A young sulky 10 year old girl called Chihiro is unhappy that she has to move home. When her parents stop the car to explore a strange tunnel in the woods, she senses something is wrong. Before long she finds herself trapped in a magical land populated by spirits, gods and ancient beings. She receives help from the mysterious Haku, has to take a job under the cruel bath house owner Yubaba, and all the while must strive to save her parents from a terrible fate.
Spirited Away (2001) – Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Length: 125 mins
Starring: (English Language Dub: Daveigh Chase / Jason Marsden / Suzanne Pleshette
Genre: Animated, Fantasy
‘Spirited Away’ won the Oscar for ‘Best Animated Feature’ in 2003 and it is easy to see why. The quality of the animation is simply a joy to experience. Much like ‘Alice In Wonderland’ the plot takes a few moments to establish itself before whisking the viewer away on a fantastical tale where each step takes us progressively deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. However, that isn’t to say the movie is fast moving. Like most films by Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, the direction is more about building a sensation of presence and atmosphere than wowing the audience with crash- bang-wallop speed. Children who get figgity may find parts of ‘Spirited Away’ a tad slow, but even though the camera likes to linger on certain moments, the sheer level of creativity on screen is likely to hold a high level of fascination.
What ‘Spirited Away’ does so well is create a completely believable but constantly surprising universe. Whether it’s the bad tempered magic of bath house owner Yubaba, the gelatinous ‘stink spirit’ that sends every character running in disgust, or the opaque ‘No Face’ who is desperately trying to please but going about it all the wrong way. The bath house is full of major and minor characters that enrich every second they are on screen but are not overused to the extent that they descend simply into a carousel of the bizarre. ‘Spirited Away’ is certainly a film for children who enjoy a rich fantasy element in their movies.
IS ‘SPIRITED AWAY’ SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?
The nature of the ‘descent into danger’ plot is such that Chihiro constantly finds herself in peril. Certainly, the opening 15 minutes of the film keeps the pressure on relentlessly. Without giving anything away, Chihiro’s parents fall foul shortly after arriving in the spirit world (which looks like an abandoned theme park) when they succumb to greed and temptation. The scene is short, but causes Chihiro to flee in panic. Her distress is constant for around 2 – 3 minutes as ghostly figures appear around her (although minding their own business) and she soon finds that escaping this new world is going to be difficult. She is then ‘rescued’ by Haku, a mysterious character who seems confused as to why he remembers who Chihiro is.
Haku stays with Chihiro for a while in order to ensure her safety but soon has to attend to his own duties. He sends Chihiro away with clear instructions on who to trust and how to stay safe.
Younger children may be frightened when we are first introduced to Yubaba, the witch who runs the bath house. She has a huge head, a mocking and unkind demeanour and for around 5 seconds flies into a fire breathing fury right at Chihiro’s face. It’s a short moment, but due to the exaggerated size of Yubaba’s head it is a potentially scary moment.
Probably the parts of the movie that could be the most scary for younger children are the middle scenes involving ‘No Face’. This character is a ghost-like being with a virtually static mask for a face. ‘He’ seems to be relatively harmless and Chihiro tries to help him when all the other characters are ignoring him. This demeanor gradually changes, however and he is soon tempting different minor characters, encouraging their greed and consuming them. He increases in size dramatically and reveals a frightening mouth with sharp teeth. After some quick thinking, Chihiro realises how to stop him but this makes him aggressively chase after her for around 5 minutes. When he eventually stops, he becomes placid again and the previously consumed characters are saved. After this, Chihiro is still accepting of ‘No Face’ and considers him to be her responsibility. She encourages him to join her and her friendly behaviour will most likely reassure children watching that ‘No Face’ is no longer a threat. From this point onwards he appears to be someone who simply needs a helping hand in order to resist temptation.
CAN I SEE A CLIP?
Unlike most western animated films, Japanese animations tend to throw a lot of adult responsibility on their child lead characters. Chihiro is only 10 but at the beginning she is shown to be rather petulant. She is plunged into a world where it seems like everything is against her, her parents are being held to ransom and she has to fight for her safety which is an unfamiliar concept for many young children. Chihiro’s distress is relatively constant for the first third of the movie which makes her situation very tense. Whilst no individual scene is too sustained on its own, Chihiro finds herself facing several threats but by overcoming them, she increases in confidence and maturity.
Quite simply, ‘Spirited Away’ is a delightfully imaginative movie full of wonder and a vast array of elements that children will love. The characters, whilst initially hostile to Chihiro, are all funny in their own little ways and there are plenty of really warm and affirming scenes as the movie grows. The bath house in particular is a hive of frantic activity and packed full of odd looking spirits that many children will delight in watching. As odd as it is to say, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rather mature children’s movie. It doesn’t patronise or dumb itself down and by not doing so, it succeeds in creating a rich movie experience for children with even a passing interest in the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ style of storytelling. However, we would recommend that an adult be present if the movie is being watched by younger children due to the rather constant level of threat that Chihiro initially has to deal with.
- Violence: 1/5
- Emotional Distress: 3/5 (Chihiro essentially loses her parents and has to fend for herself. She is shown to be very upset by this at first but does gain allies who help her take charge of her situation)
- Fear Factor: 3/5 (the peak of the ‘No Face’ element is pretty scary and, due to the fantasy element, we would advise caution for this part in particular)
- Sexual Content: 0/5
- Bad Language: 0/5
- Dialogue: 3/5 (many characters threaten Chihiro and because she is without her parents she is very vulnerable to such threats at first. As stated above though, in the second half of the movie, both Chihiro and we, as the audience, realise that these threats were mostly bluster)
- Other notes: Deals with themes of maturity, taking responsibility for one’s own destiny, the power of doing good even when the world appears against you, the destructive power of greed and having the strength to remain focused on what’s important.
Words by Mike Record