Review: Spirited Away

Miyazaki reimagines Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as an Asian folk dream in his latest gem.

Spirited Away
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

The legendary Hayao Miyazaki reimagines Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as an Asian folk dream in his latest gem Spirited Away, co-winner of this year’s Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents drive through a remote area of Japan and stumble upon an imaginary world hidden within the walls of an abandoned amusement park. When her gluttonous parents are turned into pigs, the young girl plans their escape from the witchy Yubaba’s health resort with the help of the Haku, a young boy capable of turning into a flying beast. Miyazaki has a way of losing himself to his imagination, a process that’s often frustrating though never less than exhilarating to behold. Plot here takes a backseat to set pieces that flow into each other like a glorious stream of consciousness. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a moment on film this year more textured and exhilarating than the scene in which Chihiro bathes a Stink God at Yubaba’s resort. Chihiro unearths a River God beneath the Stink and is rewarded for her kind effort; Miyazaki, all the while, subtly reinforces the young girl’s problem with water. The director’s epic Princess Mononoke depicted the apocalyptic results of a war between feudal Japan and its Shinto forest gods. Spirited Away also contemplates rifts between spirit worlds, though it isn’t quite as overwrought as Mononoke. Miyazaki celebrates individualism and nature’s simple, untainted beauties, subsequently pondering the transcendent power of communication between the “inside” and the “outside.” If the inside of Yubaba’s eccentric resort is a prison for lonely, nameless ghosts, then the world outside her gates threatens to free the soul. It’s easy to loose sight of Chihiro’s preordained spiritual journey beneath Miyazaki’s fantastical sights. From the lower depths of Yubaba’s fortress to the watery exteriors of the spirit kingdom, Chihiro moves closer to spiritual enlightenment with every conquest. When an already empowered Chihiro takes to the sky aboard Haku, Miyazaki evokes poetry in motion: they fall into each other (literally and figuratively), their mutual liberation perpetuated by the simple acknowledgement of a name. The dubbed-in voices Disney will ship in for the film’s stateside release will more or less negate Miyazaki’s theme of remembrance. Still, it’s a necessary evil if it means American tots will be swept away from false prophets like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

 Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Tatsuya Gashuin, Ryunosuke Kamiki  Director: Hayao Miyazaki  Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki  Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures  Running Time: 124 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2002  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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