Spirited Away, in many ways, feels like a culmination of Miyazaki’s prior work with Studio Ghibli. It isn’t that I’m prepared to say that Spirited Away is necessarily a “better” film than My Neighbor Totoro or any number of others; Spirited Away is its own thing, a different film with a different tone than a lot of the earlier Miyazaki films. But I feel like the pure explosion of imagination and atmosphere in this film is somehow just on another level. Every Miyazaki film is touched with a wild imagination in terms of both world & characters, but Spirited Away seems even wilder and stranger and more wondrous than usual. One imagines behind the scenes conversations revolving around a sidekick character for one of the characters: “Oh, I know . . . three green severed heads!” “Why?” “No reason.” “Great!” The range of characters here, from a giant baby to a gorgeous dragon, from a mustachioed spider-man to a muddy river spirit, just leap off the screen with real vividness. The setting, a multilayered bath-house, is a wonder of environment and atmosphere. The visuals here are just gorgeous. I’ll never forget images like a bouncing lantern, a mysterious masked figure, a train seeming to streak off across the surface of the water, a dragon swarmed by paper birds and more. And the characters aren’t just stock either; they often have surprising depths and twists you wouldn’t expect. I found Yubaba, the bath-house owning witch, of particular interest. At first I expected a pretty stock character, but she becomes more complicated with every scene she’s in, ultimately becoming a very well-rounded character. Then there’s No-Face, a mysterious figure clad in black, wearing a strange mask; he’s instantly iconic and there’s a twist regarding his character at one point that was literally one of the most gob-smacking movie surprises I’ve had this year. This movie hits a lot of great comic beats, but also surprisingly dramatic ones. It’s maybe Miyazaki’s most emotionally complicated movie to this point; the joy and exuberance of his earlier films is here, but so too are emotions like regret, uncertainty and restlessness. It’s a brilliant film and it’s easy to make the case that it’s Miyazaki’s masterpiece; I reject the notion that he has only one, but if you’re going to pick only one, it’s probably this one. Never before has Miyazaki immersed us in so rich, strange and wondrous a world. In many of his previous movies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, etc., Miyazaki has taken us right to the border between our world and another and allowed his characters, and his audience, to dance back and forth across that border with wonder-filled abandon. In Spirited Away, things are different; we’re so far into that other world that we can’t even see the border anymore. Luckily, Miyazaki is trustworthy; we feel quite sure that he’ll get us back to our own world in time for the credits to roll, but, like his characters, we’ll be magically changed by the journey. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Miyazaki’s imagination reaches new levels of boundlessness in this magical, constantly surprising, visually gorgeous, richly characterized masterpiece; a journey like no other. 4 stars.