Four Films to Spirit You Away
If you loved Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away, you need to check these out...
I don’t know about you, but I vividly remember the first time I watched Spirited Away. It’s one of those life defining moments that is seared into your mind. Maybe you remember where you were for Y2K, or the third week of March 2020, my moment is watching Spirited Away for the first time. I was 10 years old, which just so happens to be the heroine Chihiro’s age. I had just moved cities. The film opens on Chihiro and her family moving towns.
It was a hot summer day and I was in a cool basement with my sister and friends who had brought the film over with them. We sat there enamored, glued to the screen for 125 glorious minutes. I was instantly in love and continued to watch Spirited Away every day, for 5 days straight. It remains the only time I’ve ever watched a movie back-to-back like that.
Spirited Away was the first film I’d seen by Hayao Miyazaki and it introduced me to the world of Studio Ghibli. What a magical, and beautiful world it is. The Ghibli production house is responsible numerous hits, but Spirited Away is the mega-hit that launched Ghibli to household name status. It remains my favorite film ever, and I obsessively watch it at least once a year.
Now, as I’ve proven, Spirited Away certainly has a re-watch factor, but realistically, I’ve got to make room for some other movies in my life. So, what do I watch that gives me that same magical feeling? To figure that out, first we have to know…
The Spirited Away Magical Formula
How does an animated film become a generation defining hit? And how can we ever find another to stand up to its majesty? Not to fret, if you are a Spirited Away lover like I am, I have broken down the magic ingredients that make Spirited Away so special.
No, no I’m not talking about the delicious food at the spirit market. You know you’re not supposed to eat that, silly! I’m talking about the storytelling elements that come together in this beautiful piece de resistance. So here we go…
#1 Coming of Age Story
Spirited Away centers on the young Chihiro who, much to her detriment, is moving to a new town with her parents. At the beginning of the film, our heroine is sullen and bratty, wrapped up in self-pity, and angry with her parents. After Chihiro and her parents explore an abandoned amusement park, which is much more than meets the eye, she is separated from them and forced to make her own way in a world full of mystery and danger.
Now this is important. Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story, of epic proportions. It’s not your typical girl meets world type of material. When we are looking for coming-of-age stories to compare, we are looking for stories where the young hero or heroine is thrown into a whole new reality and caused to face tasks that require skill and emotion that is much beyond their current capacity.
#2 Magic with a Spiritual Flair
This is a big part of the equation. The world of Spirited Away is brimming with magic. New creatures, magical foods, and of course, spirits. We are looking for a fully realized world to match the detailed and rich creation of Miyazaki’s masterpiece.
But! It’s not just magic. It has to have a spiritual element. A story that connects life to something greater than the hero(ine)’s life and personal goals.
#3 A Feast for the Eyes
There is no doubt about it, anyone who watches a Miyazaki film has to admit that it is a spectacular feat of visual glory. The animation is just stunning and the character and creature design is made to be obsessed over.
Just look at this!
In a way this factor is really tied into ingredient #2 of our formula. If you’re going to have a complex, magical world, you’ve got to be able to do that world justice with what you are putting on the screen.
Let’s Put This Formula To Work!
Okay! The moment you’ve all been waiting for. I’ve got 4 films for you that will stand up to the legendary Spirited Away. First on the list…
Film #1: The Neverending Story (1984)
We’ll kick the list off with a classic vintage. This is the oldest recommendation and the only film that predates Spirited Away. In The Neverending Story, we follow young Bastian who has recently lost his mother and is neglected by his father. In an attempt to escape some school bullies, Bastian stumbles into a mysterious book shop, where he steals the magical book, Fantasia.
When Bastian begins reading this curious book, he finds himself transported to the world of Fantasia, which is threatened by a terrible evil called The Nothing. Bastian comes to know and love the creatures of this world and in the end, is called to face his own fears in order to save this magical place.
Match-Up Moment: Keep an eye out for the resolution of The Neverending Story. I think you will find a big similarity to the final moments of Spirited Away.
Film #2: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)
This is a recent watch that has quickly made its way to my favorite animated films list! The beautiful animation, magical storyline and young heroine make Children Who Chase Lost Voices an easy match up for Spirited Away.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices follows Asuna, whose life is changed after she hears a strange song over a crystal radio. Shortly afterwards, she is introduced to many odd and alluring characters who seek entrance to the underworld. Having lost her father when she was young, Asuna is instantly intrigued by this alternate dimension that exists right beneath our own world. She follows a mysterious and lovely, boy whom she believed to be dead and together they cross through the portal of the underworld and embark on an epic journey.
Matchup Moment: Children Who Chase Lost Voices has some Ghibli level animated food scenes to drool over.
Film #3: Wrinkle In Time (2018)
While this film might be the most unlike Spirited Away in terms of appearance, it definitely follows the formula. In Wrinkle in Time we have a coming-of-age story which transports us to a parallel dimension in space. This film is brimming with magical characters, who have the classic “speaking in riddles” personalities of a fairy-tale.
In Wrinkle in Time Meg Murray and her classmate Charles Wallace, are caught up in a space bound journey, trying to find answers about Meg’s father, who disappeared 5 years earlier.
Matchup Moment: The main character Meg, who begins as an angry, self-doubting young girl, is an unlikely hero, much like Chihiro from Spirited Away.
Film #4: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
This list wouldn’t be complete without a recommendation from the legendary Miyazaki’s body of work. I would say that out of all of the Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle has the most similarities with Spirited Away, and it follows our magic formula.
The heroine of Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie, is a quiet and timid young woman who finds herself caught up in a magical battle between kings, queens, witches and wizards. Much like Chihiro, she will have to overcome her fears in order to break a spell that has been put upon her by an evil witch.
Matchup Moment: Since this is also a Miyazaki film, we see some similarities in character design. So if you love the visual style of Spirited Away, you are sure to love Howl.
These films have totally hit the spot for me. It was a true challenge to find movies that lived up to the epic beauty of Spirited Away but by looking for stories that had the perfect balance of a Coming-of-Age Story, Magic with a Hint of Spirituality and Beautiful Visuals, I’ve been satisfied in my search.
What do you think? Have you been Spirited Away by any of these films? I’d love to know!
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