← Back to Reviews

July 20, 2001 (Japan)
September 7, 2002 (United States)
124 minutes
Rated PG for some scary moments
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Characters Designed by Masashi Ando
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Always With Me (Itsumo Nando Demo) composed and performed by Yumi Kimura
Lyrics by Wakako Kaku

Voice Talent (2002 Disney dub):
Daveigh Chase as Chihiro Ogino
Jason Marsden as Haku
Susan Egan as Lin
David Ogden Stiers as Kamaji
Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba and Zeniba
Michael Chiklis as Akio Ogino
Lauren Holly as Yuko Ogino

Voice Talent (Japanese):
Rumi Hiiragi as Chihiro Ogino
Miyu Irino as Haku
Yoomi Tamai as Lin
Bunta Sugawara as Kamaji
Mari Natsuki as Yubaba and Zeniba
Takashi Naito as Akio Ogino
Yasuko Sawaguchi as Yuko Ogino

Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning adventure celebrates its 20th birthday.

I'll never forget October 28, 2018, for two reasons. The first is that it was my 20th birthday. The second is that it's the day I went to see a movie. It was a movie I already owned on Blu-ray and had seen several times, but that couldn't dull my enthusiasm. The movie in question was, of course, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, a film notable for being not only the only piece of Japanese animation but also the only hand-drawn animated film to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. More than that, Spirited Away is that rare Oscar winner that actually lives up to its hype. Miyazaki has crafted an ode to the best parts of the human condition that masterfully explores fear and how to overcome it, the follies of greed and gluttony, the importance of compassion and selflessness, the importance of friendship, the true definition of bravery, and the triumph of the human spirit, all through the eyes of a child. The result is one of Miyazaki's most intensely satisfying films, one that many consider his finest hour even some 20 years after its arrival in Japan, and one that this Miyazaki fan certainly counts among his favorites.

10-year-old Chihiro Ogino (Daveigh Chase in the 2002 Disney dub, Rumi Hiiragi in Japanese) is not at all pleased with the fact that her parents Akio (Michael Chiklis, Takashi Naito) and Yuko (Lauren Holly, Yasuko Sawaguchi) have decided to move to the middle of nowhere, not wanting to leave her friends behind or to have to deal with a new school that's "gonna stink." As if that wasn't enough, however, Akio takes a wrong turn and the family ends up in front of a creepy tunnel rather than at the door to their new home. Moreover, Akio decides he wants to see what's on the other side. When Akio and Yuko stuff themselves on some unknown food at an oddly empty restaurant and mutate into pigs, it seems like Chihiro's situation can't get any worse. However, a boy named Haku (Jason Marsden, Miyu Irino) gives her carefully laid-out instructions on how to survive in this ghostly world. First, she must ask Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers, Bunta Sugawara), the six-armed man who operates the boiler, for work. Since Kamaji already has all the help he needs, he has Lin (Susan Egan, Yoomi Tamai) take Chihiro to see Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette in her final film, Mari Natsuki), the witch who rules the bathhouse. The sorceress first tells Chihiro to leave, playing up her scare tactics but Chihiro, not one to hang her parents out to dry, persists, informing Yubaba right up front that she won't leave without a job. Yubaba concedes, but not without taking Chihiro's name, giving her the name Sen, and beginning to drain her memories, a process Haku soundly annuls the next morning by returning Chihiro's name. He also warns her that she won't be able to go home if she completely forgets her name, recalling that he can't remember his own name. This doesn't spell a sudden end to Chihiro's troubles in the spirit world, however. Aside from Lin, the other workers in the bathhouse look down on Chihiro with what can safely be called genuine disdain. Not only that, but Chihiro will also soon have to deal with a polluted spirit, a gluttonous No-Face, and even Yubaba's identical twin sister Zeniba (Pleshette, Natsuki) on her way to rescue her parents.

Goodness. Two decades later, and we're still talking about Spirited Away. One of the foremost reasons is its storytelling, Miyazaki stuffing the film, all 124 minutes of it, with enough heart, depth, and meaning, and, yes, enough thrills and light scares, that it's nigh-impossible not to get swept along in the depths of Chihiro’s ghostly adventure. Each character has either a story or a purpose, often both, and none come off as superfluous to the film, including a money-grubbing frog. It's perfectly understandable why Chihiro isn't happy with the move. She has friends in her old home, friends she doesn't want to leave behind, and it's not like she's grousing for nothing. When I was 10, I know I wouldn't be very happy if my parents suddenly decided to leave my hometown where all my friends lived. Haku has a well-developed backstory that Miyazaki reveals in manageable increments throughout the film, the bond that eventually forms between himself and Chihiro arguably forming the film's emotional backbone just as much as Chihiro's lost parents. While Chihiro's parents make a foolish decision, Miyazaki doesn't portray them as the worst parents of all time. While Lin initially teases Chihiro, it's clearly devoid of genuine animosity. While not a likable character or a good person by any means, even Yubaba is entertaining. For as scary as he can sometimes be, No-Face is not the evil monster some might expect him to be. Through it all, we see Chihiro find the bravery she never knew she had during her venture to rescue her parents and the resulting character transformation and trampling of fear is something truly special to behold. Moreover, little bits of the story reveal themselves with repeated viewings, and it all serves to make Spirited Away a film that's equal parts exciting and emotionally satisfying.

Equally important—Spirited Away is an anime, after all—the animation is absolutely stunning; when has Miyazaki ever delivered anything less? Every color is nothing short of striking. Each character is fully detailed and Masashi Ando’s character designs are well-suited to the film while clothing is full of natural textures. Each location, from the town we see in the film's opening to the bathhouse where the bulk of the film takes place, is mesmerizing. Every object is well-detailed—is that a box of Kit Kat bars in the car at the film's opening? Every creature is well-drawn and believable within the world the film creates, while the CGI such as that used during the train sequence enhances rather than denigrates the film. All things considered, the team at Studio Ghibli did a real job animating Spirited Away.

Another key to the film's rampant success is its voice acting—in both English and Japanese. Chase and Hiiragi are excellent as the film's young protagonist, Chihiro Ogino. While each has received more than her fair share of criticism from a handful of fans who prefer one audio track or another, each effortlessly brings Chihiro to life and makes her likable, sympathetic, and easy to root for. Marsden and Irino are equally impressive as Haku, a mysterious boy who claims to have known Chihiro ever since she was very small. Egan and Tamai are also excellent as Lin, the bathhouse worker who takes Chihiro under her wing and takes on a sisterly role as the film progresses. Pleshette and Natsuki are also rock-solid in their dual role as Yubaba, the wicked witch who rules the bathhouse and Zeniba, her twin sister who ends up taking on a very different role from the one many viewers might expect from judging solely by her first appearance. Ogden Stiers and Sugawara effectively make Kamaji, the six-armed operator of the boiler room, gruff but likable. Chiklis and Holly, and Naito and Sawaguchi are also solid in their brief time as Chihiro's parents. Overall, Spirited Away couldn't have better voice acting—it's full of life, character depth and purpose dubbed and subbed. Watch both and enjoy both; I guarantee you won't regret it.

Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi lends Spirited Away one of his very best musical scores. From the moment One Summer's Day, a somewhat melancholic piece of which several variations play at key moments throughout the film, plays over the film's opening scene, we know Hisaishi's about to deliver something special. Dragon Boy is genuinely thrilling. Sen's Courage is very effective in both scenes in which it plays, evoking a sense of dread in one scene and a sense of catharsis in the other. No-Face also effectively conveys a sense of dread, the unknown, and otherness with its drumbeats and metallic tones. Reprise is an extremely satisfying piece that features in one of the film's most intensely satisfying and memorable scenes. To top it all off, the film closes with Yumi Kimura's Always With Me (Itsumo Nando Demo), a bittersweet piece accentuated by Kimura's voice and the harp she plucks expertly throughout, Wakako Kaku's lyrics reflecting perfectly on the two hours that preceded it despite the song not being created specifically for the film. The incredible sound design also helps pull it all together, with each sound effect fully realized to make the film just that much more involving.

My affection for Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away knows no bounds. It is my second favorite film produced under the Studio Ghibli banner, just behind Castle in the Sky, as well as one I consider an all-time favorite, anime or otherwise. Its story is one of the filmmaker's very best, its principal characters rank as some of his most likable, its animation ranks with the best of them, and Joe Hisaishi's incredible musical score is also one of his very best. The resulting film is every bit as relevant and engrossing in 2021 as it was in 2001 (if not more so), as touching as it is beautiful, as haunting as it is poignant, and as captivating as it is unforgettable. I've kept coming back to it since the first time I saw it at age 19 and it never ceases to amaze me. Its core story of overcoming one's fears continues to satisfy time and again with repeated viewings, its characters are all too easy to get invested in all over again, its animation continues to amaze with each new watch, the voice acting is faultless in both English and Japanese, and Joe Hisaishi's musical score continues to send a chill down the spine. The film is uplifting, poignant, exciting, emotionally satisfying, and consistently rewarding with repeated viewings. The fact that even those who don't consider themselves fans of anime often count Spirited Away among their favorite films speaks volumes to its beauty and power. It deserves its reputation and every award it won, including but not limited to, the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. If you haven't, see it ASAP. Trust me, it's worth it. All in all, Spirited Away is above reproach as a film, and I'm awarding it my highest recommendation.