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20 Years Later: Spirited Away

27 September 21 words: Lizzy O’Riordan

Studio Ghibli’s most celebrated film remains as bewitching as ever two decades on...

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki
Running time: 125 minutes

After a summer visit from his friend and their daughter, Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to create Spirited Away, unbeknown that 20 years later it would be one of the most popular Japanese films ever made.

The 2001 Studio Ghibli film follows 10-year-old Chihiro as she stumbles upon a spirit world. Here she is separated from her parents and forced to work in a bathhouse to gain freedom. As explained by her new friend Haku, the spirit world “Kami” is a place where spirits take a break from the human world, and henceforth is dangerous for humans to be in. 

Although based on the spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore, the plot of Spirited Away centres around undeniably human issues – notably greed and capitalism. Both humans and spirits are greedy throughout the film, starting with Chihiro’s parents who are turned into pigs after gorging on enchanted food. Likewise, the spirits face comeuppance for their monetary greed, after their richest customer Kaonashi causes chaos and destruction in the bathhouse.

A film of strong morals, but like all of Ghibli’s projects, one that is magical and enjoyable to watch

Tied into the theme of greed, Spirited Away is a subtle critique of capitalism at large. If you don’t have a job in the spirit world you’ll be turned into an animal, making it literally impossible to exist without participating in labour. Upon entering the world of Kami, Chihiro immediately must get a job for Kamaji the boilerman, who employs spiders to carry balls of soot in the furnace of the bathhouse. She graduates to working within the bathhouse, but even here she is treated poorly and forced to live in cramped conditions, while the owner of the bathhouse Yubaba lives in penthouse luxury. 

Yet, even while grappling with heavy themes, Spirited Away is a lovely watch. Although intended for children, the film is equally enjoyable for adults and is full of beautifully animated scenes. Spirited Away is also full of heart-warming scenes of friendship, particularly between Chihiro and Haku, but also between Chihiro and Lin, a servant girl who acts as Chihiro’s big sister at the bathhouse. 

Much like a fairy-tale, Spirited Away is a film of strong morals, but like all of Ghibli’s projects, one that is magical and enjoyable to watch. After so many years, Spirited Away remains one of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films, and an important childhood film for so many – me included.

Did you know? Miyazaki refused to attend the 2003 Academy Awards because he didn’t support the Iraq War.

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