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Spirited Away

To the dismay of many, the astonishingly talented anime director Hayao Miyazaki announced recently that this latest work, Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), is to be his last. Fans hoping for a spectacular finale work on the lines of Princess Mononoke will be disappointed, for Spirited Away, despite its often fantastical imagery, is a quiet and understated film more akin to Kiki's Delivery Service or My Neighbour Totoro. This should not detract from its charms, however -- the film has all the wonder and brilliance of other Miyazaki films and is in some ways one of his most compelling.
The story begins as Chihiro, a young girl not too happy with the way her life is going, is on her way to a new school with her parents. A well-intentioned detour through the woods, however, leads them to a decrepit old temple with a strangely beckoning tunnel entrance. On the other side they find a deserted town of shops and stalls and the father, smelling food, finds a single shop which is open but unattended and together with his wife begins to help himself to the plentiful food. Cihiro is still spooked and, not wanting to anger the absent shop-owner, walks around a bit. Suddenly it is night and when she goes back to get her parents they have turned into giant pigs, stuffing their faces full of food. A lot of rather surreal events unfold and Chihiro is left with the task of surviving in this strange world until she can somehow save her parents and escape.

As with all of Miyazaki's films, Spirited Away is an experience in which the sheer joy of discovering along with Chihiro the weird and wonderful world in which she finds herself accounts for much of its charm. No-one does peculiar worlds quite like Miyazaki, and in Spirited Away he draws loosely on Japanese mythology and strongly on his own boundless imagination to create a small yet intricate pocket universe populated by all manner of creatures. To put things in perspective, of all the myriad characters in the film, only Chihiro, her parents (briefly) and one or two others are actually humans. There are dragons and talking frogs, mud monsters and industrial spiders, witches and ghostly shades -- all given a unique and believable life of their own.

Special mention must be made of the main character, Chihiro herself. Physically, she is perhaps unique for a Miyazaki film in that she does not resemble the Nausicaa template most of his other female leads have been drawn from. Rather, she looks more like an older version of Setsuko from Grave of the Fireflies, complete with puffy cheeks and downcast expression with a personality that can only be decribed as "stroppy" -- angry and miserable, and unwilling to do anything out of the ordinary. In the course of the film, however, she matures and finds the things she truly values -- though not in the clichéd and obvious manner of other, similar, stories.

Both the artwork and animation quality are absolutely superb, and despite the restrained nature of the film, actually surpass the heights seen in Princess Mononoke. The music is as good as any Studio Ghibli film -- that is to say, excellent. Everything is perfectly calculated to the mood of the scene; the ominous, vaguely African voodoo theme that accompanies the masked ghost in its early scenes is particularly noteworthy. Also, there are many scenes that have no music at all, and this vastly adds to rather than subtracts from the effect

There are plenty of light-hearted moments in the film, ranging from the complaints made by the hotel workers about Chihiro's unpleasant human odour, to the amusingly weird antics of a fat mouse and tiny bird she befriends after a rather odd series of circumstances, to an utterly priceless sequence involving Chihiro's first encounter with the tiny hardworking spiders who feed the smelter in the basement. The interactions of the various characters are a joy to watch and are often quite funny.

Overall, Spirited Away is yet another masterpiece from the mind of Miyazaki, it is a gentle and thoughtful film that in itself is fitting ending to a great career.

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