Wonderfully animated, with a
terrifically imaginative story, and the movie wasn't afraid to delve
into the darker side of life.
The animation was not as vibrant or textured as Disney films are
normally, since this was an independent Japanese film, but the artistic way the scenes were presented made up for
that. There was so much detail, from leaves whizzing by in the
foreground to the various spirits that inhabit the bath-house, that many
scenes required repeated viewing to see it all.
The story takes just about everything from dreams to legends of the
underworld and makes it reality. When Chihiro's parents get lost on the
way to their new home, and enter a strange theme park, and decide to
devour all the food that they discover, she finds that she has entered a
land of the spirits. Her parents are turned into pigs, and she has to
survive in this world if she is to rescue them.
She comes across a friend in Haku right away. He tells her how to
survive, and how to get a job. Through the steam plant operator to Lin
the hostess, she manages to sign her name away and get a job from Yubaba,
the witch who operates the bath house.
She goes from a whiny girl to one who works hard, because her life
depends on it. She finds the value in working hard, even when the others
dislike her on principle, because she's human.
There are two crises that she meets with in the bath house, and both
affect her personally. A stink spirit comes to clean off in the baths,
and because she helps it, he gives her a gift. I'm not sure what it was
exactly, but it managed to make Haku throw up when she had him eat it,
so I think it was sort of an ipecac syrup. Still, the important part
about it is that the stink spirit is actually the spirit of a river. It
was so clogged up, though, with refuse, bikes and junk, that it was
unrecognisable. When it is finally clean, it rises up like a dragon, and
looks just like Haku. I wondered about that, until later, when Chihiro
recognises Haku, and figures out his real name, and that he was the
spirit of a river that she nearly drowned in years ago. It was subtle,
but recognisable in hindsight.
The second crisis deals with a spirit named no-face, who desperately
wants to be accepted. He offers homemade gold to everybody, who eagerly
take as much of it as he can make. Chihiro was nice to him, and doesn't
want anything from him. He tries and tries to buy her friendship, but
she simply wants to help him, since he helped her once. No-face nearly
destroys the bath house, after he gets greedy when he eats a frog
patron, essentially taking on the persona of the frog. Chihiro lures
no-face out of the baths, where the spirit regains its former docile
nature and spits out the three people he had eaten. I loved his talk
before he ate the frog -"ah - ah".
There is another small subplot with Yubaba's baby, a gigantic infant
boy who is very spoilt. When Yubaba's twin sister comes and changes him
into a tiny mouse-like creature, with the babysitter bird into a
mosquito, it was truly hilarious. When they all go to Zeniba's place to
return the golden seal that Haku stole, Yubaba sees it as blackmail. She
is forced to free Chihiro (also known as Sen when her name was taken),
after a final test where Chihiro correctly deduces that her pig-parents
are not in the group that Yubaba presents her with.
There were so many very funny and very cute moments in the movie.
Since it is an animated film, aimed at children, that is to be expected.
But so much of it is very natural, as well. One of my favorite moments
comes early in the movie, when Chihiro is going down a long flight of
stairs to find a job. She takes each one very slowly and carefully, and
it is agonizing for the watcher to see her doing this. But one step
breaks, and she suddenly starts running down the stairs in terror, until
she smashes against a brick wall at the bottom. The change in tone, from
so slow to super-quick, was perfectly set up right from the start.
The mouse and mosquito were so very cute, as well. I loved watching
them staring out of the train at the sights, and spinning of Chihiro's
hairpiece (no-face turned out to be such a good knitter that Zeniba kept
him on with her!), and catching her tears as they fell to the water
after Haku was transformed.
Mostly it was the imagery that kept me glued to the screen. Combine
that with some of the best instrumental music I've heard in an animated
film, and this movie was well-worth watching.
There were a couple of features on the DVD worth watching as well. The
trailers went on and on for too long, but the Art of Spirited Away was
quite interesting, as was the Behind the Microphone on the voice actors.
The Japanese featurette was really fun, as well. I think Miyazaki looks
like a great person to work with. He may be demanding, but he looks like
he has a great sense of humor, always laughing. It was great to see.