When I reviewed Mulholland Drive not so long ago, I commented that it was "one of a very rare breed of films which hold you in such a hypnotic state that your normal critical faculties become temporarily suspended." Films like Lynch's work contain so much of the magic and mystery of cinema that the experience becomes everything, and no matter where it goes, we follow. But this was not the only film from 2001 to achieve such a powerful effect upon its audience.
Spirited Away is the culmination of Hayao Miyazaki's extraordinary career, only just edging out over its predecessor, Princess Mononoke. It is a stunningly animated, beautifully told story which reinvents Alice in Wonderland for the 21st century while offering profound insight into Japanese culture and the psychology of growing up. While Princess Mononoke has more ambition in terms of its story, Spirited Away wins out through the sheer power of its emotional appeal.
On its simplest level, Spirited Away sees Miyazaki returning to the story and themes of Alice of Wonderland, whose influence can be seen throughout the work of Studio Ghibli. But whereas something like The Cat Returns bore only fleeting similarities, the early sections of Spirited Away are like a direct retuning of Lewis Carroll. Instead of sitting on the river bank being bored at her lesson, Chihiro is sullen in the back of the car, cross with her parents for moving house and taking away all her friends. And instead of falling down a rabbit hole, she wanders through a long tunnel which, in a further fairy tale connection, is found in the middle of a deep, dark wood.
As with Alice, Chihiro drifts into the company of many unusual characters, all of whom in some way misinterpret her purpose in this world (assuming of course that she has one). And many individual scenes or characters play out like Miyazaki's own wry take on Carroll's bizarre fantasy. The sequence of the baby being turned into a fat little mouse is like Alice shrinking after sipping the bottle marked 'Drink Me', while No-Face is a spookier version of The Cheshire Cat, and Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba fill in for the red and white queens from Through The Looking-Glass.
But there is so much more to Spirited Away than a join-the-dots parallel with Alice in Wonderland. For starters, Chihiro is not a conventional protagonist, either in her narrative arc or in the extent to which we empathise with her. Instead of immediately bonding with her, like we would with Nausicaa or Kiki, we initially find her an irritating brat; she is cowardly, prone to sulking and stamps her feet when she doesn't get her way.
When her parents are turned into pigs by gorging themselves on the ghostly food, we bond with Chihiro since she is the only human character remaining in this ever-creepier world (at least, until Haku turns up some minutes later). Much like Pan's Labyrinth a few years later, we adopt the viewpoint of the central character so closely that when the fantasy elements are introduced we accept them with open arms and wide eyes. No matter how bizarre, surreal or downright strange Miyazaki's designs become over the next two hours, we remain totally absorbed in Chihiro as a character.
Although her overall goal may be to save her parents, Chihiro's arc through Spirited Away is not to be a hero, but to survive. Lost in a world which she has no hope of understanding, she relies on her own judgment in choosing who to trust and when to trust them. She does not enter the world of the gods with the intention of destroying a great villain, with most of her major acts being accidental or having consequences which are unintentional. Sometimes this works out in her favour, in the case of the River God; other times, in the case of No-Face, it almost claims her life.
Chihiro's search for her parents is both a literal and a metaphorical one, being bound up with the search for her own identity. When Yubaba allows her to work in the bathhouse, she steals Chihiro's name and begins calling her Sen; Haku warns Sen that unless she remembers her own name, she will be trapped here forever. Chihiro came into the ghost world at a crossroads of her own identity, having been forced to part from her old self with the move. The theft of her name represents the death of her childhood self; she must decide what must be erected in its place, and what role her parents must play in her life after she returns to reality.
Just as in Princess Mononoke, the characters in Spirited Away walk a tightrope between good and evil in which our definitions of either do not carry much weight. This is a world in which loyalties are if not constantly shifting then very difficult to pin down; as before, we have to trust our heroine's judgment because her perspective is all we have to go on. The film tricks us beautifully into believing that the friendly can be threatening or vice versa, making something as simple as a paper man be really scary or an eight-armed, spidery mechanic be deeply endearing.
This richness and ambiguity make Chihiro's process of self-realisation more compelling, as Miyazaki avoids the painting-by-numbers character development of recent Disney efforts. Her relationship with No-Face in particular is a learning curve in which she learns to adjust her impetuous naivety to something more mature, while retaining her belief in everyone's capacity to do good. Even when No-Face is chasing her while regurgitating black sludge, Sen is motivated less by out-and-out fear than a desire to help him overcome himself even at the cost of her own life. It is this form of sheer selflessness which endears her and which eventually saves her.
Just as Mulholland Drive used its characters to examine the nature of filmmaking past and present, so the spirit world of Spirited Away reflects modern-day Japan, looking to its imperial past as it drifts ever more away from it. When Chihiro's parents find the town, they remark it must be an old theme park, saying that many were built before the economic downturn in the early-1990s. The gluttony of her parents reflects the consequences of this downturn and the difference between generations, while the scenes with the River God tap into issues of pollution previously explored in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The design of Spirited Away is staggeringly beautiful, incorporating elements of both hand-drawn animation and CG techniques to reinterpret themes from Miyazaki's previous works. There is the same use of rapid background movement in frames, so that whole cities seem to rush by while Chihiro and Haku rush through the streets in perfect clarity. The film is deeply dreamlike in places, particularly the scenes which take place in or around water and which are complimented by the beautiful score by Joe Hasaishi. But Miyazaki is not just a genius where light is concerned; his darker tones are extraordinary too, from the thick sludge spewed forth by No-Face to the fire that spews from Yubaba's mouth.
On top of everything else, Spirited Away is a proper children's film in its accessible and intelligent treatment of themes and characters. Its blend of darkness and light is note-perfect, so although there are many scenes which are creepy or strange, there is more than enough in the way of humour to compensate. In fact, it's surprisingly laugh-out-loud, with the bouncing heads, the balls of soot or the baby-turned-mouse being so adorable that they threaten to steal the show.
Spirited Away is a truly astonishing animation which marks the high point in a career of already dizzying heights. Its thematic richness and subtle storytelling are matched only by its impeccable level of craft, with Miyazaki at the top of his game in every respect. Even after a dozen viewings it never fails to work its magic, bringing out the childlike spirit in even the most cold-hearted viewer. It is the Pan's Labyrinth of animation, and nothing more needs to be said.