Thursday, 18 May 2017

World Cinema: Spirited Away (2001) Film Review

Fig 1. Film Poster
Spirited Away is a 2001 Japanese animated film, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of a young girl Chihiro who, while moving to a new neighbourhood, is transported to a fantasy land, takes a job in a bath house for spirits, and looks for a way to return to the human world and rescue her parents.

Spirited Away features many elements of Japanese heritage, folklore and mythology presented throughout the film, such as river spirits, bath houses, shapeshifting, dragons, witches etc., which create a vast interesting cast of characters, such as a polluted water spirit, which allows for Chihiro to prove herself to do a job well done. Haku the shape shifting dragon who helps Chihiro around this strange and interesting world. The six-armed man in the boiler room, along with all the soot sprites who help Chihiro get a job at the Bathhouse. This cast of spirits and mythological creatures not only create an enjoyable film, but also create a very folklore and myth-filled world which was enjoyed by audiences from all around the world.

One aspect of the film that is interesting to western audiences which makes it different from western animated films is the style. The Japanese style of drawing and design, being very light yet bold colour palette and intricate detailing, creates a very historic, heritage and fairy-tale like quality to the film, such as old Japanese drawings of the mythological creatures, in which designs not many western filmmakers would create or include specifically for a children's animated film. As well as traditional designs for spirits that would differ from western films, the designs of the dragon would also differ from a western film. As Haku's dragon form is snake like, with fur and long tendrils from the nose, short legs, and flying without wings, which is influenced from eastern dragon designs, this differed greatly from what most western audiences would expect a dragon to designed as, such as large, four strong, dinosaur-like legs, long barbed tail, scaled, horns, and powerful leather wings. One factor that Spirited Away was able to allow for audiences everywhere to enjoy the film was that despite the fact that not everybody would know of the mythology behind each creature, or perhaps why it is set in a bathhouse, or perhaps even what a bathhouse is, is that the background behind each character isn't required to understand the story.

Fig 2. Chihiro and Haku in his dragon form

As well as the mythological creatures and characters shown in the film, there are also several themes presented throughout the film, such as being coming of age, environmentalism, greed, and the blur in the line of good and evil in the forms of story and characters. The film presents greed in the form of the character No-Face, a spirit who becomes what he is due to his environment. In the bathhouse where he is allowed in by Chihiro, and soons produce gold for the greedy workers to take, who is then consumed by No-face, who increasingly eats other workers in the building when Chihiro refuses gold from him. There are two characters which present the them of environmentalism and pollution in the film, being Haku and the Stink Spirit. The Stink Spirit comes to the bathhouse to become clean again, and only after Chihiro discovers something is stuck inside it and pulls out the bike handle, an avalanche of rubbish and junk pours out from the stink spirit, revealing that it was in fact a River Spirit, who had become heavily polluted with bikes, tyres and other general waste. Haku is a river spirit who had forgotten his own name, until Chihior works out his true name and that he is in fact the river spirit who saved her from drowning in a river now cemented over for apartments. The Coming of Age is shown throughout the entire film and in the character of Chihiro, who is a young girl moving to a new town, and the whiney character at the beginning has completely transformed by the end of the film into a much mature and independent character who has gone through many trials of work, rescuing her self and her parents, and changing the lives of Haku, No-face, Boh, and the workers in the bathhouse forever. The idea of that good and evil are not so easily separated is frequent throughout this film which is quite unlike western animated films. The boss of the Bathhouse, Yubaba, is quite controlling of her workers, strict, and quite cruel, but does in fact have an overly love for her baby Boh, enough so that she cannot be considered truly villainous. Her sister who sent the paper bird to take down and nearly kill Haku becomes a very caring Grandmother figure by the end of the film. These twists of characters do portray a much more realistic representation of life outside of the film, that the world is not as black and white as perhaps presented in western media.

Spirited away is one of Japan's most successful films of all time, which features a great array of colours, styles, likeable and relatable characters, interesting folklore and mythology, as well as important symbolism and themes which entertain not only viewers of any age but also around the world.

Illustration List:
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