Dir: HayaoMiyazaki. Japan. 2001. 125 mins.

Though aimed,says director Hayao Miyazaki, "at ten-year-old girls," his new film Spirited Away (Sen toChihiro no Kamikakushi)is a masterwork, the latest and best in a long line from Japan's premieranimator. Expected to earn Y20bn ($162m) and break the Japanese box officerecord for a domestic film set by Miyazaki's 1997 eco-fable Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away could alsochallenge Titanic's all-time record -- Y25.9bn ($211m) - in the territory. A lackof TV, game and similar tie-ins will make it a harder sell abroad, but the filmwill appeal to under-twelves and their parents in a way that Princess Mononoke, withits heavier subject matter and graphic violence, could not, while drawing teensand adults who would never be seen dead at a Pokemon movie. Spirited Away could break out of the anime ghettothat has confined Miyazaki's films too long in the West and become thegenre's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The story, of a girl's separation from her parents in a land of goblins and gods, is toldwith all the resources at Miyazaki's command, from the richness of hisimagination and the strength of his moral intelligence, to the superb craft ofhis Studio Ghibli animators. Spirited Away may be the culmination of Miyazaki's four-decade-longcareer, but far from being monumental, it is a joy and wonder to be in, itsfantasy world at once universal and distinctly Miyazaki.

With Spirited Away, Miyazaki isexpanding on themes that occupied him in Mononoke and through much of his career, notably the vexed relationship between man and nature, as well as re-working certainmotifs that have appeared in his work again and again. The inevitable comparisonis with Lewis Carroll's Alice books: the film has a similar sense of dream logic, withcharacters and situations that may seem absurd or grotesque, but brilliantlyilluminate humanity's fears and desires, in funhouse mirrors that are somehowtruer than normal ones.

The narrative core, however, is the young heroine's search for her parents and how thatsearch 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 theconsciousness-expanding and character-building encounters on the way.

It begins when ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents, on a drive in the mountains, find what appears to be an abandoned theme park, whose Western-style buildings have aseedy, ominous look. Dad, however, finds scrumptious grub on the counter of arestaurant, and seeing no proprietor, digs in, followed by Mom. Chihiro, with asense of foreboding, refuses to eat, running off to explore the place instead.When she returns, Mom and Dad have been transformed into huge, snuffling pigs.

Somehow, she has fallen into another world, in which all manner of strange beings walk, and she seems to be only the human in sight. Then she encounters Haku -- a 12-year-old boy who helps her find her feet in a place where nothing (including Haku) iswhat it seems. He even gives her a new name: Sen. She begins working at a hotsprings resort whose guests are gods taking R&R after an exhausting touramong humanity. Its owner is a crone with an enormous head, magical powers, anda personality that is a cross between Scrooge and the Queen of Hearts. Amongthose she encounters there are Kamaji, a grandfatherly, if madly busy, creaturewith four hands and two legs who runs the boiler room, and Okutaresama, a rivergod who is a huge, moving pile of filth whom she is assigned to wash.

But while adapting to her strange new environment, Sen still searches for her parents and heeds Haku's warning: forget your real name and you can never return to your former life.

Filmed and projected using the latest digital technology, Spirited Away is packed with dazzling images. Some ofthe best scenes, however, are the smaller, psychologically revealing ones, suchas Sen, alone in a garden, collapsing into tears of relief because a strangerhas been kind. Perhaps the true model for this extraordinary film is not Alice's Adventures In Wonderland but that ever-reliable map of childhood's inner landscape: DavidCopperfield.

Prod co: Studio Ghibli
Japan dist: Toho
Int'l dist: Tokuma
Prod: Toshio Suzuki
Scr: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Main voice cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Jiyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara