By so drawing on motifs and various other details present in legend and folklore, Miyazaki has created a world that, while entirely his own, has all the potency of that of any actual myth and the same capacity for evoking a real sense of wonder. These motifs, such as Chihiro's need to consume food from the other world, her service to the witch Yubaba, to whom she must sign away her name, and the necessity of a test to acquire the object of her quest, are deftly employed and give Spirited Away a profound structure present in only a handful of other movies. The existence of these elements is, however, only one of the factors contributing to the worth of Miyazaki's film.
The director has created a slew of fascinating characters. Chihiro is a charming and very realistically portrayed girl. She is truly one of the great characters of narrative art, whether literature, film, or drama. In creating her, Miyazaki has displayed his usual insight into the minds of children and his keen eye for the ways children act and react. The inhabitants and guests of the bathhouse are all wonderful as well, from the spider-like boiler man, Kamaji, to the frog-like attendants, to all the diverse spirits they serve. Each character displays a unique personality that contributes, even if only in a small way, to the movie's intoxicating charm.
All these elements, and others as well, are so able to captivate the viewer that Spirited Away is often remarkably affecting. The film evokes a sense of awe, of another more profound world hidden behind our own ordinary reality, and Chihiro's encounters with the beings of this spirit realm consistently impress the moviegoer with the power and mystery of entities of which he is unaware, but which govern the world in which he lives. What is more, Chihiro's bravery in facing this world of awesome powers, which, though never evil, remain dangerous throughout, is effectively emphasized. Not only does the viewer feel her heroism, however, but he also sympathizes with the girl's plight. In fact, these three emotions, heroic bravery, sympathy, and awe, are effectively combined and balanced by Miyazaki so that each complements the others and all contribute to the film's overall effect.
The movie's enjoyableness is further enhanced by the stunningly gorgeous animation that is used throughout its duration. The backgrounds of the film are so vibrant and lush and the characters so strange and enthralling that even were every other element of Spirited Away a failure its visual beauty would still make it well worth seeing. The movie is equal to any other great work of visual art, whether film, print, or painting.
I should, at this point, note that while the performances of the voice actors in the English dubbed version are accomplished, the translation itself weakens the film in a number of ways. Not only does it add unnecessary explanations and bowdlerize the vibrant polytheism of the original so as to accommodate any particularly bigoted monotheistic viewers, but it also renders several parts of the film nonsensical. The final test Chihiro is given provides an instance of the dub's incoherence. In the Japanese original, Yubaba states that she must give Chihiro the test because of the rules of her world, that she cannot otherwise break the spell the girl's parents are under, but, in the English version, Yubaba insists upon giving the test because she has made a deal with Chihiro to that effect. A folkloric motif, namely, a test required to break a spell, is sacrificed for a contractual obligation, and one that does not even make sense, given that Yubaba does not want to compel Chihiro to undergo the test in either the English or the Japanese version. Her choosing in the English dub to force Chihiro to take the test is absolutely incomprehensible. Despite such flaws, the English version is worth watching.
Consistently gorgeous, marvelously evocative, and genuinely awe inspiring, Spirited Away is a brilliant film. Miyazaki has created a real work of art.
Review by Keith Allen
Allen. All rights reserved.