Take a Drink: whenever No Face consumes something, anything at all.
Take a Drink: whenever the Bathhouse needs more steam.
Take a Drink: whenever Chihiro travels somewhere new.
Do a Shot: when Haku gets into a fight.
Finish Your Drink: when Sen takes her final test.
By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
Let me propose, if you’re not up for the usual Drinking Game we provide here at MovieBoozer, that Spirited Away is the perfect candidate for some Studio Ghibli Bingo. Young girl protagonist thrust into an unknown environment? Mark that square. Whimsical and strongly memorable creatures? Yeesss. Impressionistic landscapes fronted by unbelievably strong and intricate set design? Da. Plot that somehow has to revolve itself through compassion, conservation, and mercy? Yup. A Jo Hisaishi score guaranteed to cause feels for anyone who is conscious? You betcha. The film may not be the most arresting or impactful Miyazaki – there I think we’re arguing about Princesss Mononoke and The Wind Rises – but it is perhaps the fullest and most successful articulation of all the great Japanese animator’s themes and stylistic devices. It is, in other words, the most Ghibli film of all time.
Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro, a young girl who finds herself on the wrong side of the Looking Glass in exactly the Lewis Carroll sense of the phrase. En route to a new town, her parents check out a fair, as you do, and get magically turned into pigs, also as you do. It’s up to Chihiro to earn their freedom from the witch who kind of wants to eat them, Yubaba. To do this, an imposing spirit named Haku helps her hide her true name and get work inside Yubaba’s Bathhouse, a sort of mystic hub of Kabuki creatures and benign aliens all looking for a little R&R. How much chaos could a clueless little human cause, right?
I threw in that nod to the score up in the top paragraph, but I will absolutely lead The Toast section with it, because I was serious. This soundtrack does that thing with all the immediacy of musical composition to rend and heal your heart at the exact same moment. Much of Spirited Away‘s “heart,” its tone and the overall mood of both the world in which Chihiro finds herself and the world of her inner life, is contained with Hisaishi’s score. The piano arrangement of “Kaeru Hi” is probably your first hit on YouTube, but it’s worth listening to even the action cues and more sinister undertones, because there’s great feeling and curiosity within them, too.
But obviously the story doesn’t work if it isn’t as visually imaginative as it, in fact, is. Spirited Away has a pocket fantasy universe into which its protagonist falls; it is like many pocket fantasy universes; but is entirely its own. The bathhouse has a fascinating, Byzantine structure, but almost bursts with the warmth of its red beams and lighted windows. Once Chihiro takes on her new identity as Sen, she meets equally multifaceted oddballs like the eight-limbed steam-operator Kamaji, or No Face, a silent, wraith-like apparition who offers gifts before attempting to consume entire wings of the bathhouse. The art on everyone is fantastic in both the descriptive and the superlative sense. Spirited Away has the strong sense of detail, bold lines, and flowing movement that makes it magical when say, a tramline stretches out over an endless body of water, or when a dragon starts flying pell-mell through a house.
The dub is fine, without flashy A-listers but stuffed with reliable voice talents like David Ogden Stiers, Tara Strong, and John Ratzenberger. Daveigh Chase is an able Chihiro, although the English script doesn’t add anything in particular to the story. You’re just as well off with the subbed version, which shares Miyazaki’s visual tendency to emphasize poetic or environmental details. The story is involving and fun, with many madcap situations, additional witches, and Totoro-esque little mite buddies filling out the main plotline. The movie isn’t quite incidental in structure, but it’s not as relentlessly focused on forward momentum and goals as Western animation tends to be.
It also isn’t quite a fairy-tale as some of its Western cousins. There’s an the alternate-universe, Mitch Hedberg version of this, where you can picture J. Walter Weatherman popping out of Yubaba’s dress at the end and growling, “And this is why you never eat anything you find lying around at a fair!” But to read the story as moralistic is to completely miss out on its impact. Spirited Away is a bewildering and fey place, full of beings with their own baggage. Learning to navigate such a world without getting eaten is definitely the work of growing up. But appreciating the world as you go, too, is kind of the point.
Spirited Away isn’t everyone’s favorite Miyazaki, but it is the perfect gateway to Studio Ghibli’s themes and style: painterly, detailed art supporting clever and resonant storytelling which adds depth to our everyday world and emotional experiences. Chihiro’s tale is not so much built from the idea that looks can be deceiving, but that animation has the ability to reveal the way things really are inside. And inside? It’s super complicated and baffling. And it can be kind of wonderful if you have the courage to care about other witches/spirits/people/pigs.