Celebrating 15 Years of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

The pinnacle of Japanese animation remains as magical as ever.
By  · Published on December 5th, 2016

Spirited Away, the greatest Japanese animated film ever, has recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. The film is an accumulation of the talents of the famed Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki. While the studio had plenty of hits throughout the 90s, Spirited Away gave the studio worldwide attention and acclaim. Fifteen years later, it remains as wonderful and magical as ever thanks largely to its inspired creator and accessible story.

This visual wonder is the product of a fierce and fearless imagination whose creations are unlike any you’ve seen before. – Kenneth Turan, LA Times

Hayao Miyazaki got his inspiration for Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)from a group of young women he would spend his summers with. He wanted to make a movie that they could enjoy, that wouldn’t be a simple romance as seen in many shoujo manga. He created Spirited Away as a tale of a girl transitioning into becoming an adult and how her experiences in a foreign world would influence her growth.

The film follows 10-year-old Chihiro as she is leaving her old town and friends. Her family is moving and she’s worried about the new experiences that await her. When her parents decide to stop at a mysterious village, her whole world gets turned upside down. She will have to learn to adapt or face the fate that was bestowed upon her parents. Spirited Away’s main message is to teach Chihiro about responsibility, courage, and love; but does so in the world of bath houses and stink spirits.

Among the many things that has helped Spirited Away maintain its legacy is the sheer attention to detail. A product of hand drawn animation, Spirited Away is painstakingly beautiful. Every frame of the movie showcases a different piece of pottery or a food stall that has been created for this world. The ginormous bath tubs, the ghost train that seemingly glides across the water, and the flowers Chihiro traverses through to visit her parents are all visions that exist far after the film ends.

That might be the secret to Spirited Away and many of Miyazaki’s films; they allow us to experience our dreams through the power of animation. Creatures and places just outside the realm of imagination exist freely within the confides of Miyazaki’s pen. Genevieve Koski for The Dissolve said that “It all adds up to a distinct feeling of familiar unfamiliarity, the sense that the ground is solid, but could warp beneath viewers’ feet at any time.” This is a world full of sorceresses, soot balls that eat konpeito, and giant babes; it all acts as a treat for our minds because it is a balancing act between fantasy and reality.

The significance to animation isn’t limited to Spirited Away’s quality, which it has in abundance, but also to the effect it has had on the medium. When it was released in Japanese theaters in 2001, it was a phenomenon finishing its box office run with ¥30.4 billion, higher than any film ever released in Japan. It has retained that record over the years, even as films such as Frozen tried to dethrone it. It is also the only film in a foreign language to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar since the category was created in 2001. There is little doubt about the effect it has had on the creation of feature animated films in Japan. The current conversation isn’t about what will be the next great animation, but rather who will be the next Miyazaki.

Spirited Away is the gem of Japanese animation. While diehards will argue that films such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell did more to expand the medium, Spirited Away is untouchable. When it arrived in 2001, it captured imaginations with its magical coming-of-age story. It’s profile has endured as it still is featured on countless lists including BBC’s best of the decade thus far list, coming in fourth. Whether or not there will be successor to Miyazaki’s talents will remain a debate, mostly because of the indelible mark he left on medium with his work. Regardless of competitors, Spirited Away will continue to astonish viewers, as it takes us just within reach of our dreams.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.