Starring: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Plechette
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away was so universally hailed as a magnum opus upon its original release that it actually caused a mild backlash among long-term Miyazaki fans, who began to argue the case for others of his movies to be considered as his masterpiece. But looking at it now on Blu-ray, it’s hard to view this story about a timorous ten-year-old girl who finds herself trapped inside a bathhouse for the spirits as anything less than one of the most densely magical fantasies every put on screen.
It bursts with moments of wonder – as when the girl, Chihiro, penetrates the bathhouse’s smoky underbelly and meets the strange, six-limbed creature who toils in the boiler room, or the washing and scrubbing of a stink spirit in a giant bath overflowing with expensive scented water – but at the same time what is seen feels like only a tiny part of what is being suggested, and it’s this that makes it so hypnotically compelling. It’s also why the film is so moving and beautiful in a way that’s difficult to articulate. The sequence, for instance, when Chihiro, the mysterious creature called No Face and a couple of other taggers-along catch a train through waterlogged marshland, as evening falls – it’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, packed full of gentle humour and melancholy poetry, and it ranks with the waiting for the bus in the rain scene in My Neighbour Totoro as perhaps the finest sequence in all of Miyazaki’s movies.
On this stunningly sharp HD transfer, the animation seems richer than in almost any of Miyazaki’s other films, with a handmade, painterly quality that’s full of nuance and texture – early on, the mysterious shortcut, with its mossy shrines, looks extremely vivid; there’s a visceral thrill as night falls in the deserted theme park, the lanterns glow into life, and the richly garbed spectres come out; and the effect is psychedelically colourful when Chihiro runs through a maze of flowers to visit her parents in the pig pen. Time and again, the visuals have a solidity of presence and sense of depth which you just don’t get on DVD. The disc also features an enjoyable 47-minute Japanese-language “making of” with some revealing behind the scenes footage. It offers an earthy, unsentimental perspective on a director it’s all too easy to view as an ethereal auteur – we see him scribbling away at his little desk, running staff meetings and cooking a dinner of poor man’s salty noodles with beaten eggs for his team as they work late to meet tight deadlines.