapeshifters and other phantoms and monsters..., I can place this film in terms of it's importance in introducing Japanese anime to it's widest and most commercial audience ever, but mostly, the only thing that I really think matters for me as to why this is a masterpiece, and why I and others keep watching it years later, is because I want to feel that feeling again. That incredible Miyazaki feeling that both gives you butterflies in your stomach, warmth in your heart, chills up your spines, tears in your eyes, and tingly goosebumps everywhere else; that feeling that you are truly watching a master at work.