OK, this one is going to require a different approach. Up until this point I have been writing about Studio Ghibli films that a good proportion of readers won’t have seen, and some will not have even heard of, but this was the one that changed everything: Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards.
Pointing out that it was the first non-American film to win the award is not actually saying much, because the “Best Animated Feature” award only started the year before (won by Shrek), but if we look at the list since Spirited Away it’s quite easy to see a pattern, as the list is populated overwhelmingly by US-produced animations, things like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Rango, Frozen etc. So the awards are in my opinions rather inward-looking, and a Japanese film winning the Oscar really did mark it out as something special. So is it the best of all the Ghibli films? Let’s look at the themes first, and a source of inspiration.
Spirited Away is often compared to Alice in Wonderland, and there are hints of that if you need a Western equivalent. Miyazaki borrowed his design concept for Yubaba from the Tenniel illustrations of the Duchess, with her out-of-proportion head, and the result is physically grotesque and troubling. Miyazaki has a tradition for including grotesquely drawn old ladies in his films, and they are often kindly characters (there is one of those here too), but Yubaba really subverts that approach and goes full on with the scariness. We could make some fairly superficial comparisons with frog men in Alice, and the tunnel works in a similar way to the rabbit hole, but that’s about it, because the real source of inspiration for Spirited Away is the Shinto faith.
The soot sprites are back from My Neighbour Totoro, given a slightly sinister origin story if you pay attention to Yubaba’s threat to turn Chihiro into coal. The bathhouse is run by animal spirits, mainly weasels and frogs, and the Miyazaki tradition of a mustachioed engineer is even present and correct in this world of spirits, with the spider spirit Kamaji. The visiting spirits are all tied in with nature in some way. If you pay attention when the stink spirit is de-polluted by Chihiro you will get a big clue about the true nature of Haku, Chihiro’s love interest.
I say “love interest” but it is of course the most innocent form of romance, with Chihiro just ten years old. She is young for a coming-of-age story, but that is basically how Spirited Away functions. Chihiro starts the film miserable and afraid. A dark tunnel terrifies her, and she is on her way to a new home and a new school, and feels very lost. The events of the film help her to grow up a lot, becoming confident and capable, more adult in an emotional sense than her childish, selfish parents. Her closing line “I think I can handle it” may be an addition for the English language dub, but it fits perfectly.
And Chihiro is a very important character, in terms of Japanese animation. Miyazaki was concerned that female heroines in manga and anime were all incredibly cute, perhaps giving girls unrealistic role models. That is still very much the case in Japanese animation, but Chihiro was created as a character girls could actually look up to and try to emulate on an emotional level, rather than watching giant-eyed moe cuties.
So, to return to the question I posed above, is Spirited Away really the best Ghibli film? The animation is of course stunningly beautiful, especially the train that journeys across the water to the afterlife. It is also an incredibly clever film. A couple of examples, one that might pass you by from a Western point of view, and one that is there with the English dub in mind in particular:
Firstly, Yubaba’s renaming of Chihiro to “Sen”. This is one that gets lost in translation. “Chi” and “Sen” are two different pronunciations for the same Japanese character, so Yubaba is actually shortening Chihiro’s name, but she is doing so in a very specific way. “Chihiro” can be translated as “a thousand fathoms” or “a thousand questions”. Yubaba shortens that, leaving just the number, so Chihiro becomes “Sen”, or “1000”. When she works for Yubaba, she becomes a number.
Secondly, No Face, and this is extraordinarily clever, making you realise the depth of knowledge of English that the Japanese achieve through their education system: the Japanese name for the character is Kao-nashi, which can be translated as “without a face” or “no face”. Obviously, the English dub was going to go with “No Face”, but take a look at the character’s appearance. He wears a Noh mask. So it’s a play on words that only works in the English dub, and has to be entirely intentional.
But No Face is an extraordinarily clever idea for a character, beyond just his name. He feeds off emotions, quite literally when he starts going berserk and gobbling up everything and everyone in sight, and the emotion that turns him into a monster is greed. When he is loyally following Chihiro he becomes a very different character.
It’s not quite the perfect film that ninety-something percent of reviewers claim it to be. The lack of a character variation for Zeniba is a shame, to the extent that she even wears the same clothes as Yubaba, and that was not the original intention. It was just a budgetary/time issue. But the big problem is Chihiro’s parents, who come away at the end of the film unchanged and with her father in particular the same arrogant fool he was at the start. Yes, the film isn’t really about them, but Spirited Away is about people developing and changing (and not just Chihiro), so for me it’s a (fairly minor) thematic omission.
When I was writing about Doctor Who stories, I came to the realisation that “the best” and “my favourite” are not necessarily the same thing, and that’s OK. Spirited Away is far from being my favourite Ghibli film, but that only says something about me, not the films. I’m a sucker for the slice-of-life films. As my wife pointed out to me the other day, I like the ones where there’s a soppy romance. But yes, I would be foolish to argue that Spirited Away isn’t the best thing Studio Ghibli have ever done. In fact, I would go further than that. It’s the best animated film ever made.
It might just be the best film ever made, full stop.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 7 in particular are all completely magnificent.
- Spirited Away
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
Disney’s trailer is below if you want to watch it, but be aware that it gives a lot away (and bafflingly doesn’t include the train). Next time we will be looking at Studio Ghibli’s only film that could be described as something approaching a sequel: The Cat Returns. RP