I hate Alice in Wonderland. Especially the 1951 interpretation. It doesn’t make any sense! It’s all rubbish dream logic, it’s pointless and boring. I need structure, stability, something to hold onto, not some ridiculous, nonsensical series of random events. I mean, I’m already free falling through life, desperately clutching at the blurred images of riches, responsibility and love that rush past me as I plummet to my gaping grave. I don’t need to escape to a fantasy world where nothing means anything, because that’s already my life. Alice in Wonderland, for those of you who don’t know and don’t exist, is the story of a young girl who, quite accidentally, finds herself out of her element in a mysterious, magical world full of fantastical creatures and strange rules she barely understands. This is also the general story of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which is a masterpiece.
Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki (the world’s greatest living animator) is a chain-smoking workaholic who thinks humanity is doomed, and yet his films are relentlessly uplifting and poignant and free of the moral bankruptcy that permeates so many early Disney films. The whole Ghibli/Disney comparison thing is overused, but for good reason. Disney has undoubtably influenced Ghibli, just as Ghibli has influenced Pixar (the Spirited Away Blu-ray comes with an introduction by John Lasseter), and more than that the animation studios are basically dating, they send each other gifts, and Disney usually does a great job dubbing Ghibli for English-speaking audiences.
Spirited Away is probably Ghibli’s most famous animation, as far as Western audiences are concerned, it’s certainly the first one I saw, the one that got me hooked. I’ve since seen them all, even Ocean Waves, which is the only Ghibli film that hasn’t really resonated with me. But anyway, Spirited Away, yes, it’s not hard to see why the West connected with it so readily, it’s a fairly subdued film, it eases you through the looking glass gently, as opposed to the surprisingly brutal Princess Mononoke.
Spirited Away starts off simply enough. 10-year–old Chihiro is a lazy spoilt cry baby (not my words). She’s sprawled out in the back seat of her parents car as they take a wrong turn looking for their new home. Upon arriving at a dead end, the family discover a tunnel in the woods, an understated portal into a magical realm. Chihiro wants nothing to do with it, but her parents insist on exploring. Soon they’ve found an abandoned town, a grand old bathhouse (the primary setting of the film) and a restaurant stall full of food, which Chihiro’s parents immediately start consuming, shoving fistfuls of meat and fish into their gobs. Needless to say, the abandoned town is not abandoned at all, and come nightfall the gods and demons arrive, the way out is blocked by a flooded river and Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world.
This is all just the set up, of course, the film is largely concerned with Chihiro getting a job in the bathhouse, attempting to blend in with the magical beings, and essentially growing the hell up (it’s fair to say that not only does she grow up, she becomes one of the most memorable role-models for young girls everywhere).
But how does Spirited Away make someone as fearful of dreams as me care so much about the unfolding events, as strange and as otherworldly as it all is? A big part of it is the animation, but not just because it’s stunning (which it is). The film is bursting with details from beginning to end, and you can see, clearly, how this world works. The characters, even those who wander about in the background, are all memorable and, for the most part, likeable. You’re not just watching stuff happen, you’re journeying through a fully realised world, learning- with Chihiro- what the rules are. Yes there are frog people and dragons and witches with really big heads, but it’s all grounded, structurally sound. As bizarre as it all is, it makes sense! It has it’s own logic, but it stays true to that logic. Verisimilitude, ladies and gentlemen, Spirited Away is doing it right.
The actual pacing of the film is great too, it’s slow and thoughtful for the most part, taking its time, allowing audiences to settle into their new life in the spirit world, so that by the end you’ve all but forgotten what the human world even looks like. But as mellow and contemplative as a lot of it is, Spirited Away is an action-packed adventure. From bath-time with a slime monster to that intense chase-sequence later on, the film is full of danger and daring. And again, it all feels tangible, grounded, we understand why things happen. The film is constantly and confidently introducing strange new characters, and you enjoy all of their company. There’s no simplistic good and evil here either, the main antagonist of the film is an elderly woman who’s good at her job, loves her son and honours a deal, whereas Chihiro’s “love interest” is a greedy, power-hungry thief (who’s also a really nice guy. And a river). As tough as Chihiro’s new life is, and as heartbreaking as some of the scenes are, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the magic of it all.
The only Blu-rays (such a stupid name) in my DVD collection are Studio Ghibli animations. They are worth the extra money. I mean what do you even need that money for, anyway? Food? These animations are food for the eyes! I’m no scientist, but eye food is probably just as important as mouth food. Talking of things on your face, your ears are in for a treat too. Spirited Away sounds great, I lean towards Japanese audio with English subtitles but there’s nothing wrong with the English language dub, ignore the purists, this film is for everyone. Joe Hisaishi is just amazing too, I assume Ghibli have somehow learned his True name and are forcing him to score all of their films until the end of time. I’m fine with that.
Spirited Away is a wonderland done right, it presents an incredible fantasy with rich detail, complex characters and a satisfying, well paced narrative. Never has a dream-like world felt more awake, more vivid. It makes Alice’s adventures look lazy by comparison. It’s a wonderful film, and a good place to start with Ghibli. But if it is your first, you shouldn’t stop here. You need to go further down the rabbit hole, discover the amazing magic of Ghibli animation! How about the 1994 classic Pom Poko, a film about shape-shifting raccoon dogs who bounce around on their giant testicles? Wait! Come back! Come back!