Friday, September 23, 2011

Spirited Away

Spirited Away is a Studio Ghibli film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, released in 2001. It is one of their most well known and well received films, garnering much critical praise and winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The movie itself revolves around Chihiro Ogino, and chronicles her growth from a childish girl into a stronger young adult as she finds herself trapped in the spirit world.

The plot itself begins with Chihiro and her parents moving to a new town, with Chihiro herself feeling sad and apathetic about the whole event. They become lost on the way there, at at the persistence of her father the family decides to take an old, abandoned road and find themselves at an equally abandoned amusement park. Though Chihiro and her mother object, her father eventually convinces them to just take a quick peek around the place. Here they all become trapped in the spirit world, as the abandoned amusement park is actually a bathhouse and collection of restaurants for weary spirits to relax in. Her parents are turned into pigs for eating too much of the food, and Chihiro herself begins working at the bathhouse to ensure her safety from the other spirits and the owner of the house, an old witch named Yubaba. At the bathhouse, Chihiro's name is taken away and she is instead named Sen, after the first character in her name, and as long as she cannot recall her actual name she is permanently stuck in the spirit world. From here on out, Chihiro must find adjust to her new situation and find a way to save her parents and return to the human world.

The plot is creative and interesting, and is help together by a cast of equally interesting and likable characters. Chihiro herself starts off as a childish, somewhat bratty kid, but develops throughout her time in the spirit world and ends up being more mature than she was before, no longer sad and afraid of moving to a new town. Haku, a spirit who greatly helps Haku throughout, starts off as mysterious and enigmatic, though helpful and kind, and remains as such throughout, even though doubt is cast on his character by the other spirits. And the witch Yubaba is far more driven by greed than evil, and acts as more of a strict and cold, authoritative boss than a true villain, even having a large soft spot for her son.  Because of this, the nature of the conflict is not a typical good versus evil scenario, but rather has Chihiro fighting against the spirit world itself, representing a new and unfamiliar place and allowing her to grow as a person. The supporting cast contains equally interesting characters, such as Lin, a weasel spirit in human form who acts as an older sister figure to Lin; Kamaji, the old spirit of the boiler room that seems cold-hearted at first but by the end is a great help to Chihiro; No Face, a seemingly harmless spirit who goes mad when faced with the greed of the bathhouse and is eventually stopped and calmed by Chihiro; and Zeniba, Yubaba's twin sister and complete opposite in terms of personality, who is a major ally in the second half of the movie.

The art and animation throughout the film is superb, as expected from Studio Ghibli. The character designs are creative and interesting, and work together with the detailed backgrounds to help really create an otherwordly atmosphere of the spirit world, yet still be recognizable enough to not throw the world too far into the crazy and surreal. It makes the spirit world feel like just another side of the human world, as much of the architecture is the same and the quite a few of the spirits themselves are in a human or human like form, such as the majority of the frog spirits who resemble short, stocky men with frog shaped heads, yet still somewhat human, heads. A great amount of detail is giving to the actual animation itself, resulting in the movie looking very fluid from start to finish. A great deal of focus goes into the small gestures of the characters and things such as their clothing and hair, making them really come to life.

The shot choices and framing of the scenes are also very well done, with a large focus on the scenery to give a sense of atmosphere and help build the wondrous setting of the spirit world. This is especially apparent in the train sequence, when Chihiro, No Face, and two animals, one of which being Yubaba's transformed son, ride on a train to visit Zeniba in one of the film's final scenes. The train itself has its tracks in a shallow lake, giving a modern take on the old ideas of ferries in the underworld. The scene has no dialogue, and instead focuses on the characters looking out the window as waterlogged train stops and houses zoom by, with shadowy characters getting off at points. The entire scene really builds a wonderful sense of atmosphere by focusing solely on the scenery around the passing train and the passengers acting like normal passengers inside the train, making it both otherworldy and familiar at the same time. The pacing of scenes throughout is good as well, an example being when Chihiro is chased by a frantic, insane No Face after feeding him some of the medicine from the river spirit. It starts off with more hectic angles and cuts as the giant beast runs after Chihiro, while vomiting and getting stuck on various parts of the bathhouse only, to rip off excess parts of his body. As No Face grows smaller and closer to his original form, and begins moving more slowly, the scenes change less and less, eventually ending on a distant, original No Face walking along a pipe as Chihiro and Lin row away in a small boat. Chihiro accepts that he's no longer mad, and she lets him slowly catch up to her as she walks toward the train station, in a much slower paced and peaceful section than the chase before it, allowing a nice cooldown from the energy before.

In the end, Chihiro manages to save her parents and leave the spirit world, showing how she's matured into a young adult and ready for her new experience. The movie itself definitely more than deserves all the praise it has gotten, combining an interesting story and characters with great art and animation throughout and helped by the timing of scenes and interesting shot choices to really show off the backgrounds and characters and give the whole movie a great atmosphere, and is further helped by a soundtrack that helps emphasize the feel of each scene. It is definitely one of my favorite movies, animated or no, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in animation, though most have probably already seen it.

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