Spirited Away
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
(Buena Vista, 2001)

Produced by the anime master responsible for Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away is another Japanese animation spectacular that garnered its share of awards and acclaim and, more importantly, has the ability to hold an audience, young and old, ensnared by its spell.

The animation is sharp, clean and fluid, and characters and settings are colorful and highly detailed. The story is both magical and imaginative.

Chihiro is a sullen, 10-year-old girl en route with her parents to a new home. Along the way, they are led astray down a rutted path to an abandoned theme park where, despite Chihiro's reluctance, her parents decide to explore and are unsurprised to find a restaurant bursting with fresh and tasty food. Their overindulgence has a price, however, and both are transformed into massive pigs.

Panicked, Chihiro flees to the only building with signs of life. It turns out to be a bathhouse, staffed by and catering to a variety of spirits and magical beings. Advised to get a job there if she ever wants to see her parents again, Chihiro defies the grumpy, spider-like boilerman Kamaji and wins the adulation of his ensorcelled sooty servants before gaining an audience with Yubaba, the evil-seeming mistress of the baths. Sheer stubbornness earns her a place among the lowest bath slaves, but she tackles the work with a will.

In director Hayao Miyazaki's hands, nothing is ever quite as it seems. Good characters may be evil, evil ones may be good. Many fall somewhere in between. Among them, the most mysterious is Haku, who may be a young boy or a wolf-headed dragon, who may be a harsh assistant to Yubaba's will or Chihiro's greatest ally.

One foul-smelling customer (a polluted river spirit) is aided by Chihiro (now called Sen), which earns her some measure of gratitude from Yubaba, but it could all be undone by the nebulous, shadowy creature whose benevolent mask gives no clue of his intentions; he certainly has an appetite, to say the least.

Spirited Away is an elaborate story, a tapestry made of threads within threads. It's an exciting story, delightful, unlike anything else I've seen. Like Princess Mononoke before it, Spirited Away demonstrates the power and beauty of anime in the hands of a brilliant creator.

by Tom Knapp
25 March 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.