Before watching the movie:
I don’t know anything about this movie except that it seems to pretty consistently be considered the best Studio Ghibli movie. And I recall the title refers to something about the character being stuck in a place of spirits. I’ve seen most of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but that’s all of Ghibli I’ve seen despite having several friends and former roommates who have extensive collections.
I rarely go into movies as cold as this. Usually I have descriptions from boxes or streaming platforms, but with this one, I just decided “we’re going to watch this movie everyone loves”.
After watching the movie:
While driving to their new home in another town, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn and decides to follow the abandoned road lined with shrines anyway because it looks like it will eventually get to the neighborhood. In fact, it leads them to a tunnel into what appears to be an abandoned theme park. Stranger, although the place shows no signs of people, there is fresh food piled in several stands, and Chihiro’s parents, having missed lunch, gorge on it while Chihiro wanders the roads. At almost dusk, a young man appears and tells Chihiro sternly that she shouldn’t be there, she needs to leave immediately. But her parents have turned into pigs, the dry riverbed they crossed to enter is now an ocean, and as the darkness falls, the spirits who live in the town become visible. The young man tells Chihiro that his name is Haku, and as she’s stuck here now, she’ll have to convince the bath house of the spirits to give her a job if she’s going to stay safe in this realm long enough to rescue her parents and get a way out.
There’s a sustained melancholy to this movie that doesn’t seem to let up for the entire runtime, and the tension stays pretty high as well, though it does have good pacing on that front. Chihiro is stuck in a realm unlike the world she knows, forced to work hard labor with very few allies or even people who don’t openly dislike her and even has her name stolen from her (the witch Yubaba takes a character from Chihiro’s name on the contract and calls her Sen). And yet, through her determination, cleverness, and especially her unyielding kindness, she manages to stand up under this immense weight and make her own way out.
There are several things that happen that I don’t fully understand the logic of, but “the spirit world is very strange” is a helpful suspension of confusion, and most of the important things are spelled out pretty well. Why is there a spirit train that runs through the water? Spirit world. Why does the No Face befriend Chihiru after she makes him vomit all the people he ate? Spirit world, but probably also the goodness in her.
This feels more than a little bit like The Wizard of Oz. Girl is stuck in a magical place, girl has an adventure to get home, sees lots of weird things, monsters, people who aren’t human, along the way. There are even twin witches of diametrically opposed ethics.
The constant tension made this movie beautifully difficult to watch. There was no time when it felt that Chihiro was safe, but even though the end seems to come together mostly from unexpected reversals, Chihiro’s sheer perserverance goes a long way toward making the end feel earned and cathartic. Anime art styles are not necessarily my favorite aesthetic, but the world of this movie is so imaginative that it was fun to look at. This was more of an experience I’m glad to have had than one I’ll want to revisit often, but I’ve had the experience now.