I fell in love with the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away, at Cornerstone Festival in the summer of 2000. If you are unfamiliar with Cornerstone, it was a Christian music and arts festival held near Bushnell, Illinois that attracted hundreds of bands and thousands of attendees. I went for the music, which was awesome, but I discovered so much more.
One of my greatest discoveries was the imagination and wonder of Miyazaki’s films, with a viewing of his landmark epic, Princess Mononoke. My reaction to that film sent me on a fevered quest to watch as many of his films as I could get my hands on. Then, in 2001, Spirited Away was released in theaters and Miyazaki broke my brain all over again.
A Non-Review of Spirited Away
In place of a traditional review, where I outline the plot, say a few things about what works, and then wrap everything up in a tidy manner, I’ve opted to make this a little more consistent with the tone and feel of the movie. Plainly put, Spirited Away is a work of art. In my estimation, it is one of the crowning achievements in the world of animation. And as a work of art, it defies easy description or evaluation. In some ways, for American audiences, Spirited Away is above those things as it is so otherworldly and even strange to our sensibilities.
With Spirited Away, Miyazaki created something timeless, a movie brimming with imagination and poetry, and utterly bursting with creativity. While Spirited Away tells a beautiful and poignant story of growing up, accepting responsibility, and the importance of family, the true power of the film lies in its moments of introspection and contemplation. Most animation relies on the language of activity and motion to speak its deepest truths. Spirited Away does away with those parameters, subverting our expectations and our need for things to happen.
None of this is meant to suggest that nothing happens in the film, or that it’s all contemplative stillness. Hardly. Spirited Away is a feast for the eyes and senses. Even dizzying at times, with frames packed with so much color and frenetic energy, one could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. The true magic of Spirited Away is in how effortlessly it marries quietude with spectacle.
This seemingly dichotomous approach works on a few levels. First, by challenging our long-established preferences for how an animated movie is supposed to work, Spirited Away leaves us off balance and emotionally exposed. The manic whirlwind of color, sound, and motion is intoxicating, overloading our capacity to process exactly what we are seeing.
The vulnerability the film creates opens gaps in our armor, allowing the narrative to dig deep. It’s the shock and awe approach. Yet tucked away right behind all that sound and fury, sits the real power of the film: the moments when the narrative stops. When nothing of consequence happens.
For some, Spirited Away will feel too alien, too strange. Sadly, that is unavoidable with a film like this. A movie filled with Eastern spirituality and worldviews is unlikely to resonate with many Western viewers. But for those who are fortunate enough to see beyond the cultural differences there is much to appreciate and enjoy. Our adventures with Chihiro, Haku, Yubaba, Lin, and Kamaji open new doors and widen our perspectives. Even if we don’t share the same beliefs and traditions, we find a common humanity delicately woven into each frame of film.
Perhaps you have already seen Spirited Away and have fallen for its charms. Or maybe you watched it years ago expecting a Disney-style movie and walked away confused and disappointed. Or you have never seen it and this non-review has piqued your interest. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, it might be time for you to visit or revisit is as well. I hope you too are spirited away to another world and come away enchanted.