While they are many other Studio Ghibli films which deserve covering, and indeed will hopefully be covered in future columns, for now we shall end this little tour of Japan’s most famous anime producers by looking at their most notable creation. The one that most people will know about. The one that won THAT award.
Released in 2001 Spirited Away was both written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of the company. It contains many of the elements that are recognisable in Miyazaki’s work such as the central heroine as well as the ambiguity of the central villain and those around her. It also features appearances from characters that appear in earlier Ghibli movies, such as the susuwatari / dust-bunnies from My Neighbour Totoro.
The film follows 10-year-old girl Chihiro Ogino and her parents as they move house. Her father takes a wrong turn however and then end up in an abandoned amusement park. While the parents stop at a restaurant stall which has no staff but plenty of fresh food, Chihiro leaves them and finds a vast bathhouse. However, a boy called Haku who works there tells Chihiro to leave before sunset. However, she is too late. She is trapped in the park which turns out to be magical and her gluttonous parents have been turned into pigs.
Chihiro nearly vanishes in magical word, but Haku gives her some food that prevents her from being “spirited away”. Haku then tells her to go into the bathhouse and ask Kamaki, a spider-like spirit who runs the boiler room for a job. He, in turn with fellow worker Lin, send her to the boss, the sorceress Yubaba. She eventually gives Chihiro a job, but like all of her workers steals Chihiro’s name, calling her Sen. Chihiro/Sen thus begins working, hoping that she will be able to return her parents to normal and return home, whilst trying not to forget her original name.
Spirited Away is primarily famous for one reason. In 2002 it won Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”, the first, and at the time of writing the only film in a foreign language to win the award. The Oscar alone is reason enough to watch it.
However, Spirited Away was not just a success critically. It was also a huge success commercially. The original budget of the film was ¥1.9 billion ($19 million). The total box office takings were just under ¥22.4 billion ($275 million). As it a result it broke several records. It was the most commercially successful film in Japanese history; the highest-grossing film at the Japanese box office, overtaking Titanic; and the first film to take over $200 million in the worldwide box office before it opened in the USA.
There are others reasons to see Spirited Away aside from the success. One of these is the fact that you come across many aspects of Japanese folklore. For example, Haku is a “mizuchi”, a kind of river spirit who takes the form of a dragon. In the story we learn that both Haku and Chihiro/Sen have a closer relationship than first thought.
It also produces some other famous characters that are very much associated with Japan and its culture. Perhaps the most famous is the “No-Face”, a silent figure in black and a mask who has no face. Chihiro/Sen befriends him, believing he is a customer. The No-Face begins tipping staff with gold, but soon he starts to swallow people up.
Spirited Away is clearly a great film. Personally speaking it is not my favourite of the Ghibli catalogue (that is My Neighbour Totoro), but is a film that people should clearly watch for one last reason. Many people in Britain still see anime as something unseemly and are of the belief that most of it is unsuitable for children. This, as well as the other Studio Ghibli films, proves those people wrong.
Spirited Away is available on DVD from Studio Canal.