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Studio Ghibli Challenge #13: Spirited Away (2001) Anime Movie Review

Spirited Away poster

If you are going to enter a discussion regarding which Studio Ghibli movie or anime movie is the best with a group of people you will know instantly that there will be someone who will mention this film. Then after that someone says it's one of the best, there will be no one that will contest it.

That's how classic this movie is. No, maybe classic is an understatement of how genius and brilliant this movie is.

The only Studio Ghibli film that won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Spirited Away is an absolute classic of all classics in animation, storytelling, characters, worldbuilding, and soundtrack.

And it doesn't hold back, it's greatness is stamped in history.

It starts off with a young 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents who are traveling to their new home, deciding to take a shortcut. They passed through what seemed to be a long tunnel of some sort before coming to a halt. Her father insisted on exploring the place wherein they found an empty restaurant with food that are so tempting. Both of her parents decided to take a bite. Chihiro explores the abandoned location and found a bathhouse and meets a boy named Haku. She then discovers that her parents were transformed into pigs while still eating the food in the restaurant. Running in panic, Haku told her to ask for a job with the bathhouse's boiler-man Kamaji.

Kamaji refuses to employ her and instructs another worker, Lin to take her to Yubaba, a witch who runs the bathhouse operations. Yubaba tried to scare her but she didn't budge so instead she gave her a contract. She takes a part of her name and renamed her Sen. She then visits her family who is now in a pigpen and realizes that she already forgot her true name. Haku warns her that if she completely forgets her name, she will not be able to leave the spirit world.

Now working in the bathhouse, Sen faces discrimination from other workers. She then let a silent creature named No-Face enter the bathhouse because she thought of it was a wandering customer. Her first customer is a "stink spirit" that she discovers as the spirit of a polluted river. After she was able to successfully clean it with its impurities, the spirit gave her a dumpling. No-Face then started imitating the gold being left behind by the customers and swallowed several workers along the way while demanding food.

Sen then sees a dragon being attacked by a Shikigami and realized it was Haku. She followed him to Yubaba's room after being injured. Suddenly, Yubaba's twin sister, Zeniba appears and transforms her son into a mouse while creating a false copy of him. She mentions to Sen that Haku stole a seal from her and warns of its curse. Haku slashes Zeniba's image and they both fell down to the boiler room. Sen gave him a part of the dumpling and he vomited the seal. Now unconscious, Sen decides to return the seal to Zeniba. She confronts a now enormous No-Face and fed him the rest of the dumpling. The creature follows her outside the bathhouse while regurgitating all that it swallowed. Sen, No-Face, and Boh all travel to Zeniba's home via train.

Spirited Away Train scene

Right at this moment the movie just seemingly paused for about a couple of minutes just to let the audience sink in all the madness that just happened.

After that, Yubaba orders Sen's parents to be killed but Haku persuaded her and agrees only if she passes the test. Sen meets with Zeniba and gave her a magic hairband. She also reveals that Yubaba has been controlling Haku with a black slug. Haku appears in his dragon form and offered to take Sen back to the bathhouse. No-Face decided to stay behind at Zeniba's home while the others leave to go to the bathhouse. Sen then recalls a tragic incident wherein she fell into a river but was saved soon after. She deduced that Haku is the spirit of the river. At the bathhouse, Yubaba starts the trial for Sen to identify her parents along with a couple of similarly-looking pigs. After correctly identifying her parents, the contract disappears and her real name is given back to her. Chihiro crosses the riverbed with her restored parents who do not remember anything. The movie ends when the family travels back in their car away from the place.

Haku and Chihiro

There really is a lot that happened in this film. I mean literally. Right at the very beginning, you are given loads of information that sometimes is just very hard to take in. But then right before the final act begins, the movie took a brief pause on the train with Sen, No-Face, and Boh all in complete silence. At that moment we watch several shots unfolding with great sceneries and with several shadow people leaving the train. But just like the character, Sen we sometimes need a break from all the madness that she experienced. It is so brilliant that in storytelling even though we are presented with seemingly obvious choices like traversing from scene A to B, we also get to experience the in-between and appreciate it at the same time. We were also given time to think about the main character, a lazy girl who is struggling to do the basic things to a woman who is now determined to help her friends and family. That is how you define character development.

Chihiro crying

Yes, it is fun when there are scenes with tons of action in them, but it becomes too much if it's always that. Great storytellers know when and how to make use of the pauses in between.

If there is something Hayao Miyazaki really is good at, it is these moments. And that to me, is pure genius in animation.

That train scene to me is one of the best-animated scenes ever. Seriously, it sometimes gets tiring to watch films with non-stop action without a pause in between. It becomes repetitive that eventually gets too boring to watch. I want movies that give us breathing space. You know just to take all those information in.

Aside from that, Spirited Away contains a storyline that can be interpreted differently depending on a viewer's age. It is like explaining a difficult scientific concept to different generations. If you are a child you can instantly interpret that the movie is just with weird spirits and a hero that will break the curse on her parents. And that's okay. If you are an adult, you realize that there are things within the movie that are important such as people's greed, what the bathhouse signifies, what are the spirits, the effects of pollution, etc. Those in-between moments are really what makes Spirited Away one of the best ever. It just presents you with a lot of information but at the same time, it also allows you to think, breathe in, and pause.

No Face and Chihiro

I have never really come across a film that did so much work only on the start and end but also on those things that are in the middle. And it only takes an absolute genius to really invest and creatively magnify those in-between moments.

There are like a dozen of interpretations this movie represents. I don't really know if there is a correct one but I'd like it to be unknown to me. I just want to interpret the movie the way I want it. It's not that I disregard anyone's interpretation it's just that I think there is no real meaning behind the movie except what we want to perceive.

The animation here to me seemed like the baseline for future Studio Ghibli films. Starting from this movie you instantly know that the film industry is now going to take the animation to a whole different level.

Everybody cheering on Chihiro

So, if you are really into anime films or just animation in general. I recommend watching this instant classic. But seriously, this film doesn't deserve to be watched just once in a lifetime, it takes a couple to really get into the story and appreciate just how brilliant and magnificent it is.

I will not argue if someone declares that Spirited Away is their best-animated film of all time. It's really not debatable.

A solid 5 out of 5 stars.

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