The jewel in Studio Ghibli’s crown, Spirited Away is the only anime to win the award for Best Animated Feature, achieving this award in 2002 against stiff competition from the likes of Ice Age and Walt Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. Directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is a magical story of love, friendship, and the most important part of life of them all, growing up. The story focuses on a 10 year old girl called Chihiro, who is in the processing of moving to a new home with her parents. The sullen Chihiro is not happy about the move and misses her old friends. On the way to their new house, Chihiro’s father takes a wrong turn and ends up in a forest that leads to a mysterious tunnel. Chihiro’s parents are keen to explore, and Chihiro reluctantly tags along.
The tunnel leads to a strange open valley, on the edge of which is an old-fashioned town. Chihiro’s parents conclude that the area is a theme park, seemingly deserted, but seemingly still in business. The town is comprised mostly of restaurants and when Chihiro’s parents see loads of fully prepared food just ready and waiting, they instantly eat it up. Chihiro, smelling a rat, resists the temptation. She takes a walk through the ‘ghost town’ and comes across an enormous bath-house, guarded by a strange boy who instantly warns Chihiro to leave. Before long, darkness falls and when Chihiro goes to retrieve her parents, she discovers they have been turned into pigs! Chihiro attempts to flee the town, as herds of ghostly spirits roam the area, but the valley on the edge of the town has become an ocean and Chihiro cannot escape.
The strange boy finds Chihiro lost and alone, he reveals his name to be Haku, and instructs Chihiro to get a job at the bath-house. To do that, Chihiro must strike a deal with Yubaba, the scheming manageress. Chihiro succeeds in doing this but is renamed ’Sen’ for her actions, and is put to work. The work is hard and demanding, and the guests are extremely smelly, but Chihiro proves to be a fast learner. With support from her supervisor Lin, and Kamaji the boiler man, Chihiro becomes a hard-working and resourceful employee.
Chihiro receives her biggest challenge yet when Haku, disguised as a dragon, comes back to the bath-house badly injured. Chihiro must do whatever she can to save her friend, as well as her parents. Her efforts are hindered by the mysterious spectre known as No-Face and Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba, from whom Haku has stolen a magic golden seal. Not to mention the ever-present, ever-scheming Yubaba, and her enormous son Boh.
Hayao Miyazaki has directed many great films during his time with Studio Ghibli, but Spirited Away is easily his best, and one of the best Anime films of all time. The way Chihiro changes from a spoiled brat to a hard-working young lady is just incredible, and the friends she makes in the spirit world are memorable in their own special ways. Yubaba and Zeniba for their enormous heads, Kamaji for his wisdom and spider-like appearance to name but a few. As always, there are references to previous Studio Ghibli films, in this instance, it is the return of the dust-bunnies from ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (1988) who work for Kamaji.
The film is also highly memorable for the undying love and concern that Chihiro shows for her parents after they are turned into pigs, and latterly for Haku. Indeed, Chihiro learns to care for others so much, she risks putting herself in danger as she fights for her cause. She also learns the importance of working hard, being resourceful and teamwork, through her role as Lin’s assistant. All in all, Spirited Away is a film that capture the imagination of people of all ages, and it could be a long time before any other Anime films are as successful as this one.