Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki achieved instant fame in the United States with the release in 1999 of Princess Mononoke, an animated film in the Japanese style known as anime. He follows up with what looks to be an even bigger hit, Spirited Away, the highest grossing film in Japanese history.
Anime characters tend to have big doe-like eyes, a characteristic which may rub up against prejudices based on the American kitsch-artists Margaret and Walter Keane whose sentimental paintings oflarge-eyed children were the nadir of 1970’s taste in art. Any such doubts quickly fade before the artistic accomplishment of Miyazaki. Spirited Away is elegant animation, sometimes startling in the complexity of its images. Equally as important, though this is essentially a children’s story, it is rich in meanings–drawing on universal themes about the nature of growing up and moving out into the world. It does so with understated charm and an abundance of freshly imagined images, staying well away from the boundaries of kitsch.
Chihiro and her family are moving to a new town, filling Chihiro with concern about a new school and new friends. En route by car, the family takes a detour and discover what her father believes to be an abandoned theme park. Chihiro wanders away and adventures begin. No one seems to be around, but they have stumbled on the bathhouse of the spirits; Chihiro’s parents partake of a feast they come across, only to be turned into swine for eating the food of the spirits. Chihiro meets a handsome boy, Haku, who offers assistance, sending her to the boiler room of the bathhouse to work.
What follows is a series of adventures and meetings with characters as diverse, quirky and amusing as anything beyond the looking glass. Kamaji, the kindly creature who runs the boiler room is an embodiment of the worker; with extra arms and legs that are in constant motion. There’s a radish spirit, a genuinely gross slime monster with a thorn in its side, and a spirit called "No Face" who has a Noh-like mask.
The old lady in charge,Yubaba, is a witch-like tyrant who smokes, casts spells, and is the mother of a gargantuan baby. (In the English-language-dubbed script, she is not beyond saying, "Such a klutz!") At times she calls to mind the Queen of Hearts, sharing that monarch’s arbitrary authoritarian attitude. It turns out that Yubaba has a twin sister as well, quite her opposite.
Chihiro makes an endearing hero. She is properly fearful when scary things happen, but she’s also curious and plucky, brave when she has to be, and kind when others aren’t. (Kindness is rewarded; greed is not.) One could choose a worse role model for youngsters. Somehow, too, Miyazaki knows how to do "scary" while keeping a sense of humor and not traumatizing the kids, as some misguided children’s films do.
At better than two hours, Spirited Away may challenge the attention span of small children and some adults will be looking at their watches from time to time. But if the story seems to spin on with occasionally overly elaborated complications, the visuals never cease to be sheer pleasure. Miyazaki is especially accomplished with the quality of transparency, whether an invisible character, seen only to the audience as the audience simultaneously sees through the character, or passing scenery seen through a car window which is also reflecting what is inside the car. Misty landscapes, seascapes with rippling water, and the effects of light are all captured with amazing facility, originality, and beauty. It’s the sort of film that gives rise to the awed question, "How did he do that?"