I do not understand why Spirited Away is so respected. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997) created complex, mesmerizing worlds of pure imagination; My Neighbor Totoro (1988) presented a fable of childlike wonder without a traditional plot. Compared with these masterpieces, Spirited Away feels sloppy, a work that delivers the fantastical and sensational without anything underpinning it. Spirited Away seems like just a long excuse to put some crazy shit on screen. And to be fair, Spirited Away is very good at putting a bunch of crazy shit on the screen—but so are other Hayao Miyazaki movies with much stronger stories. Surprising the viewer with crazy shit is the bare minimum I ask of most anime, manga, or Japanese video games.
Let’s start with the plot. Spirited Away desperately wants to be an animated fairy tale, but the movie has only superficial knowledge of the plot elements of a fairy tale, and what Spirited Away does know, it does not understand how to translate it to the screen. In this regard the film starts out promising, setting the groundwork for a story that draws from both Greek mythology and Japanese demonology. By the time Chihiro is renamed Sen, the film appears to be building towards something. This turns out to be illusory: the middle stretch of the movie squanders what it set up in the first third, preferring to take detours focusing on some of the crazy demons in the spirit world. Spirited Away cannot help itself from pointing wildly at the kooky things the animators cooked up. The final third ends with a thud because of the wasted momentum in the middle act, and because nothing in the conclusion has been sufficiently established in even the opening segment.
A large reason that the plot falls flat is that Spirited Away leaves so many characters underdeveloped. Many Miyazaki movies, such as Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, could be fairly criticized for having a few characters too many. But even with all the dramatis personae, these movies succeeded in giving each character depth with their limited screen time. The case study is the merchant/mercenary Jigo in Princess Mononoke. Even though he disappears for a long stretch, because Jigo was so fleshed out in his early interactions with Ashitaka, his reappearance in the last third of the film feels justified. Spirited Away, by contrast, weirdly phases out characters it introduced in the first act, and focuses on all new characters in the finale. Two characters, the monster who tends the boiler room, Kamaji, and his human assistant, Lin, are introduced at the end of the first act, but despite being set up as major characters, they both surprisely fade in importance as the finale approaches. Instead of these two, the last act of Spirited Away focuses on a new set of characters that were introduced and/or fleshed out in the middle act. The first is the Yubaba’s baby, Boh. Boh is briefly introduced when Chihiro first meets Yubaba, but we do not see his face or hear him speak; Chihiro only meets him and learns something about him towards the end of the third act. But soon after their first conversation, Boh gets transformed into a mouse and during most of the finale functions as Chihiro’s cute animal sidekick. Boh’s weird arc from baby to pet represents Spirited Away‘s storytelling at its oddest. The second character, No-Face, turns out to be similarly undercooked. We are introduced to him in the middle of the film, where he clearly has a fascination with Chihiro. He soon transforms into a ravenous beast that starts devouring even the bathhouse staff and is only stopped when Chihiro forces a magical dumpling down his throat. No-Face, still obsessed with Chihiro, decides to accompany her on the journey to the other witch. No-Face’s connection with Chihiro and his transformation to and from a gluttonous monster are never explained. As his name suggests, No-Face remains a cipher throughout Spirited Away. His decision to stay with Zeniba at the end feels like a plot convenience, rather than a result of some story arc. But the ultimate example of lazy storytelling and character development belongs to Zeniba. The film decides nearly two-thirds the way through that Yubaba has a hitherto unmentioned twin sister, Zeniba. Conveniently enough for the animators, Zeniba turns out to be an identical twin and helpfully dresses like her sister. Putting aside the blatant cutting and pasting, the differences between a good and an evil witch would provide Spirited Away some fertile ground for character examination. But the movie never explores their relationship or past in detail. We never learn why the two ended up at odds with each other. Indeed, the two sisters are never seen in the same room together.
The world-building of Spirited Away also turns out to be sloppy. The laws of the film’s universe are never clear, and the movie keeps adding new rules to the very end. It is obvious that these rules are just created and resolved to move the plot along. Near the film’s end, for instance, it is suddenly declared that Chihiro, in order to save her parents who have been transformed into pigs, must distinguish them from a pack of other swine. This scene is all just an excuse for the film to demonstrate Chihiro’s filial piety by recognizing her parents even in their porcine state. And there are not one, but several, magic objects that affect the laws of Spirited Away‘s universe. The movie lurches from one magic object to another that will supposedly change the magic rules that we never knew in the first place. Maybe this plethora of regulations and objects could be justified if Spirited Away kept Chihiro in the dark about them—after all, actual fairy tales are full of senseless prohibitions that only seem to test a protagonist’s ability to follow directions—but she starts to understand the rules way before the audience does. Much of the later action in Spirited Away is driven by Chihiro saying out loud some previously unspoken rule and rushing forward to stop it from taking effect. An hour ago in screen time she did not even know this spirit world existed, but suddenly she has become an expert. It feels like a plot convenience rather than anything justified by the story.
I even question the spectacle of Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki has started to repeat himself. The soot creatures resemble the ones from My Neighbor Totoro; Haku’s wolf-like face and Chihiro’s tendency to touch it turns her into a surrogate Princess Mononoke. And like in Princess Mononoke, a plot point revolves around a god become enveloped in miasmatic corruption. I do not even think Spirited Away is animated as well as Princess Mononoke. Even if you think I am being a little too grumpy about Spirited Away, the film lacks the scale and epic quality of Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke. Its smaller story asks us to focus on the characters more than the world, but, as I have argued above, these characters simply do not hold up. I will, however, praise the ambiguous ending of the film. A lesser film would show Haku and Chihiro ending up together. The fact that the film never resolves the idea that they will see each other is to its favor.