Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (aka Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), makes me long for a time machine. Not necessarily so I could dial back the last 18 years and view the film again for the first time (although that would be a treat), but rather so I could capture my impressions after having just seen the film with fresh eyes.
I say this only because I come to Spirited Away with so much baggage that I find it difficult to discuss the film in and of itself. After nearly two decades of reading doctoral theses about linguistic symbolism, of devouring literary and film analyses, of falling down rabbit holes of spiritual, religious, and philosophical themes and the interconnections between those themes—
after all of that, it isn’t easy to simply sit back and consume the film as a self-contained work of art.
So I did the next-best thing. I sat beside my wife this weekend as she experienced this weird and captivating journey for the first time, unburdened by even cursory familiarity with its plot, much less its deeper meanings. Glancing out of the corner of my eye to see her giggle and applaud, weep and gasp, I was reminded of that first viewing. And I was also reminded that you don’t really need to know a damned thing about Spirited Away to appreciate it as one of the best animated films ever made.
But, then again, of course you don’t. After all, if it weren’t such a wonderful (and wonderfully made) adventure on the surface, would film scholars and critics and folklorists and pop-culture pontificators and linguists and PhD candidates still be struggling to deconstruct it in 2020?
SPIRITED AWAY AT A GLANCE
The anime classic is well served by the Kaleidescape download, which bests the Blu-ray release and provides both the original Japanese soundtrack and an excellent English dub.
The 1080p presentation captures all of the details of the original animation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix extends the world of the film out into the room, giving both weight and depth to the onscreen action.
So, forget all of the symbolism. Forget the film’s deep ties to Shintoism and Japanese cultural norms (some admirable, some deplorable). What makes Spirited Away work as a two-hour adventure that has the power to capture the heart even if you know no more about the concept of kamikakushi than you do about differential calculus?
The animation certainly helps. Not only is this Miyazaki’s most visually stunning work, it also represents perhaps the most artful (and subtle) marriage of hand-drawn 2D and computer-rendered 3D animation ever committed to the screen. The worlds of our ten-year-old hero Chihiro (both the material world and the spirit world) seem more real and more tangible than most cinematic settings captured in live action.
It isn’t merely the animation that creates this perception, though. What makes Miyazaki a master filmmaker (medium be damned) is that he understands how to lead the viewer through a story—and through the world in which it takes place—in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a passive viewing experience.
Perhaps the best example of this is the film’s denouement, in which Chihiro must travel to confront the twin sister of the sorceress who stole her name and employed her in a bathhouse for gods and spirits. (It sounds like gibberish, I know, but it all makes sense in the context of the story.)
In most films—especially fantasy films—Chihiro’s journey would have been written as an epic quest, fraught with danger and excitement. In Miyazaki’s hands, though, this journey is a quiet and contemplative train ride. This shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, on two levels: It gives both little Chihiro and the viewer alike a chance to reflect, to contemplate, to catch our breaths together.
It’s a technique Miyazaki employs in most of his films, and one he describes using the Japanese word ma, which roughly translates into “pause” or “gap,” but which is probably best described as kinetic negative space. But no film—from the oeuvre or Miyazaki or any other filmmaker—makes such effective use of this technique as does this scene. And I think the reason it works so well here is that this ma doesn’t simply work on a narrative level. It isn’t simply a quiet, contemplative break from the action. It also gives the viewer the opportunity to revel in Spirited Away on the level of pure audiovisual experience. It may be the first time most viewers fully appreciate how seamlessly the 2D and 3D animation blend in this film. It may also be the first time you have room to truly meditate on Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic score. (Unfortunately, the clip above cuts this passage of the score short. Fortunately, you can enjoy this movement in its entirety here.)
I could go on, but to say more would be to rob you of experiencing—and indeed interpreting—this beautiful film for yourself. Then again, there’s so much to appreciate here even if you have no interest in interpreting a thing. Spirited Away has been likened to stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with good reason. It is, on one level, simply an amazing coming-of-age tale framed through the lens of the fantastical, the mysterious, the inscrutable, and at times even the grotesque. But despite all of that—indeed, despite its deep roots in Japanese mythology and folklore—there’s something uniquely universal about Spirited Away.
It’s a film that rewards further exploration, sure. But again, all of that would be pointless if not for the fact that it’s a film worth watching over and over and over again purely on its own terms, with its patently obvious themes about greed and kindness and the nature of the self. Force me to construct a list of films that demand to be owned rather than merely rented (or
borrowed by way of a subscription service like HBO Max, soon to be the temporary home of this and all of Miyazaki’s other animated films in the U.S.) and Spirited Away would be on it.
Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s download of the film is a wonderful way to own it. We’re presented with both the original Japanese soundtrack and the surprisingly good English-language dub (overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The film defaults to Japanese with English subtitles, as it should. But if you’re watching with younger viewers (or simply refuse to read captions), just know that the English dub maintains the film’s delightful score, as well as its effective and atmospheric sound mix. Both versions use the surround channels and subwoofer alike to extend the worlds of the film out into the room, and to give both weight and depth to the onscreen action.
Kaleidescape does present the film without the bonus features found on both Disney’s 2015 Blu-ray release and the 2017 follow-up by GKIDS (after Disney relinquished distribution rights in the U.S.). But that’s honestly of little consequence. Those bonus goodies did little to enrich the film.
What’s more important is that the Kaleidescape presentation is superior to the
already excellent 2017 Blu-ray. You could, I suppose, complain that Spirited Away isn’t available in 4K, but this better-than-Blu-ray-quality 1080p presentation lacks for nothing in terms of capturing all the details of the original animation. There is, perhaps, a second or two here or there that might benefit from a wider color gamut, but without the ability to A/B this transfer against a hypothetical 4K re-scan of the film elements, I can’t say that for sure.
What I can say for sure is that this one belongs in your collection whether you’re a fan of Japanese animation or not. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself so enraptured by Miyazaki’s magical worlds and his talents as a filmmaker that you end up exploring the rest of his catalog almost immediately. If you’re looking for a little guidance, I would suggest next diving into My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which are also available on Kaleidescape, along with rest of Studio Ghibli’s long-form catalog.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.