Spirited Away is not my favourite of Hayao Miyazaki’s films – that title goes to My Neighbour Totoro, now and forever – but it is perhaps his best. The story told here is deeply steeped in Japanese mythology yet imbued with resonant universality. As a child, who hasn’t fretted at being abandoned by their parents, or whisked away to a fantastical dreamland? Both of these occur to ten year-old Chihiro, but the evocative scaffolding soon erodes away along with any sense of cliché.
Miyazaki conjures a richly emotional, visually sumptuous tale by eluding any grasping claws of narrative necessity. Heroes become flawed, villains become pathetic and sympathetic, an enigmatic ghost proves monster and child alike. Studio Ghibli is not Disney; Disney wouldn’t dream of conjuring such ambiguity (note that even when Disney tries to humanise its one-dimensional villains, it does so by creating a second one-dimensional villain).
What makes Spirited Away one of the greatest animated films of all time is not its gorgeous visuals nor its intricate world building, but its insistence on representing the dreamlike wonder of childhood, its contradiction and complexities. To allow myself a terrible cliché, we are spirited away by Spirited Away; we are Chihiro. A masterpiece.