If your previous encounters with Japanese animation stretch only as far as Akira and the occasional juvenile movie featuring giant robots, then Spirited Away may be as pleasant a surprise to you was it was to me.

This is mind–expanding cinema.

Winner of last year’s Oscar for best animated feature, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl trying to survive in a strange, dangerous, magic world. When her arrogant and greedy parents take a wrong turn during a house move, they are turned into pigs. Left alone, Chihiro has to make her own way, save her parents and her new friend Haku and stand up to the witch Yubaba.

There are echoes of classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Secret Garden but, for once, this is a piece of cinema that deserves to be placed alongside great works of literature. Director Hayao Miyazaki gives the whole project a wonderful, lyric, quality that is moving but never manipulative.

At the heart of the film is the little girl, Chihiro. It is easy to imagine how, in an American movie, the film–makers would have been unable to resist the urge to make their heroine “feisty” and “sassy” and maddeningly irritating. Chihiro is none of these things. She is pure and honest and yet Miyazaki succeeds in making her feel like a real ten–year–old girl, who can be frightened or playful or develop an enormous crush on a boy.

This, I think, is the core of Spirited Away’s success as a piece of art and as a piece of entertainment. It achieves a child–like simplicity without ever slipping over into childishness. This is a world where anything can happen and, as all children know and as all fairytales attest, such a world may contain wonders but it can also be home to great dangers. That means that this film, like all great fairytales, contains material that very small children might find disturbing – but that is, after all, the point.

Even at over two hours long there is something here to keep everyone entertained. The children will love the wonderfully designed characters and the film’s delight in swamping everything in mud and vomit, but parents will appreciate the mythic quality of this work and the extraordinary style of the filmmaking on display. Miyazaki has made a film that is wonderful to watch but even more beautiful to look at. The quality of the animation is amazing. Primarily hand–drawn, the artwork far surpasses almost everything produced by Western animation houses. There are moments in this film that will leave you dewy–eyed with wonder. For me, in particular, Chihiro’s train journey across a flooded land brought a lump to my throat.

It comes as no surprise that John Lasseter – the man behind Toy Story – is in awe of Miyazaki’s work. It is to Lasseter’s credit that he has played a significant role on ensuring Miyazaki’s films are shown in the West.

Optimum Releasing, the company distributing Spirited Away in the UK, are releasing it in two formats, dubbed and subtitled. Subtitled versions will go to “art house” cinemas, while the dubbed versions will be more widely available. My personal preference is to watch foreign films in their original language but, since this is a film that children should love, a dubbed version also seems appropriate. With fifty prints Spirited Away won’t be in every multiplex but it is worth any extra effort you might need to make to see this wonderful film.

I could not possibly recommend Spirited Away more highly. It is the best film I’ve seen this year and deserves the widest possible audience. Having watched it I immediately went out and bought every other Miyazaki film I could find on DVD.

(Originally published in Matrix 163, Sept/Oct 2003)

© Beli. All Rights Reserved.