Spirited Away is the fifth – and, for us, the final – film of The Cameo’s Ghibli retrospective (they’re showing Howl’s Moving Castle next week, but we are otherwise engaged). And it doesn’t disappoint, demonstrating once again how animation can be deployed to tell a wide range of stories. Over the last few Sundays, we’ve been treated to tragedy, comedy, epic adventure and fairy tale – and now this, a delightful coming-of-age story, clearly targeting an older audience than either My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, but nowhere near as violent and passionate as Princess Mononoke, nor as politically charged as Grave of the Fireflies. This is a ‘tween’ piece, I’d say, and very good it is too.
Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is ten years old and, in the opening sequence, she’s moody and glum. She lies morosely in the back seat of her parents’ car, clutching onto a farewell card and bouquet, refusing to take an interest in the town they’re driving through, even when her mum (Yasuko Sawaguchi) points out her new school. They’re moving house, and Chihiro is not at all happy to leave her old life behind. When her dad (Takashi Naitô) takes what he’s sure will be a shortcut to their new house on the hill, they soon get lost, and things take a decidedly unexpected turn.
From hereon in, we’re in Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz territory, as the family wanders innocently into what they think is an abandoned theme park. Though initially tentative, Chihiro’s parents – on sniffing out a tempting buffet – become emboldened by greed, and begin to gorge on the feast they find. Chihiro is more cautious and hangs back, nervous about the consequences. And she’s right to be, because – before her very eyes – her parents are transformed into pigs, and she runs, frightened, not knowing what to do.
It soon becomes apparent that she’s trapped in the spirit world, and that her only means of escape is to follow the advice of her newly-acquired friend, Haku (Miyu Irino), and work for the witch, Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), to earn her freedom and save her family. And, just like Alice and Dorothy before her, she encounters a series of strange and memorable characters as she tries to find her way back home; like theirs, too, her journey is more meandering than linear, her quest a secondary element of the narrative, far less prominent than the colourful details of a wondrous ‘other’ world.
It’s gorgeously animated, of course. There are interesting themes – greed and environmentalism being perhaps the most obvious – and some truly awesome imagery. It’s beautifully done. If I don’t like it quite as much as the others I’ve seen, it’s because of that winding plot: a series of sparkling vignettes loosely patched together, rather than a compelling story arc.
Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. This retrospective has really opened my eyes. I’m a Ghibli convert, and I’ll be seeking out more of the studio’s back catalogue (any recommendations gratefully received). And we’ve already booked our tickets for its progeny, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.