Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Spirited Away (2001)

We greet the real new millennium (thank you pedants) with a classic from Hayao Miyazaki.

Tue, Mar 11, 2014, 21:31


You probably don’t remember this. Why would you?  But 2001 was a genuinely terrible year for American film. The hopes that sprang up in 1999 proved to be an empty miasma. No great new dawn rose. Where should we look?

Japan, maybe. Happily, 2001 (the real beginning of the new millennium according to people who write to newspapers) delivered one of the greatest animated films of all time. To this point, the movies of Hayao Miyazaki had, outside his home country, attracted only a cult following. You might argue they still do. But Spirited Away at least pumped that cult up far beyond its previous dimensions. The film also managed to win the second-ever Academy Award for best animated feature.

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All of this should cause us to raise at least one eyebrow. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (to give the film its Japanese title) certainly doesn’t look to be reaching out to the western world. Defiantly weird, deeply spooky, it comments upon the recent slump in the Japanese economy and addresses that country’s continuing interest in walking spirits. But the picture certainly touches upon universal themes. More than anything else, it is about the terror that comes with growing up. We follow a young girl, Chihiro, and her parents as they drive towards their new home. Dad takes a wrong turn and they end up in a weird world where all the usual rules have been suspended. Her parents turn into pigs and Chihiro finds herself stranded on the wrong side of a magic river. Later witches and huge babies enter the story.

There are, of course, connections here with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. Those books were the rigorous imaginings of a mathematician who believed that even fantastic worlds should follow the rules of logic. Beings say absurd things, but an internal discipline is maintained at all times. The world of Spirited Away is not like that. This is the slippery, stubbornly fickle world of dreams. Indeed, Spirited Away is one of the few films that justifies the dragging out of a hoary critical cliché. When reviewers describe a film as a “fever dream” they are usually saying that, well, they can’t think quite what to say. But Spirited Away is the real thing. Those huge swelling creatures and lurking ghosts really do seem to have sprung from an overheated sleeping brain.

All this gets at the confusion that accompanies the drift from childhood into adolescence: the sense that things are familiar, yet horribly altered. Indeed, the picture is as unsettling as any picture intended, to any significant intent, for the consumption of children. It’s not the baddies that is so disturbing. We’re used to that. It’s the film’s determination to send us somewhere properly twisted that cools the blood.

Yet the picture has become a genuine favourite with more discerning children. There are (a really terrifying thought) adults out there now who grew up watching Spirited Away beside earlier Miyazaki classics such as the epic Princess Mononoke and the utterly charming My Neighbour Totoro. The great man tells us he has now retired. He’s said that before. At any rate, we have the films and they will last as long as the medium.

For 2001 we also considered The Piano Teacher, The Son’s Room, Mullholland Dr and The Royal Tenenbaums.