Describing this movie is like talking about one of those forever-memorable trippy dreams of childhood. People will listen politely and think "how imaginative you are in your sleep" or "you are one fucked-up dude" but never fully understand how utterly immersive and affective the experience was...and continues to be for you.
Not being a drug-taker myself, it's a long while since my sense of everyday possibility was unsettled in this way. When I was around seven I did have a dream that was more or less in this genre. In it I was on a train bound for Timbuktu where the carriages were all weird little houses full of singular characters.
The obvious comparisons will be with Alice in Wonderland, but Japan's anime God Hayao Miyazaki sports his western influences with pride - Labyrinth, The Secret Garden, Where the Wild Things Are and The Odyssey, amongst others. (And If I, Robot had been made before you might even point to the in-yer-face product placement for Audi!)
It has to be petty to quibble about inconsistencies when the storytelling is so spiritedly dream or nightmare-like in its conception - stream of unconsciousness if you like. Yet as in a real dream the sense of incongruity deriving from both gaps and deviations mounts up and creates a lingering anxiety at the end. Why do some characters like Lin not have a story to tell? Why doesn't Chihiro hug both Lin and Kamaji before returning to the Human world?
Yet a character like No Face is so poignant precisely because he is a shady outline without final explanation. In Labyrinth Terry Jones provided the narrative discipline that framed Jim Henson's riotous imagination. It is the absence of similar tight scripting here that makes Miyazaki's work so mesmerising. The blue of that sky - it's all so touchingly, ineffably beautiful.
Before renting Spirited Away from Blockbuster last week I added it to my Amazon shopping basket. As a result the bots at the online retailer recommended Bambi to me today!