To Western audiences, Hayao Miyazaki might not be as well-known as, say, Walt Disney, but his creative genius has yielded some of the most amazing animated feature films ever created. Filled with heart, cleverness and thrills, several of Miyazaki’s films rank highly on my list of favorite movies, and Spirited Away is perhaps his masterpiece. It is not my favorite of his movies, but it is easily the greatest of them. It is one I especially revere as a movie that I watched often when I first became a father, and shared it with my young children to introduce them not just to the magic of storytelling, but to the myriad lessons that Miyazaki’s creative worldview has to offer to young and old alike.
Spirited Away is the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who is none too pleased that she is moving across Japan as her father pursues a new work opportunity. Displaying the kind of petulance that only a 10-year-old can muster, Chihiro is bent on making the long road trip to the new family home as miserable as possible…that is, until she notices that her dad has taken a wrong turn and has driven far off the beaten path. They arrive at what appears to be an old, abandoned theme park deep in a wooded countryside. Against Chihiro’s concerns, her parents get out and go exploring. The whole place is empty, and yet, there is a restaurant stall piled high with steaming food. Chihiro’s parents dig in even though Chihiro knows something is very wrong here.
As night falls, shadowy spirits emerge and the abandoned resort reveals itself to be a kind of ghost village. She tries to flee, but her parents’ gluttony has transformed them into giant pigs, and Chihiro suddenly finds herself trapped in this spirit world as her parents are taken captive. To avoid a similar fate, Chihiro must rely on the help of a mysterious stranger named Haku who directs Chihiro to hide in the large bath house at the center of the village. There, she enters the employ of a great witch named Yubaba and undergoes a bewildering array of adventures that test her ability to stay alive and free in a world where mortals don’t belong. She must navigate a long-simmering conflict between Yubaba and other powers outside of the bath house. She embarks on a quest to relearn her true name, after it has been stolen by Yubaba. She tries to find her parents and set them free. And she must make friends and allies out of the unlikeliest of people. And behind it all is the greatest challenge of all: learning what it means to serve something more important than one’s self.
Spirited Away is a brilliant journey through a wonderland whose rules often make little sense to anybody but the ghosts who live by them. Miyazaki taps deep veins of Japanese mythology, folklore and superstition to make a world steeped in arcane rules and traditions, but still able to be understood by those who see it for what it is. Throughout much of the movie, Chihiro is her own worst enemy, as she proves too stubborn to do what is asked of her, or too frazzled to stop and see things clearly. But little by little, she overcomes her own impediments and learns to master this strange new world of hers.
The irony, of course, is that the more Chihiro learns how best to navigate the world of the ghostly bathhouse, the closer she gets to finding a way out of it. But as Chihiro finds out, one never really leaves a place like this behind them. They keep a small part of it within their hearts forevermore. The bath house might be a special nexus for the spirits of wood and stream beset by an increasingly harsh, modern, and artificial world. But it is also an internal destination, where one can see that every world has its rules, its cruelties, its excesses, its ugliness. If there is beauty and justice and freedom to be found, it is to be found within ourselves as we grow through adversity into the best version of ourselves that we can be. That truth stands no matter whose world you are visiting.
Among so many moments of beautiful clarity in this picture, the moment of truth is when Chihiro enjoys her first real victory in the bath house. She has been working there as a kind of gopher for bosses more content to yell at her for not knowing anything than in actually instructing her in how to do her job. A filthy spirit resembling a massive pile of garbage and slime comes to the bath house, and nobody will help it get clean except for Chihiro, who seems to appreciate what it means to seek help from people disinclined to give it to you. She breaks the bath house’s rules and gives the spirit way more perfumed water than is allowed for any customer, but before Yubaba can discipline her for it, the slime begins to wash away and reveal that this customer is very special, indeed. Chihiro spots a strange handle sticking out of the creature’s side and pulls on it with all her strength, and out pops a discarded bicycle, as well as a vast torrent of other junk and pollution. The spirit was that of an ancient river, and once clean, it flies about, laughing in delight. It rewards Chihiro with a rare treasure she will later use to help find her parents, but in the moment, it is enough for Chihiro to know that she helped somebody who needed it when nobody else would. It doesn’t matter how much Yubaba might yell at her for it. In that moment, it does not matter. Helping another, does. And it is in that moment when this selfish, young girl takes her first steps into a larger world within herself: adulthood.