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Movie Review: Spirited Away

A Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli Film

Spirited Away is rated PG for some scary moments.

Cover of "Spirited Away"

Cover of Spirited Awa

Chihiro and her parents are on their way to their new house when Chihiro’s father decides to take a shortcut through some woods.  Soon the road ends at a mysterious tunnel.

Her parents are intrigued by the tunnel, and despite Chihiro’s uneasy feeling, they go through the tunnel and a dry riverbed to the bathhouse-town on the other side.  The town is deserted, but the restaurants are full of food– an irresistable lure to unsuspecting, hungry people.  While her parents pig out on the food, Chihiro explores the town.

When sunset approaches, she meets a strangely familiar boy called Haku.  Haku frightened for Chihiro’s safety– humans cannot survive in the town at night, when the spirit world awakens.  If Chihiro and her parents aren’t on the other side of the river by nightfall, they will either become a part of the spirit world, or disappear.

Chihiro races to beat the deadline, but someone turned her parents to pigs for eating food intended for the spirits, and sunset is too soon.  Luckily, Haku was prepared for this, and he saves Chihiro before she can completely vanish.  Haku tells her that the only way she can survive in the spirit world is to take a job from Ubaba, the witch who owns the bathhouse.

Ubaba agrees to hire Chihiro, but when she signs the contract, Ubaba takes her name and instead calls her Sen.  Haku explains to Chihiro that this is how Ubaba controls her workers:  She takes their names, and when they forget their name, they are trapped working in the bathhouse.  The same thing happened to Haku when he wandered to the bathhouse-town looking for a place to stay.  He warns her to never forget her name, or she’ll never rescue her parents from Ubaba’s spell and escape the spirit world.

Chihiro trusts Haku, but Len, her guide and first friend among the workers, warns her not to.  Haku, she tells Chihiro, is Ubaba’s apprentice, and therefore not to be trusted.  Haku seems to confirm this by becoming more distant by night, helping her by day.  Can Chihiro trust Haku to help her out of the spirit world, or is he really working with Ubaba like Len said?

Miyazaki is a brilliant Japanese director who has made some of my favorite movies, including My Neighbor Totoro and Castle in the Sky. Spirited Away is pretty high up there, too, especially because of Chihiro’s journey from a whiny scaredy-cat to someone brave enough to stand up to Ubaba.

In the beginning, Chihiro is indeed nothing more than a whiny little girl who is unhappy at being forced to move.  (I have to admit that her instincts are good– if her parents had listened to her, they wouldn’t be stuck as pigs, now, would they?)  But her adventures– from convincing Ubaba to give her a job to finding a home for No-Face to helping Haku– help her change into a worthy heroine of the story.

As always, Studio Ghibli’s animations are beautiful, and Miyazaki’s tale is a masterpiece.  I particularly like the way he draws on Japanese myths and beliefs; maybe in Japan it’s pretty normal, but for me it was fascinating.  Still, I can think of no higher praise that to tell you to go and watch it.  Then tell me what you think!

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