Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)
Rating: * * * * * Director: Hayao Miyazaki Running time: 125 minutes Language: JapaneseNow showing

Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animators had their biggest-ever triumph with “Mononoke Hime (The Princess Mononoke),” an eco-fable set in premodern Japan that broke all box-office records in 1997.

Chihiro and Kaonashi in “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi”
— (C) 2001 Nibariki Tgenddtm

Unlike animation studio heads in Hollywood, who are not expected to personally animate their creations (Walt Disney was a famously mediocre artist), Miyazaki is a hands-on type; he took a pencil to nearly 80,000 of the 144,000 cels used in “Mononoke Hime.” Aged 56 when he completed his herculean three-year task, he was badly in need of a rest and announced his retirement from directing.

Fortunately for us, though, he is also an incurable workaholic, and now, four years later, there is another Miyazaki animated film, “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away).” While “Mononoke Hime” was unapologetically targeted at teenagers and adults, with graphic violence that would have never passed the first reader at Disney (though the Mouse House signed a deal with Studio Ghibli to distribute the film), “Sen to Chihiro” is aimed, says Miyazaki, at 10-year-old girls. Accordingly, it is simpler in everything from language to story line.

It is also a masterwork, my new favorite among Miyazaki’s many masterworks; a film whose story — of a girl’s separation from her parents — is the most primal of all. Here it is told with all the resources at Miyazaki’s command, from the richness of his imagination and the force of his moral intelligence, to the superb craft of his Studio Ghibli animators. “Sen to Chihiro” may be the culmination of Miyazaki’s four-decade-long career, but far from being monumental it is a joy and a wonder, like revisiting the emotional landscape of childhood in a fantasy world that is both universal and uniquely Miyazaki.

The inevitable comparison is with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books. “Sen to Chihiro” has the same queerness of atmosphere that is somehow familiar, as though in a dream or another life. It has, too, the same sense of purposeful playfulness, with characters and situations that may seem absurd or grotesque, but somehow illuminate our deepest fears and desires.

At the same time, Miyazaki is expanding on themes that occupied him in “Mononoke Hime” and his other films, notably the vexed relationship between humanity and nature. In doing so, he reworks certain motifs that have often appeared in his work, such as the pastel Europeanesque architecture that exists only in his films, and flying scenes expressing a freedom and exhilaration like little else in animated or even live-action movies.

But, as hinted at in the title, the narrative core of the film lies in how the young heroine’s search for her parents transforms into a struggle for a new, independent identity. In short, the age-old story of the Quest, in which the goal is less important than the character-building, consciousness-expanding encounters on the way.

The heroine begins the story as Chihiro, a 10-year-old on a holiday drive with her parents. Her father, an adventurous type, tears along a mountain road until he comes to the entrance to a long tunnel that has been blocked so cars can’t enter. When he suggests they walk through it, Chihiro resists because the tunnel frightens her. Mom and Dad, however, stride off into the dark and Chihiro, even more afraid of being left alone, tags along.

At the other end of the tunnel they find what appears to be an abandoned theme park, whose Western-style buildings have a seedy, uncanny look. Dad, however, notices nothing but the smell of food wafting from one of the restaurants. Finding no proprietor, only heaps of scrumptious grub on the counter, he digs in, followed by Mom. Chihiro, feeling bad vibes even more strongly now, refuses to eat and runs off to explore the place instead. When she returns, Mom and Dad have been transformed into huge, snuffling pigs.

She flees in horror — only to find that there is no waking up from this, the worst dream in her life. Somehow, she has fallen into another world, one populated by all manner of strange gods and goblins, and where she seems to be the only human being. Then she encounters Haku — a 12-year-old boy who helps her find her feet in a place where nothing (including Haku) is what it seems.

One rule, she learns, is that everyone must work — no slackers allowed. Another is that she cannot keep her name — she must have a new one: Sen. Haku warns her that she must not forget her old name, or she will never be able to return to her former life. He also introduces her to Kamaji, a grandfatherly, if madly busy, creature with four hands and two legs who runs the boiler room in the town’s hot-spring resort, and Rin, a sharp-tongued teenage maid who takes Sen under her prickly wing. The owner of the place, however, is the forbidding Yubaba — a crone with an enormous head and a personality that is a cross between Scrooge and the Queen of Hearts.

The guests, Sen discovers, are gods returning for a spell of R&R after exhausting tours among humanity. As a kind of initiation, she is assigned to wash Okutaresama — a river god who is a huge, moving pile of filth. She bravely tackles her loathsome task, despite nearly drowning in a flood of sludge, and begins to earn Yubaba’s reluctant approval and Rin’s friendship.

While adapting to her strange new environment, though, she has not forgotten her parents. Where are they? How can she return them to human form? How can they find the tunnel when it and indeed all of their former world seems to have vanished like a dream?

Filmed and projected using the latest digital technology, “Sen to Chihiro” is as gorgeous as anything Miyazaki has ever done, packed with dazzling images, such as a mysterious train that runs through water in a way reminiscent of the Catbus in “Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).” For me, though, some of the best scenes are the lesser ones, such as that in which Sen, alone in a garden, collapses in tears of relief because, in Haku, she has found kindness. A scene, I think, that would not have occurred to Disney, or Lewis Carroll for that matter. Dickens? Yes, definitely Dickens. Perhaps the true model for this extraordinary film is not “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” but “David Copperfield.”

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