For the first five minutes of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away I was slightly disappointed. We join Chihiro in a very normal car with her parents, sulking on her journey to a new home: no fantastical beings in sight. Soon, however, our timid protagonist stumbles across a bathhouse for the spirits after her family get lost in the woods, and so I was happy again, although the same cannot be said for Chihiro, whose parents are turned into giant pigs by a witch named Yubaba. Scorned by the spirits as a stinky human, Chihiro pleads for a job and thus the chance to figure out how to save her parents.
We follow Chihiro on her new journey into adulthood, runs the critical consensus, but I'm not so sure: she's only ten. Yet, as she grows in courage and picks up new friends (of various shapes and sizes) along the way, Spirited Away is something of a bildungsroman, a coming of age story. Seeing as Chihiro is ten years old, that also pretty much blows a love story out of the water. Miyazaki, writer and director intended it as such. He came up with this story for the daughters of family friends, seeing that the magazines they read were all based on romance, which is hardly a topic truly close to a ten year old's heart. Instead, Spirited Away is a feast of fantasy and wonder, with the quest storyline providing just as much delight as the stunning imagination at work in the animation. I was squealing with delight on average once every five minutes (mainly at the tiny soot workers, but also the disembodied green heads which bounce around saying 'poi!', which are somehow adorable).
I usually give a nod to the themes at work in the films I review, but to be honest when I was watching this movie I was too enraptured to really care. (Although, I did notice with relief that Miyazaki declined the opportunity to once again hammer home his environmental lessons, though there are brief allusions to the ruination of Japan's rivers). When Chihiro and her parents first discover the spirits' realm in the daytime, they believe they've stumbled across an abandoned theme park, probably built up in the economic boom, then abandoned as the bubble burst. This early allusion to the Japanese economy sets up the greed we see at work later on, especially at the bathhouse, as the workers scramble over each other to receive gold from the richer spirits.
But, seeing as this is a kids film (really), let's leave a critical deconstruction of the plot aside. On the whole this is a tremendously watchable film, even if you're not so into the fantasy thing, so if you have a free evening begging to be filled, find a copy of Spirited Away. It's not faultless, and the ending is clunky at best, but it is adorable and well worth the watch. If anything, it's made me want to give up my degree and spend my days watching my way through Miyazaki's filmography. What a blessing to mankind.