In 2016, around 177 critics from across the world were asked by BBC to name their list of the best films so far of the 21st century. The only animation film that featured in the top 25, at a proud 4th position, was Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し). Until Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, superseded it recently, Spirited Away, released in 2001, reigned supreme as the biggest box-office hit from Japan across the world.
The film also won Hayao Miyazaki an Oscar for best animated film and the Golden Bear at Berlin. Now, almost 20 years later, Spirited Away is a film that is revered and studied endlessly by many film lovers. So what makes this 2001 movie one of the very best of our generation?
Perhaps, a great place to start finding out the reasons for Spirited Away’s greatness, is to find out what was happening behind the scenes in 2001 at Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki was coming through a personal crisis, having lost his friend and co-animator Yoshifumi Kondo. The studio had also had a disastrous flop in its preceding release- My Neighbors Yamada and the construction of the Ghibli Museum had depleted resources considerably. Miyazaki was also exhausted by the intensive work he had put in to create his magnum opus Princess Mononoke. The master-animator was even contemplating a retirement from film making. All this, led to Miyazaki thinking about the society we live in and the loss of spirituality and meaning in modern times. Spirited Away is a deeply introspective film on the value of traditions, spiritual beliefs and the fading away of memory in an era full of stress, acceleratio and anxiety.
Spirited Away narrates the story of a young girl called Chihiro who is trapped in a magical world where Japan’s old folklore and traditions are fully alive. She has to work for her living in this world in a resort of the Gods. The movie is deeply rooted in Japan’s ancestral legends, but looks at them from the perspective of the 21st century. Gods and demons who roam free in this world are viewed by Chihiro from the perspective of our world- where reality has little time to indulge the imagination or superstition. In the conception of these creatures, Miyazaki lets his creativity run riot and we are left to marvel mouth gaping wide at the mastery.
Spirited Away is also a story of hope. In the midst of all the chaos, Chihiru stands bewildered at times, deflated. In fact, Chihiru is extremely different from other strong Miyazaki woman like Mononoke or even, Kiki- in that her personality is hardly heroic. She is a normal 21st century girl who is caught in a world beyond her modern comprehension. She has to fight for what she believes in and what she loves. Her parents, who stand for modern consumerism, have turned into pigs in the very beginning of the movie- an acidic criticism from Miyazaki on the culture that they stand for. Now, Chihiru has to make sure she remembers her past in an enchanted world and try saving her memories. She fights her way through her own limitations.
Some of us who are used to Disney or Pixar animation, where protagonists often grow and mature through the movie and learn important life lessons along the way might be disappointed that no such thing happens in Spirited Away. Miyazaki is not a film maker who believes in giving moral lessons. He lets the viewer decipher messages for themselves and just creates complex and beautiful tapestries where technology and old animation methods weave together seamlessly.
Spirited Away has several themes- the difference between the divine and the real, the importance of words, a respect for nature, the importance of the past and a criticism of social structure. Through a story set in Japanese mythology Miyazaki makes us ponder about questions that are timeless.