Early in our planning process for our Studio Ghibli Guide, we asked the Polygon staff to pick their favorite Ghibli movie — “No caviling, no wishy-washy ties; you only get one.” And a clear favorite emerged. Around half of the staffers surveyed identified Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as the best Ghibli feature, the one that most impressed and spoke to them. That’s a common opinion: Ghibli’s films have been repeatedly nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscars, but Spirited Away is the only winner. And apart from My Neighbor Totoro, which gives Ghibli much of its marketing iconography, it’s the Ghibli title Americans most seem to recognize.
But why is it such a dominant favorite? Three of our biggest Spirited Away fans hash it out.
Is it the story?
Tasha Robinson, film/TV editor: For me, at least, Spirited Away is one of the most instantly accessible Ghibli movies. Not that the studio’s other films are baroque or opaque, but Spirited Away’s opening, with a timid, sulky child thrown into a terrifyingly alien situation, is particularly intense and engaging. We know from the start that Chihiro is unhappy with her life, and easily intimidated by new things. And then suddenly she’s deeply immersed in an environment where everything’s new, and inexplicable, and seemingly dangerous. It’s an irresistible story hook.
Susana Polo, comics editor: It’s ironic that Spirited Away has many more obvious hallmarks of Western fantasy stories than the Ghibli films that directly adapt them, like Howl’s Moving Castle, or When Marnie Was There. Magical contracts that bind the soul, the immense power of knowing something’s true name or depriving something of it, time flowing differently in the realm beyond. If only Chihiro’s parents had read enough fairy tales, they’d know that you never eat the food in the fairy realm!
Karen Han, entertainment reporter: These story tropes aren’t exclusive to Western media, though. They crop up in a lot of Eastern media, too. A lot of Japanese folk tales are about not messing with things that aren’t meant for you.
Susana: Fair point!
Karen: I also agree with Tasha in that I think it’s the most accessible, and it feels more open because there’s so much to take in. There are so many different kinds of creatures in the bathhouse where Chihiro ends up working. And viewers, like Chihiro, simultaneously have to learn the rules of the place and the rules of the spirit world in general. It’s all fascinating, and it doesn’t hurt that there’s a love story mixed in with it all, too.
Tasha: That’s a particularly good point — Ghibli movies are almost always centered around big emotions like loneliness or desperation, but since so many of them center on very young protagonists, they don’t always have a romantic angle. And this one is a particularly fandom-friendly angle: two young people from different worlds, but with a secret emotional connection that makes the heroine willing to repeatedly risk everything. These are the kinds of big, fraught tropes that got a subset of fans so invested in Reylo shipping, or Twilight.
Okay, I just squicked myself out a little, but it’s true that there’s no love so compelling as forbidden love. And here, you have a secret love built on mutual need and respect and courage, full of dangerous and frightening confrontations, and culminating in the most joyous reunion in the Ghibli canon. It’s irresistible.
Is it the characters?
Karen: I think no one thing in Spirited Away can be taken separately from the other parts of the movie, but the characters are definitely a huge part of why it’s so affecting. Like a lot of other Ghibli films, this film doesn’t have an outright villain. Even characters who seem like antagonists, like Yubaba or No-Face, become less scary and more sympathetic once you discover what’s going on with them.
There’s also the fact that Chihiro is a young girl who is just as bratty as everyone else at that age. She grows as a person to save her family and friends, but she starts out just like anybody else. Being a Ghibli hero doesn’t require superheroic deeds, which feels like a message that’s rarely seen, or done well, in a lot of media.
Tasha: Spirited Away also crowds the screen with significant characters in an unusual way. Heroes often have sidekicks or allies because so many stories underline the value of friendship and the rewards of caring about other people, but they’re often up against a single representative villain in order to simplify the inevitable final faceoff. Spirited Away is packed with memorable characters — heroes and villains and creatures that don’t clearly fall on any side. Who besides the biggest players really stands out for you? I’ve always been very fond of Kamajī, the infinite-armed boiler-room chief. I’m a sucker for soft-hearted characters who act tough and brusque when anyone’s watching, and turn to mush only when they’re safely alone.
Susana: Truly, whom amongst us does not want to be buds with the Radish Spirit?
Tasha: And the hopping lantern that makes squeaky-toy noises when it travels.
Susana: The Pixar lamp’s ancestor.
Karen: Kamajī is definitely a favorite, especially since he’s in charge of all those incredibly cute, sugar-loving soot sprites. I also adore the transformed forms of Boh and the Kashira — watching them learn to support each other as a purple mouse and a tiny bird is so sweet that it’s almost a pity when they return to their original selves.
Tasha: And shout-out to No-Face, who represents the approval-craving, lonely side of all of us. I love how eerie he is, but more so, how well he channels that eternal feeling of just wanting a certain person’s attention, and not being able to get it because they’ve got their own problems going on.
And then there’s Yubaba the witch, who winds up feeling mostly harmless, but starts out as one of the scariest things in the Ghibli canon — a roaring mouth the size of Totoro’s, giant creepy glassy eyes, disproportional and bulging and inhuman and predatory, but with a nominally human face. She’s something out of a literal nightmare, the kind of dream where you see an ordinary person and realize she’s also terrifying in deep-seated ways. At the same time, though, she’s a businesswoman who has to keep up on her paperwork. I love her layers.
Is it the animation?
Karen: As with all of Miyazaki’s films, the animation is incredibly expressive, and movies like Spirited Away are pretty definitive arguments as to why the art of hand-drawn animation ought to persist. There’s also something really joyous about the character designs, as Miyazaki takes concepts that would be familiar to Japanese audiences — yokai, bathhouses, calligraphy — and gives them an eerie freshness by exaggerating their features.
Tasha: It’s also just so detail-rich. As I’ve been going back and watching older Ghibli movies, it’s surprising to me how simple the character design gets in films like My Neighbor Totoro and Castle in the Sky, while still maintaining the familiar house style. Compare those films to Yubaba here, with her lace cuffs and elaborate rings and overly detailed eyebrows! The animation here is so sharp and compelling.
Karen: I end up thinking about the River Spirit a lot, too, when it comes to the animation. The moments where Spirited Away mixes in a little computer animation are so striking, in this case as a way to make it clear that something really significant is happening as the water bubbles. The River Spirit’s dragon form is animated traditionally, but still seems special because it originated in something strange. I also love that, though it’s mostly been cleared of gunk, there are still some fiddly bits visible in the River Spirit’s body.
Tasha: Haku’s thrashing dragon form is also so impressive. The sequences involving him fleeing a swarm of shikigami, or trying to cough up Zeniba’s seal, are so evocative and scary, because he moves so quickly, and with such lethal purpose. It’s a wonderful visual design, and the way he “swims” through air is particularly striking.
But like so many later Ghibli films, a lot of the wonder of the animation here is just in the use of color — the rich, complicated darks of Yubaba’s lair, the bright simple sky, the washes of blue in the train sequence at the end. It’s a beautiful-looking film that makes a lot out of the difference between jewel-toned claustrophobic spaces and pastel wide-open ones.
Is it the emotion?
Susana: When I think of Spirited Away, the first scene that leaps to my mind isn’t any character or plot moment, it’s the “train montage.” It’s a sharp tangent from the rest of the film, swerving from a world of bustling fantasy to a vast flooded plain populated by shadowy, but relatively modern, travelers. It’s almost like a tiny experimental film inside the rest of the movie, but still at peace with the whole.
I could joke around in the language of the Extremely Online and say that the whole scene gives me a Big Emotion, but it wouldn’t be a joke. No matter how many times I see the film, this scene still strikes me with strong, almost undefinable feelings. Familiarity? Loss? Longing? Whatever it is, it’s masterful.
Tasha: I agree with you about the train sequence, but my key scene for emotion in this movie is when Chihiro and Haku are falling through the sky together, and she’s weeping with joy — those huge fat welling Ghibli puddle-tears that feel so much more primal than ordinary decorous weeping. There’s so much feeling wrapped up in that scene: gladness, relief, catharsis, excitement, and love, all expressed in those giant tears. It’s like Chihiro is experiencing so much, all at once, that she doesn’t even notice she’s falling.
Karen: I think this is the point where it’s impossible not to bring up Joe Hisaishi’s amazing score. All of his music is pretty romantic, but the score for Spirited Away in particular is so lush and sweeping that it’s impossible not to get caught up in it. I’m especially fond of the theme that plays over the scene Tasha describes, as Chihiro and Haku fall through the sky. The emotions of the scene, heightened by the music, make it impossible not to cry, too.
Is it something else entirely?
Tasha: I find a lot of appeal in the extreme weirdness of Spirited Away. From the start, the magic that turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs isn’t just threatening, it’s grotesque and ugly and weird. So is the giant-headed witch Yubaba. Why does she have a hopping stack of pet green heads? What the hell is up with that?
The fairy-tale elements of this story are familiar — it’s a classic tale of a mortal child being stolen away into the fairy realm, which has its own magical logic. All the usual fairy-tale rules about the rewards of courtesy and altruism still apply: Everything turns around for Chihiro when she instinctively helps the black-soot creature with its heavy load, and her hard work in helping the river god pays off too. But the execution is still odd and unexpected. Being kind and considerate to No-Face turns it into a ravening monster that devours people, for instance, and the animation that makes it a fat, blobby, many-limbed spider is just so enjoyably hideous. No matter how familiar the structure is here, it’s still a surreal movie, and I love that combination.
Susana: Ah, but kindness isn’t what transforms No-Face into a monster! It’s all the people who feed his gluttony in order to get his gold. He’s undone when Chihiro modestly refuses his bargain, and he’s forced to learn a healthier way to get people to like him.
A large part of the brilliance of Spirited Away is how it seamlessly blends the universal fairy-story themes we keep mentioning — kindness begetting kindness, and rule-bound reciprocity — with that genre’s evolutionary offspring: the coming-of-age story. Chihiro begins the story bratty and resisting the adventure of moving to a new city. She grows with each act of hard work and selflessness. There’s literally a giant spoiled baby she has to contend with and tame.
Karen: And I think it’s impossible to discount sentimental value here — what people bring to the movie, rather than objectively what makes the movie great. My Neighbor Totoro is the first Ghibli movie I saw, but Spirited Away sticks with me because I discovered when I was around Chihiro’s age, and primed for a story about a girl who was like me. Everything we’ve discussed so far mixes into it — I loved the story, the characters, the animation, the emotion, the music — and made it especially potent for me, to the point that whenever I watch it, I’m taken back to that moment in time. I literally can’t listen to “One Summer Day” without crying. It was a perfect movie that hit me at a perfect time.
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