Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s divinely imaginative display of madcap surrealism is virtuosic in this episodic coming of age classic. Incredible attention to details of animated visual elements such as deep perspective, fog, smoke, and fire, inform the film’s contrasting elements of realism and absurdist thought that pull in various thematic directions at once. Miyazaki’s similar devotion to the minutiae of human behavior, as exhibited by a young girl on an odyssey of outrageous fantasy, lends the picture an emotional anchor of empathy. When the little girl runs into a wall at the bottom of a long stairway, we feel it. Regardless of how crazy things get (witness three dancing severed green male heads that transform into a giant baby boy), we are comforted by Miyazaki’s best intentions. Freud would have a field day with this ingenious filmmaker’s twisted nightmare sensibilities.
The picture takes on an epic quality.
Significant to the film’s English translation release is Pixar director John Lasseter’s championing of the family movie to Walt Disney Pictures. Lasseter hired a producer, screenwriters, and talent to translate “Spirited Away” for the Western palate. The effect is a seamless English translation of the original Japanese version that nonetheless retains all of Hayao Miyazaki’s thought-provoking intent, and wonderful sense of humor and surprise.
Chihiro Ogino (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is a 10-year-old Japanese girl, sulky at her parents’ decision to move the family to a new town. Whiny Chihiro needs to learn some trial-by-fire lessons in discipline that her parents aren’t giving her. The girl’s powerful imagination provides just the vehicle for such a transformation into a young adult.
En route their new house, dad takes a “short-cut” leading to a disused theme park that Chihiro’s irresponsible parents insist on exploring with their daughter in tow. Unperturbed by the lack of any other people in or around the park, mom and dad seize the opportunity to gorge themselves on a cornucopia of fresh meats inexplicably displayed at the park’s only open shop. All these two want to do is consume as much food as possible. Dad insists he will pay the bill whenever, if ever, it comes. Miyazaki’s sideways commentary on Japanese society runs deep and personal. Satire bubbles throughout the storyline involving shenanigans at an exotic bathhouse for spirits who are typically more evil than good. The film’s innumerable caricatures are revealed in bizarre forms born of Miyazaki’s wicked vision. Ralph Steadman has nothing on Miyazaki in the department of the abstract grotesque.
All rational thought flies out the window as mom and dad are transformed into giant pigs before Chihiro’s eyes. The same weird voodoo that robs Chihiro of her parents’ ability to look after her, introduces her to a boy named Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden). Haku is a dragon spirit, which means that he transforms into a giant white flying dragon. The phallic imagery is intentional. Chihiro has something to long for, other than merely her parents’ liberation from their incarnation as unrecognizable swine. Haku's flying abilities (in dragon form) allow for Miyazaki's signature flying sequences to take your breath away. This is big spectacle animation as only Miyazaki can deliver. The author-director handles the tempo and nuance of the flight sequences is ever so delicately to give the sense of the liberation of flight.
Haku instructs Chihiro to ask for a job in the bathhouse. Haku may not the most reliable counselor, yet Chihiro follows his confident command. Once hired by the establishment’s giant-headed witch Yubaba, Chihiro is at liberty to interact with the bizarre spirit creatures that visit the baths to cleanse their bodies and souls. The shocks and lessons that Chihiro receives, matures her into a young adult, able to see beyond the limitations of her parents, and also her own.