‘Spirited’ Introduction to Anime

“Spirited Away” is the latest movie from legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki, creator of such animated classics as “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and “Princess Mononoke.” With this particular film, he employs fantastic and surreal imagery to bring the world of his imagination to life on the screen.

The plotline of “Spirited Away” centers on Chihiro, a 10-year-old heroine who stumbles upon a magical land while traveling with her family. While exploring a mysterious cave, her parents are cursed and transformed into pigs by an evil witch. Left to fend for herself, Chihiro investigates the strange world populated by bizarre creatures and fantastic monsters, eventually pledging to serve the witch in exchange for her survival and the (eventual) return of her family. She then begins her employment in a large, intergalactic hot spring for gods.

This film seeks to excite the imagination of its audience, summoning the inner child in each of us as it displays wondrous sights through fantasy after fantasy. To a large extent, it succeeds. Though surreal and strange, the imagery manages to evoke feelings of empathy for young Chihiro as she experiences amazing adventures with the gods, spirits, and monsters working in the alternate dimension. The animation is crisp and striking, along with a score that complements the story perfectly.

The dialogue also adds to the overall experience, accurately expressing the complexity of Miyazaki’s characters; the movie is shown both subtitled and dubbed into English, for those who wish to be spared the constant subtitles. Though the subtitled version naturally gives more of a feel for the movie as it was intended to be viewed, the dubbed version is faithful to the original and certainly allows the viewer to take in the outstanding visuals.

The average movie-going American not accustomed to Japanese animation may be taken aback by the bizarre aspects of the film and miss the subtleties it embodies. The best way to describe “Spirited Away” is, as others have so aptly put it, a “Japanese Alice in Wonderland.” Yet, even then, the comparison is not exact: Miyazaki’s film, for all its wonder and fantasy, clearly takes itself seriously, presenting detailed, complicated characters, interacting in a storyline revolving around a young girl’s quest to find herself and free her family.

For those who only know of anime through “Pokemon” and other childish absurdities, “Spirited Away” might be a breath of fresh air, revealing a true beauty in the art form. As the Best Picture of the Year at the Berlin International Film Festival and Audience Choice at the San Francisco Film Festival, this movie might very well prove to be an excellent introduction to Japanese animation.