Spirited Away is easily dismissed as a gemlike Japanese animation, fun for fans and for families with kids. It think it's more. Here is a brilliantly realized world, rich in detail, thoroughly considered and thoroughly explained without every being over-explained.
The weight of explanation falls almost entirely on the artwork, in part because the sound track of this Studio Ghibli/Disney co-production has to accommodate both Japanese and English. That works beautifully. We see the bathhouse of the spirits, from the lowest storage room to the topmost penthouse. We see how the workers eat and sleep, what they wear, how they get their new assignments each morning.
It's fascinating to look at the character designs and concept sketches of any movie and see how the final conception emerged over time. Often, it's amazing how close a quick sketch can come to the final product: J. M. Straczynski's hurried back-of-the-envelope sketch of the original idea for Babylon 5, for example, covers not only the big arc of this 100-hour, five-year epic but also many of the small details that shape the edges of the tale. It's interesting, too, to detect patterns of compromise and negotiation: Miyazaki and the chief animator, is seemed, were constantly redrawing 10-year-old Chihiro's chest line in an organizational tug of war.
But, above all, the genius is in the details. The art is conceived in the key of red -- and (the art director notes) it's a red illuminated by incandescent light, the way you'd have seen it fifty or seventy years ago, not the cooler fluorescent lighting you'd see in a public monument today. Spirits arrive alone or with friends, and some of the minor spirits arrive in Japanese tour groups. Serving them takes a complex administration: who accounts for the bath salts? How do you prevent waste? Who serves the servants, and how do they spend their free time? It's all here, and it's all shown.