25 Days of Anime - #4: Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki's films have left a huge cultural impact - not just on other anime, but also on Western animated works. Disney's distribution of the Studio Ghibli films stateside has allowed these beautiful tales to break further into the mainstream than most anime. My familiarity with the Studio Ghibli films comes first and foremost from the more well-known releases. I've seen Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and Howl's Moving Castle, and while all of these films were masterfully crafted, no Studio Ghibli (and few animated films in general, for that matter) have captured my imagination and brought out my inner child as much as Spirited Away has.

The story begins with young Chihiro moving to a new house with her parents. When they make a brief stop on the way out of sheer curiosity, Chihiro becomes trapped in a fantasy world and her parents are transformed into pigs. She must rely on her wits, strike up a deal with a witch named Yubaba, and determine which of the mythical inhabitants of this realm are friendly to Chihiro's cause of returning her parents to a human state and finding her way back to her own world.

The presentation of the spirit world is gorgeous, and combines elements of feudal Japanese architecture, fantastical environments like an endless sea, and modern technologies like a train. The spirit beings themselves take on many different forms. Running the steam room is a humanoid individual with multiple arms. No Face, one of the more iconic spirits and major characters in the film, is comprised of little more than a painted white mask and black hood that tapers off into transparency. Meanwhile, talking frogs and giant walking Turnips make for some of the more outlandish designs.

Having the lead protagonist be ten years old is part of what allows the story to play out so perfectly. Chihiro is old enough to understand the real danger of never being able to return home, but also faces moments of self-doubt and fear. While she wants to return her parents to normal, she is also willing to help out spirits in need along the way - most importantly Haku, a young boy also in the service of Yubaba. Spirited Away is a wonderful film that breathes genuine human emotion and exciting fantasy storytelling through each and every scene.

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