The story begins with young Chihiro and her parents being trapped in a haunted town after walking through a mysterious tunnel and the latter are turned into pigs for gorging food offered to gods without consent. To rescue them and to prevent herself from being turned into a pig, Chihiro must surrender her name and serve in a giant bathhouse run by the villainous old sorceress, Yubaba. The policy of name changes robs the identities of her employees, who are driven by fear and greed, and forces them into submission.
Chihiro's adventures in the bathhouse is characterised by meetings with many kinds of gods, both good and evil. The Land of Spirits that comes beautifully to life in the hands of Studio Ghibli's animators is at its core also a reflection of our world, which has become ambiguous, and is encroaching and trying to consume everything. Initially sulky and scrawny, Chihiro (or Sen, her moniker) gradually finds inner abilities for kindness, endurance, devotion and honesty. With these virtues and a bit of help from friends and allies that she doesn't judge on appearance or reputation, she surmounts the challenges and obstacles on her path and never falls victim to Yubaba's program of enslavement. In the end, when the lights go on and the credits roll across the screen, the story is done not because evil was vanquished or the other world disappeared, but simply because Chihiro found the will to survive upon her self-discovery. It’s Miyazaki’s belief that to destroy evil completely would be to destroy the world. Evil is part of this world, and integral to its existence; to deny evil is absurdity, to vanquish it, impossibility. He also cautions us not to overlook the basic human virtues, which the more cynical among us may dismiss as obvious. The film is hence brought into the realm of allegory.
Another theme is that of the importance of words. Miyazaki believes words have immense power, and is distressed at the excess and overuse of meaningless words nowadays. That theme is revived as Chihiro finds a job at the bathhouse. If she said "No" or "I wanna go home", Yubaba would quickly throw her out. She would’ve no choice but to keep aimlessly wandering until she vanishes. Contrary, if she said "I’ll work here," even Yubaba couldn’t ignore her.
As we've come to expect from Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away is an animation film of the highest technical calibre. A visual triumph, both in set and character design with the thoughtful use of computer graphics, provides a delightful cast of gods, spirits and charmed creatures. Complimented by Joe Hisaishi’s truly sensational score, the exhilarating and touching surface plot and tense suspense are brilliantly staged. However, in my view, it is the more subtle approach to its messages that elevate this film above a Disney tale. In a world brought up on the frantic pacing and exploding shades of a musical Disney world, Miyazaki's subdued lyricism and gentler pacing may take getting used to. Nonetheless allow yourself to be spirited away and there are great rewards in store.
Catch it in the next screening by iCU Cinema at 6 pm on Thursday 27 November. You will certainly not regret this trip!
Admittance to iCU Cinema costs only £3 for one film and £5 for both films shown in an evening, and you’ll surely be impressed by the fact that films are in fact shown on one of the largest screens in London using an industry standard 35 mm projector. iCU Cinema has also recently upgraded their sound system to Dolby Digital EX that worth nearly £22,000. To make this an even more amazing experience, you’re most welcome to bring lots of drinks up to the cinema from either of the two bars on the ground floor of the Union Building! What more can you ask for? Though the seats are not racked, they are staggered and the screen is high enough to see the whole picture from most of them. However, you may want to arrive a bit early for this particular film in order to get better seats at the front, or else you may have problems reading the English subtitles, that is, if your Japanese is not fluent enough!