Spirited Away: 20 Years of The ‘Spirit’ of Tradition

For nearly twenty years, Studio Ghibli has proven itself to not only be the most successful and innovative animation studio within its homeland of Japan, but as that country’s most recognized dream machine of beautiful and unique animated feature films—largely composed of both modern takes on traditional Japanese folktales and the nearly lost art of true hand-drawn animation. As Disney has long since yielded to the cost-effective turnaround of CGI and motion capture remakes, Studio Ghibli is now celebrating its second decade as the leading global force of animated moving image. As its first mainstream blockbuster, 2001’s Spirited Away, prepares for its 20th anniversary, YouTubers reassess the timeless beauty and painstaking artistry of the modern classic which brought the Japanese art of anime to the world arena. That film, which reimagined numerous Japanese elements of folklore as seen through the eyes of 10-year-old Chihiro as she navigates her way around an abandoned amusement park-turned magical realm of gods and spirits in an adventure to save her parents, was the brainchild of master animator Hayao Miyazaki—and has lost none of its captivating appeal. According to YouTuber Dan Murrell in his reassessment:

I love that this movie is largely set in one location. This bathhouse constitutes the setting for a good part of the film, but there’s so much richness to it and so much depth in both characters and character design, this world feels so lifted and spiritual and real—even though it is a fantastical world—that it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. I’m really looking forward to re-watching this because there are just so many little things.

The YouTubers at StoryDive agreed with the overall assessment, stating that it was the subtle blend of master elements—along with the film’s modern inclusion of century’s old folktales—that only added to the film’s wide-ranging appeal:

Much has been made of director Hayao Miyazaki’s attention to detail in the visual art, or movement, of his animation—but Miyazaki also applies this level of detail to the fantasy elements in his stories. Miyazaki’s films have a mythic quality, in part because he’s an amazing storyteller, but also because they draw from pre-existing mythology, folklore, and culture.

As the film was created only a few years after Pixar began to slowly dominate the American box-office with the new wave of computer-driven animation style—effectively making CGI the go-to norm for animated feature films—those American artists who had been following Miyazaki’s work for Studio Ghibli noted the lasting beauty of Spirited Away and its dependence on the hand-drawn animated tradition, and even helped secure the foreign film’s U.S. release. According to Dan Murrell:

There are a couple of nods to animation its legacy. Of course, the lamp that we meet late in the film is a fairly obvious tip of the cap to Pixar [and] it just shows that there is a commonality and a bond between these artists, even if they work in slightly different fields: hand-drawn animation versus computer animation.

Spirited Away quickly won over a devoted worldwide legion of fans, specifically due to its style and craftsmanship, but also for its expansive tapestry of folklore that both taught westerners many aspects of Japanese tradition, while indicating a certain universal appeal within those tropes. On the first aspect, YouTuber Karsten Runquist states that Spirited Away is, quite simply, just too beautiful in its details for both image and sound not to hold the audience:

The sound and visuals of Spirited Away make it a truly immersive experience, but the film would not be what it is without the pacing. Time is an important aspect of Spirited Away—the film’s story has a lot to say about what things mean at certain times, what can happen within a certain time, etc. That being said, the way at which the film uses its time is an incredibly important detail, and it does so flawlessly.

On the subject of the film’s immersive soundscapes, YouTuber Steve Reviews added that Spirited Away’s full soundtrack is integral to the story’s tone and narrative—but not merely the sounds themselves, but renowned composer Joe Hisaishi’s subtle, haunting piano-driven score:

This soundtrack is so elegant and peaceful, I actually found myself seeking out the piano score and having it play in the background while I was writing this review. It’s certainly one of those songs where you only have to hear the first few seconds of the opening melody to instantly associate it with this film.

He added that the film’s runtime of over two hours, in a rare instance among animated fantasy films, actually worked to the story’s benefit; with the combination of visual aspects expertly blended with the sounds and characterizations, Spirited Away contained all the meticulous scripting of a live-action adventure. Steve Reviews added:

… Spirited Away really didn’t feel long at all and I was wondering as to why that was. Could it be down to the distracting visuals music? Well, partly, but I believe the main reason is down to how it’s paced. There film has a pattern throughout where we’ll have small intervals of action sandwiched between ‘take-a-breather’ moments.

YouTuber Karten Runquist added that the pacing was, truly, one of Spirited Away’s greats aspects. In his review, he added that Miyazaki’s editing was a key component in keeping the attention and imagination of viewers, both young and old, adding:

This movie takes full advantage of its medium—something you rarely get to see. Imagination and creativity are seeping out of this thing in every single frame—not a moment is wasted.

This is also due, according to YouTuber Steve Reviews, to the realistic ambiguity of even the most whimsical of the film’s characters. While the audience is made to sympathize with its protagonist, young Chihiro, the psychological aspects of the film’s story purposely left much to the interpretation of the audience—particularly the motivations of the vast array of colorful characters. He added:

I love the characters in this film, mainly because there is no definitive hero or villain. Most of the characters Chihiro meets will start off cold and hostile towards her—but will grow softer as she proves herself as a hard worker, showing that respect isn’t just granted, but needs to be earned.

Steve Reviews added that not only the masterful depiction of animated humans and creatures alike were a component of Spirited Away that contributed to the suspension of disbelief needed for such a fantasy story—especially one with so many plot twists and mythologies:

I’ve always said that the greatest strength of animation is having no limits on the design and movements you can bring to the characters on screen—and this film certainly makes the most of that strength. There are also moments scattered through where additional frames are used to create a much smoother motion, but while still maintaining a high level of detail … And as well as the realistic detail, the movement is also impressive. Despite a lot of mythical creatures, there’s actually a lot of realistic movement in here.

In his retrospective on the film, YouTuber Dan Murrell concurred adding that even lovers of other, more realistic genres would enjoy the elements of Spirited Away that seem to cloak the viewer into a new world, blending both recognizable details and the slow integration of fantasy and myth:

Overall, I found Spirited Away to be a really good mix of the whimsical, the grotesque, the comical, the sentimental … It juggled so many different tones so well, it was able to immerse you in this world.

Murrell concluded by adding that based on the imaginative strength of Spirited Away, viewers will be inspired—much like himself—to seek out other masterworks of Studio Ghibli, as well as the entire world of Japanese anime that has only taken hold of the western audiences’ attention since Spirited Away became a surprise mainstream critical and financial hit in 2001:

As I mentioned, the hand-drawn animation remains stunning and I’m looking forward to watching even more of these films, not just Studio Ghibli, but in the anime genre in general, because I do feel like it is a skill that is worth preserving.

In his own closing words, YouTuber Steve Reviews added that there is much for lovers of all genres of filmmaking to find within the many aspects of Spirited Away—a film that is truly a sum of its many parts, concluding:

In conclusion, this is a fantastic film … Stunning visuals, beautiful music, and great pacing which—unlike Chihiro—will leave you wanting to stay in this magical world for a lot, lot longer.