Most of you have probably seen this movie, which is perhaps (read: definitely) better known as Spirited Away. It’s the only Ghibli film to have won an Academy Award, at least so far. Personally, I hadn’t seen it until September 2015, which was over a year after I started watching through all the major Ghibli movies. Maybe I waited so long because I was convinced that “it couldn’t be that good, could it?” and didn’t want to find out for myself.
Fortunately, that did not come to pass, and my fears were alleviated pretty quickly after I started watching the movie. From the very beginning, it just felt so… refined in every possible way. The voice acting wasn’t the most impressive thing, or at least it wasn’t extremely memorable to me, but everything from the art to the atmosphere was just, well, as close to perfect as you can get (for that particular setting and story). And in retrospect, the film feels absolutely timeless. Looking at screenshots and scenes from it, I wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s now 15 years old. Sure, I do recognise that if it was animated today it’d probably look different in many ways, but the visuals don’t feel “old” unlike, say, Nausicaa and Laputa. And I feel like this is true when it comes to the themes as well. Many of Miyazaki’s earlier films focus on nature, environment, industrialism and war which, while interesting in and of themselves, sometimes felt so distant to me that I couldn’t really relate. Spirited Away, on the other hand, investigates themes more fundamentally connected to the human mind, such as the temptations of greed, the struggle of finding one’s own place in the world, and the ability to be kind to others.
Without a doubt, I would say that Spirited away is Miyazaki’s, and Studio Ghibli’s, masterpiece, their magnum opus. When it comes to movies as a whole, I like and prefer The Wind Rises over all of Miyazaki’s other films, but then again that movie was very different from his earlier works. When it comes to the set of movies that have created and shaped what people think of when someone mentions “Directed by Hayao Miyazaki”, however, I would say that Spirited Away is the pinnacle of it all, the culmination of decades of writing and themes. If I had to recommend one and only one of Miyazaki’s films as a “must-see” movie, it would definitely be Spirited Away.