Spirited Away belongs to a tradition of moralistic and instructive bedtime stories. At its heart, the film is about a spoiled child taking responsibility to save herself and her parents, as elemental a hero’s journey as they come. If the theme of the film is simple, however, the narrative is anything but. When her parents wander into a strange village and undergo a Circean transformation into pigs, 10-year-old Chihiro must venture into a shadow world to find the key to saving them. Along the way, she meets witches, animist spirits, and demons, each of whom adds a new wrinkle to Chihiro’s quest.
The fastidious Hayao Miyazaki envisions the spirit realm from the ground up, and a surprising amount of this children’s film is devoted to exploring the social stratification and economy of the area. Chihiro first finds herself in the bowels of a furnace helping magically animated soot feed coal into the burner, but soon she works in the central bathhouse above, where the desperate social angling of other laborers can be seen in the constant jockeying for tips and bath tokens. So enthralled are the other spirits by gold that when a demon who reflects the desires of those around it enters the spa, it immediately begins spewing gold and gluttonously devouring food and person alike, revealing the venality that dictates the region. Yubaba, the witch who rules over the bathhouse (and, by extension, the village), is more collected and cunning, but her opulent living conditions at the top of a tower give away her own greed. Chihiro’s ultimate weapon against her is guilelessness, not only for its ability to attract friends and allies, but its power to resist the mortal temptations offered up to derail her journey.
The animation of that journey shows Miyazaki working at the height of his powers. As with all of his features since Princess Mononoke, the film incorporates computer animation, but it’s primarily applied to a handful of action sequences to either maintain the speed of certain shots or to add small flourishes, like embers that spew out of the furnace with noticeably three-dimensional definition. Otherwise, the film is hand-drawn, and Miyazaki and the Ghibli animators compose frames unbound by physical limitation. When a stink god comes to the bathhouse, for example, sudden shifts in perspective diminish Chihiro while magnifying the monster, which towers in a mound of sludge and filth over a tub already several times taller than the girl. Even the film’s calmer scenes, the pillow shots of skies and roofs that punctuate the adventure with tranquility, aren’t basic sketches to pad out the running time, but clearly blocked frames intended to produce a specific emotional response.
Miyazaki’s films provide an easy way into anime by virtue of their Western-friendly nuances, and this may be his most accessible. Shinto spirits and archaic tropes like the magical properties of one’s name are made familiar by more recognizable themes and events, like the corrupting properties of greed or a variation on the tale of pulling a thorn from a beast’s side. The film is also an ideal introduction to the director by virtue of its balance. Spirited Away is epic in aesthetic scope and urgent in its narrative motivation, but apart from Ponyo, it’s also the closest that Miyazaki ever came to replicating the idyllic escapism of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Disney’s Blu-ray marks a clear improvement over the previous DVD, with sharper colors and deeper textures in every frame. Disney has a tendency to overcorrect their own legacy reissues, but Spirited Away looks like it’s been touched up just enough to bring out all the detail of its original print. Both the original Japanese track and the Disney English dub receive lossless 5.1 tracks that are mixed identically, save for the language difference in voice cast. As with most of Disney’s Ghibli dubs, the film’s actors are as committed to their parts as the Japanese cast, and selecting a track will come down to personal preference over technical discrepancy. Happily, the Blu-ray also comes with two English subtitle tracks, one a translation of the dub, the other a more accurate rendition of the Japanese script.
The Blu-ray comes with no new extras, instead replicating the features of the original DVD. The disc includes an introduction by John Lasseter, as well as a brief featurette on the recording of the English cast and an overview of the film’s art. The best extras, though, are those produced in Japan. A collection of Miyazaki’s storyboards prominently displays how thoroughly the director maps out his films for his animation team, while a 40-minute special that aired on Nippon TV provides copious details on the minutiae of the production, including how Miyazaki drew inspiration for places and people from locations and staffers around the office.
Hayao Miyazaki’s most well-known film belatedly comes to Blu-ray with one of the strongest A/V transfers afforded to a Studio Ghibli film.