Spirited Away – A Film Review

I’m not an anime person. It’s not that I don’t like it, I just never really watched it outside of some Toasted TV standards back in the day.

I don’t really know why though, because looking through the catalogue of Japanese animated classics, there are some real gems. These include the Academy Award winning ‘Spirited Away’, Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece that is considered the most successful film in Japanese history.

The plot follows the story of Chihiro, the grumpiest 10-year-old you’ll ever meet excluding my younger brother. Until about 15 minutes in it appears to be a typical children’s film, and then the renowned weirdness associated with Japanese animation begins. Before you know it, our heroine has been transported to the spirit world and is working in a bathhouse amongst grotesque creatures to try and reverse her parents’ transformation into pigs. Not quite a typical kids film. If there’s one advantage Japanese animations have over Western entertainment is that their storylines often have more depth, trusting children to grapple with complex situations that don’t have simple solutions. This seems to be a trait across all of Miyazaki’s films, the revered Japanese animator who is considered a master of the trade, painstakingly hand-drawing thousands of frames to give his films their signature fantastical realism and artistic beauty.

Due to Miyazaki and production company Studio Ghibli’s dedication, the film boasts a verdant colour palate, meticulously crafted animation and gorgeous backdrops. For me, however, it was the absurd and intricate imagery depicted in the spirit world that ultimately made it impossible to look away. The sensory overload you experience in the chaotic bathhouse scenes exactly mirror the absolute confusion and frustration felt by Chihiro. Her anxiety as she explores the bathhouse becomes your tension, and her innate goodness in turn makes you feel good.

In the face of Netflix and real-life drama it may seem almost boring to sit down and watch something that is perceived to be childish, and that’s a fair point. However, in my personal experience having recently re-watched the film for this review, I found it incredibly refreshing. It was so genuinely nice to be able to sit (or more accurately lay in my bed eating Tim Tams) and watch a Japanese ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which was somehow less creepy and more acid-trippy at the same time. I don’t know about you guys, but last week was kind of an extended existential crisis where I realised I could have 40 hours in a day and still be behind on everything, and it was nice to be sucked into Chihiro’s world for 125 minutes. And anyway, it may be a kid’s film but so was ‘The Lion King’ and a movie has never wrecked me more than that one.

In the words of Roger Ebert, who was much better at this whole review thing than I will ever be, “don’t avoid it because of what you think you know about animation from Japan”. If you feel after this review that maybe you should give anime another try, the IH film club will be screening some classics this weekend so maybe consider checking it out.

And remember kids: always subs, never dubs (although the English version of this particular film is admittedly quite good).

Or you could just learn Japanese – gotta fill up that breadth somehow.

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