One of the interesting things about getting older is remembering a time before something. Not just before it entered your personal radar, or before even “I liked it before it was popular” – before it existed. There’s a lot of “befores” in anime that I don’t remember: before Akira, before My Neighbor Totoro, before Dragonball. One that I do recall is before Spirited Away.
I was fifteen years old when Spirited Away came out in the US, already an anime and Ghibli fan for years by then. I wish I could say it deeply affected me, that every moment remained burned upon my brain, but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but my most vivid memory of it at the time is cheering for it as I watched the Oscars in my little brother’s hospital room. I do remember the anticipation, though. At the time, Miyazaki was a name known mostly to animation and film buffs stateside. Spirited Away initially came out in a limited release on only 151 screens, but Oscar buzz and international acclaim brought it out to the mainstream, and winning the second-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival cemented its place in film history. Many of the people who grew up watching it are adults now – myself included. Some of them are working in animation, leading to visual references in shows like Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, The Simpsons, and many others. It regularly ranks highly on lists of anime, of animated films, even of films in general. It’s a huge, influential movie, and much of its imagery has come to be instantly recognizable.