Spirited Away

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(Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

No Place Like Home

Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki crafts beautiful cinema – not just animation – like no other. The worlds he creates typically exist within our own, but there is always something thrillingly otherworldly about them – intersections between the terrestrial and the spiritual, the mundane and the magical. Throughout a decades-spanning career, none of his films balance these overlapping realms quite as effectively or poignantly as his first film of the 21st century, the beloved Spirited Away. In the context of Miyazaki’s entire body of work, Spirited Away perhaps feels most pertinent as its setting is firmly rooted in the present as opposed to his other prominent works that recall mythic eras of kingdoms and empires. Tradition has taught us to expect the fantastic when reading literature or viewing films depicting royalty, castles, or pre-Enlightenment mysticism. But, with Spirited Away, Miyazaki asks us to believe the unbelievable hiding just around the corner in today’s world – or in this case, within an abandoned amusement park.

In this way, then, it most closely resembles Miyazaki’s early triumph My Neighbor Totoro. But, where the innocent pair of sisters in that film readily accepts the presence of the giant, wide-grinning spirit who serves as more of a fixture of the background than a furtherance of the girls’ story, Spirited Away finds its heroine, slightly older and less naïve, confronting the unknown of this somewhat perilous realm as a skeptical outsider. The intrigue, then, is found in this unprecedented characterization in his work that posits his protagonist as a foreigner – like us – in his wild imagination. This is also what makes Spirited Away that much more special: there is an invitation present in young Chihiro for us to come along with her and explore the depths of this artist’s creativity. We are no longer distant observers; her story is just as much ours as hers or his.

We meet Chihiro, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest character, as a saturnine young girl in the backseat of a car that will bring her unwillingly to her new home. Her protests falling on deaf ears, Chihiro’s parents ignore their daughter’s plight and assure her that she will make new friends at her new school. Unconvincing and condescending in their interaction with their daughter, Chihiro’s parents are quickly established, not as the enemy, but as a foil to her inherent childlike naivety. They represent the stifling hyper-rationality of the modern world that Miyazaki often rebukes (a point that is taken to its extreme later on when their consumerist gluttony transforms them into actual pigs). When Chihiro’s father takes a wrong turn, they stumble upon an abandoned theme park. And, much to the chagrin of the easily frightened little girl, her parents decide to take a look around. Soon discovering this park may not be as vacant as they first thought, the adults are overcome with the delicious smells of cooking food, sit down to satisfy their voracious appetites, and reassure themselves that they’ll pay whatever they owe when they finish.

Miyazaki wastes no time in unleashing his imagination. Her parents’ transformation into grotesque-looking swines coupled with the sudden appearance of dark, homogenous phantoms rapidly turns Chihiro’s uneasiness to panic. With the valley between this little village and the family’s car now submerged in water, the girl has nowhere to go as she startlingly finds herself disappearing in this spirit world where she doesn’t belong. When a mysterious boy named Haku shows up and begins to give her directives, she chooses to believe him more out of desperation than trust. Following his instructions, she convinces the boiler “man” Kamajii to give her a job at what she discovers is a great bathhouse for spirits. What follows is the splendid story of young Chihiro gaining her courage, facing her demons, and learning the value of friendship. Along the way, she encounters unforgettable characters in the multi-armed Kamajii, the ever-complaining Lin who also has a sweet spot, the fuming bathhouse matron Yubaba, the frightening and enigmatic No Face, and her first and most loyal friend, Haku.

Miyazaki’s film takes many narrative detours as it wanders between these seemingly disparate episodes (never forgetting its central thread of Chihiro’s need to restore her parents) allowing the director to cover a lot of thematic ground. He touches on the temptation to succumb to avarice at the expense of our better judgment – not only in the transformation of her parents, but also in the No Face subplot where various spirits, enticed by the promise of gold, are literally gobbled up by the amorphous creature. The filmmaker also revisits a common theme of his in humankind’s mistreatment of the environment – a presumed “stink” spirit arrives at the bathhouse where Chihiro uncovers his true identity as a river spirit polluted by urban waste. The moral is obvious, but its brief inclusion in a much fuller story makes the message less overt than the film’s predecessor Princess Mononoke – a film almost exclusively concerned with this notion.

Most crucially, Miyazaki explores the idea that in all of us there exists the potential for good and for evil. None of Spirited Away’s characters are cookie-cutter generalizations. Each is impressively multi-layered and shifts allegiances throughout. The most significant instance of this notion for Chihiro can be found in Haku, but the most obvious dichotomy exists in the late-film revelation that Yubaba has a twin sister, Zeniba, who looks and sounds exactly like her. With Zeniba’s help, Chihiro learns that Yubaba too has a weakness and ultimately can be reasoned with. This last feature of Miyazaki’s film most distinctly sets it apart from what most commonly refer to as “kids’ movies” – a sad, but often true designation that fairly or unfairly gets tied to most animated films. Miyazaki never makes the concessions even critical darling and animation juggernaut Pixar sometimes makes – potty humor, intentional kiddy jokes, clearly defined villains. Instead, he opts for more complicated characterizations and trusts his audience to pass moral judgments on its own.

To construct this densely rich narrative and utterly imaginative setting, Miyazaki and his team of animators at Studio Ghibli bring to life some of the most breathtakingly beautiful traditionally animated visuals in film history. Animation is assuredly Miyazaki’s perfect medium as it grants him complete artistic liberty to create the characters, creatures, and architecture that populate his imagined world. Spirited Away is flush with meticulous details – the ornate castle décor, the features of each different spirit, the emotions present on its characters’ faces – that add to the believability of the story and allow us to get lost in this strange new world.

Over the course of Spirited Away’s two hours, Chihiro goes through remarkable change; we see her grow onscreen. By film’s end, she willingly accepts the bizarre when it at first terrified her. She confronts the unknown with confidence. And, after she wins back her parents’ freedom, she follows them out of the abandoned theme park with head and shoulders high, presumably determined to face the challenge of adapting to her new home. In the end, then, Miyazaki’s greatest achievement is less about daydreaming through life and living in the fantastic and more about how our experiences (whether real or imagined) shape us and prepare us for real life. Chihiro knows she’s never destined for life in the spirit realm, but her journey to the bathhouse and back leads her home – a place everyone’s path toward self-discovery will lead them if he or she is ready – like Chihiro – to meet it head on.

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