Full on disagree about the MPAA on this one. The rating on this movie is "PG". There are a handful of Ghibli PG-13s. This one is most definitely deserving of PG-13. It's a straight up horror movie. Admittedly, it is a whimsical horror movie, but the movie itself is very scary. It's also visually messed up, so let's relook at this one. I got this for my birthday a few years ago and saw that it was PG. I started watching it with the kid and had to stop. It is really messed up. I think it might be the scariest outright movie of the group. There's blood and creature gore. PG.
DIRECTOR: Hayao Miyazaki
I didn't get a chance to write yesterday. That throws me off my game. If this review comes off as a series of mumbled half-ideas...well, that means I slid back into reviews like it was no big deal. It's so weird how this is one of the famous ones. I mean, I get it. It is an amazing movie. It's is visually his prettiest movie. It is also the most bananas screwed up thing in his entire ouevre. And the guy makes some weird stuff. I'm following this review up with Howl's Moving Castle and that thing is pretty bananas in itself. It's just that Spirited Away really shouldn't work. By the way I'm wording that, I have to establish that this movie really works way too well. It's just that, structurally, it throws you in the deep end and never asks to explain itself. It also trusts its audience more than most movies probably would. Let me explain.
Imma gunna have to use spoilers, mainly because it is early in the morning and I kind of want to go deep into some of the ideas in this movie. The movie has the smallest exposition I've ever seen before just diving head first into a movie. I've seen movies skip the exposition and that is far more subtle than what Miyazaki does with this movie. Chihiro and their family are moving, despite the fact that Chihiro doesn't want to. They take a wrong turn going to their new house. That's it. Inciting incident comes right in. Like, we're talking about the length of the opening credits to establish a lot. And that is the pace the rest of the movie will hold onto. I guess you could argue that the inciting incident would be when Chihiro's parents take the first bite of food, but Chihiro is aware that the abandoned theme park is a place of danger. She wants to escape right from that moment. But then the movie just ramps up really quickly. You want an explanation for what's going on? Too bad! I'm Hayao Miyazaki! I can do whatever I want and you have to accept it. That's fantastic. The movie just dives directly into whatever the heck is going on. We know that there is a ghost / demon bathhouse and that it is run by Yubaba. That's it. The rest of the rules are made up on the fly. Eating food from the spirit world keeps you from Marty McFlying? Check. You have to have the boiler room recommend you for a job? Sure. Humans can sometimes become employees? Why not? There's just so much that Miyazaki solves upon introducing it that you just have to run with it. Again, I might be overly flippant with this whole thing. For all I know, Spirited Away might be based on very specific legend that might be common knowledge to some people. But from my perspective, Chihiro just has every problem addressed immediately upon encountering it. Her major conflict, saving her parents and escaping the spirit realm, takes a while. But those moments to moments, easy solves. Okay, not easy, but wrapped up pretty nicely. Again, this shouldn't work. As a viewer, I suppose I normally want investment in the solution to a problem. By having Chihiro have unsolvable problems that are nearly immediately solved, I can't at all predict what is going to happen. There's a lot of false information presented to me. The stink demon is presented with a set of traits associated with it. Yubaba lets me know exactly why I should worry about a stink demon. Then we find out that the stink demon isn't a stink demon. I'm not really sure what it is, but it has a whole different set of traits to it. The good news is that it throws me out of the binary options presented to me. Instead, I'm presented with a third choice for Sen to make. That makes it more interesting, but there is also no way to anticipate what the characters could do.
The thing that makes people flock to this one is the fact that it is the most gorgeous of the Ghibli movies. We just watched Ponyo and that's a really close one for that title. But there is some absolutely bizarre creativity going on with this one. In some ways, I suppose most of Spirited Away is an excuse to just draw cool creatures. The fact that much of the movie doesn't bother explore the purpose behind characters. Like, it is really cool that Haku is a dragon. (I told you that there would be spoilers!) But does he need to be a dragon for the sake of the plot? Not really. It just turns okay scenes into cool scenes. Yubaba's power set is all over the place. She could wreck everyone. But by giving Yubaba this weird power set, it allows the movie to be playful and weird. There are just so many cool design things. I'm reminded of the way that Guillermo del Toro makes his movies. Both directors are masterful storytellers who simply want a canvas to paint with. The stories are secure and are well crafted, but these often take a backseat to absolutely gorgeous character design and animation. I mean, look at the parents turning into pigs. It might be one of the more mundane things that happens in this absolutely insane movie, but it looks terrifying. In my MPAA section, I said that I consider this to be Miyazaki's horror movie. The aesthetics and tone of the movie are absolutely terrifying. Look at No Face. (His name is No Face. That's a horror movie character name if I ever heard of it.) He's actually the most iconic element from this film and most of the Ghibli canon. No Face is haunting and tragic in design, but he becomes this violent, pulsating slug that tries to murder the protagonist. Is his mouth where you'd assume? Heck no! He has this creepy Pennywise voice. That idea that if you take anything from No Face, you'll be eaten and your personality will be absorbed? You could have made a horror movie just about No Face and it would have been the most terrifying thing I'd ever seen animated. He's really scary and he's just one small part of a much larger design. Most of the things in this movie are terrfying. Haku being chased by paper airplanes? 1) These paper airplanes are never really formally explained except for where they came from. But 2), Paper airplanes in this movie are scary as get out. Haku starts coughing up blood and it's gory as snot. It think that most people don't think about how scary this movie is because it's got a great design team, there's lots of color, and there are scenes that take place on sunny days. People who like Spirited Away? You probably like horror movies and you don't even know it.
I'm not sure what the message of Spirited Away is though. The Chihiro is quickly established to be the protagonist. She's a little spoiled, but nothing that would be detrimental to a kid not her age. Like, she doesn't do anything criminally wrong in the overly short exposition. Her parents are portrayed as irresponsible, but I'm not sure why. If the delivery was different, her parents would be considered adventurous and loved trying new things. They go a bit far when they start eating the food they find, but it is pretty heavily implied that they are under the spell of Yubaba by that point. Maybe because I'm almost 35 I now identify with parent characters. They really didn't do anything wrong outside of asking their daughter to make the best of her new home. But Miyazaki portrays them as kinds of jerks both in their design. I have to assume that the American voice director is matching the same intentions as the Japanese team, but Chiklis is coming across as a jerk despite the fact that none of the lines indicate that he should be terrible. We do see character growth come from Chihiro, but she's a pretty good character within. I'm not saying that every movie needs a message, but it is implied that there is a message here. I'm just not sure what it could be. I guess the theme that the smallest person can make a difference. Like, there's this cool moment of altruism that Chihiro provides No-Face. She makes No Face eat this thing that might have turned her parents back to human. That's really cool. But also, she is not only sacrificing herself. She is sacrificing her parents. It ended up being the right thing to do because it makes...No Face try to chase and eat her? It was the right choice because everything ended up just fine, but morally it was a weird decision to make. Her parents were marinating in pig form. When they had aged as pigs long enough, Yubaba was going to eat them. Also, Yubaba and her sister? What was going on there? There was a large baby that was a brat? If anything, the baby has a bigger character arc than Chihiro. I guess this okay. Oh, geez. This movie has the same emotional beats as The Wizard of Oz. Okay, I'm now overthinking it officially.
I really love Spirited Away, but I also really love horror movies. It's an extremely creepy and beautiful movie at the same time. Can I establish right now that I really can't wait for my kids to grow up a little bit more so we can start watching some amazing movies that would wreck them right now? Anyway, check this one out. It's a standard for the Ghibliverse.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.