Chihiro, the main character in the film Spirited Away

Two decades of high spirits

Hayao Miyazaki’s award-winning masterpiece still stands tall above all other feature length animated films.

By Brad Hayne @LintMusic

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of its original Japanese release on July 20th, Spirited Away is a film that is visually breathtaking and can not be fully absorbed in one viewing.

Released at the perfect time in which to make Western animation giants such as Disney take notice (and possibly be very worried about being outdone), the Studio Ghibli film nabbed the Best Animated Feature Award at the 75th Annual Academy Awards, not to mention becoming Japan’s highest grossing film ever at the time.

Spirited Away centres around a 10 year old girl named Chihiro who gets separated from her parents and lost within a spirit realm. Taking elements such as super-naturalism and environmentalism, that were strong parts of his previous films, director Hayao Miyazaki weaves a coming of age tale heavily rooted in anti-consumerism and the dangers of over-excess.

Supernaturalism is a feature of Miyazaki’s films

It is this over-excess that resonates most amongst audiences still, particularly in the West. Chihiro’s parents represent a not-too-subtle American and European lifestyle of consumerism, with their Audi car, Polo shirts and credit cards (before being quite literally turned into pigs).

Miyazaki has stated in interviews that he has always taken issue with the notion of greed and has a nostalgic fondness for a simpler time when he was a child in World War II-era Japan. Many of his 80’s films such as My Neighbour Totoro had a distinct early 20th century Japanese feel to them, and were primarily aimed at children.

As the 90s came round, Disney was dominating the animated feature film market all around the world with powerhouse blockbusters such as Aladdin and The Lion King. Miyazaki, during this time, was producing the most Western-styled films of his career. Both Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso have a distinct European setting, and showcase Miyazaki’s passion for flight, air-crafts and high adventure.

Perhaps his darkest film yet came after, with the violent Princess Mononoke hammering home a message of environmentalism and the destruction humans are causing the planet. The film had massive distribution in the Western world, and swept up numerous awards.

Disney, in the meantime, had started to decline in quality, unable to keep up with the creative and relatable storytelling of studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks. This was a case of right place, right time for Ghibli to unleash Spirited Away into the world.

With distribution support from Pixar (then-CEO John Lasseter being a self professed Studio Ghibli fan), the film became an instant hit with Western audiences, despite, ironically, being Miyazaki’s most Japanese-styled film of his career.

But what stands the test of time the most with the film is that a lot of the magic that happens around Chihiro during her adventure defies explanation. It’s a perfect example of letting viewers make up their own minds about why certain events play out the way they do.

It would be a disservice, and perhaps outright false, to say that Hayao Miyazaki has not reached the artistic level of Spirited Away with his subsequent films. But there most likely won’t ever be another film like this one to come out of Japan and storm the world; mainly due to the fact that in the modern world of animation, Studio Ghibli has nothing left to prove, and no giants left to topple.

Spirited Away: Official trailer of the Disney release

Film stills used with permission Ghibli Studios

Leave a Reply