“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.” —Zeniba, Spirited Away
It’s no accident that I chose to cover Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away the week after Jan Svankmajer’s terrifying surrealist take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, because they strike me as reverse images of each other. Both are rooted in Carroll’s abstract dream logic—one directly, the other in form—and both follow a willful young girl on a wayward journey that reveals her courage, resourcefulness, and boundless curiosity. At the end of the journey, there’s wisdom, growth, and most of all, the strong sense of self-reliance that comes from facing off against strange, intimidating adversaries. The difference, of course, is that Svankmajer’s Alice has the contours of a nightmare, restricting Carroll’s world to the narrow confines of the girl’s room and the psychically animated objects within it. Miyazaki’s film, by contrast, drifts along like a pleasant dream, where any scary obstacles are offset by endless enchantments that keep building on one another.
Really, I could have singled out any Miyazaki film for New Cult Canon, because there’s no animator alive that inspires as much passion from his devoted cadre of followers. But Spirited Away strikes me as a culmination of everything he does well, threading the gentle whimsy of movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro through a subtler piece of social commentary than his environmental epic Princess Mononoke. It’s also a film that genuinely plays to audiences of all ages, striking a tone that’s distinctively mature and adult-oriented (when has a score as wistful as Joe Hisaishi’s ever been used in a non-Miyazaki kids’ movie?) while locking so firmly into its heroine’s perspective that child viewers can stay anchored to a narrative which strays very far afield. After all, Spirited Away spends much of its time exploring the inner workings of a bathhouse catering to the spirit world. The Little Mermaid it ain’t.
Films and other entertainment media directed at young children are nearly always characterized by excessive clarity and hand-holding. That makes some sense, of course, because children’s understanding of the world is as limited as their time on it. But there’s another way of looking at it, too, which is that they’re more open-minded and receptive to new ways of thinking than adults, who are so set in their ways that they may have a harder time comprehending Spirited Away than their children do. That doesn’t mean that kids have a deeper understanding of the film than adults, but I would argue that they’re more naturally accepting of its myriad abstractions. For them, the rules of narrative storytelling haven’t been established yet, and as much as any animator in the world, Miyazaki seizes on the opportunity to make up his own set of rules. So when, say, a hive of furry, coal-hauling bathhouse bugs takes it upon themselves to look after the heroine’s shoes, nobody bats an eye. Because that’s the sort of thing that furry, coal-hauling bathhouse bugs do. Duh!
When we first meet Chihiro, she’s probably the closest thing the Japanese people have to a petulant little brat. It’s moving day, and she’s sitting despondent in the back seat of the family car, coming to life only to complain about her dying “farewell flowers” and to stick out her tongue at her new school. En route to their new home, her parents take a wrong turn and drive down a cobblestone road through the forest, stopping at a mysterious shrine with a tunnel leading through it. After passing through the tunnel—and a kind of way station to the spirit world that features some stunning “lighting”—the family winds up in what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. Nonetheless, when Chihiro’s parents spot massive plates of food left out on a restaurant counter, they dig in without thinking twice about it, explaining that they’ll pay for it later. With her parents occupied, Chihiro wanders off on her own until day turns to night, and the area suddenly bustles with faceless spirits of every stripe. Terrified, she dashes back to the restaurant, but finds that her mother and father have turned into pigs, still gorging at the trough.
Then things get a little weird: With the help of a mysterious boy named Haku—who will later transform into a dragon, chased by a flock of paper birds—Chihiro gets directed to the bowels of a bathhouse that serves 8 million spirit-gods. She’s told that the proprietor of the bathhouse—a tyrannical old sorceress named Yubaba, with craggy features and a head roughly equal in size to her squat body—will have to give her a job if she insists on it, even though the establishment isn’t welcoming to humans, who are generally characterized by a foul odor. Chihiro ultimately needs to rescue her parents and find her way out of the spirit world, but in the meantime, she quickly learns the meaning of hard work. Given a new name, “Sen,” she submits to a kind of enslavement and starts at the very bottom of the pecking order, which means cleaning up the tub sludge left behind by filthy spirits. So when the “Stink God” comes sliming onto the premises, she’s the one carrying the proverbial mop:
Now let us now pause for a moment to consider the following: The bathhouse operates on a system in which wooden tags are used to order herb-infused water. The tags are attached to long straps that descend from the baths to the spider-limbed old man who orchestrates the various pipelines in the industrialized space below. In order to do this, he needs plenty of coal, which is carried out by a chirping band of little creatures just strong enough to carry it piece by piece on their backs. They’re also quite personable, based on their willingness to look after Chihiro’s shoes while she’s away.
There are countless examples of this kind of eccentricity at play in Spirited Away, but Miyazaki has a talent for getting his audience to blithely accept it as part of his magical cinematic universe. No doubt many of his supernatural concepts are rooted in Japanese culture and are thus less comprehensible to Westerners, yet the film still has a universal quality if you’re willing to yield to the logistical curlicues of Miyazaki’s vision. (Again, children are probably best suited to the challenge, so parents wary about subjecting them to a 125-minute anime odyssey should think twice about it. That is, unless Shrek has already succeeded in crushing their imagination forever.)
Beneath all this gorgeous abstraction, Miyazaki smuggles some pointed lessons about the meaning of friendship, selflessness, and social politesse, as well as the pollutions of greed and gluttony. Chihiro begins Spirited Away as rude and self-centered, the sort of kid who pelts her parents with “Are we there yet?” whining from the moment their car pulls out of the driveway. Her parents aren’t any better, either, as they immediately gorge on food that isn’t theirs, under the assumption that they’ll pay the tab later. However, the Chihiro who exits the spirit world isn’t the same one that entered it; over the course of two hours of screen time, her interest in finding her way home is eclipsed by the needs of the new friends she encounters. Having her name changed to “Sen” by the diabolical Yubaba may have insidious implications—if you forget your real name, you’ll never find your way out of the spirit world—but it also gives her a clean slate on which to build a new, more mature identity.
Chihiro’s identity crisis is mirrored poignantly in the character of No Face, a ghostly figure who follows her around and becomes a sort of moral compass for the film in general. After she lets him into the bathhouse, No Face tempts the staff with its ability to materialize gold pebbles out of nowhere; soon enough, all the creatures are bowing and catering to it with teeming plates of food until it morphs into an all-consuming beast on a rampage. Only after Chihiro refuses its graft does No Face shrink back down to size, and from there, it becomes her silent companion, imprinted decisively by her decency and refusal to succumb to temptation. No Face is the “Sen” of the spirit world, and when “Sen” becomes Chihiro again, this restless soul finds a home too.
But much of what is great about Spirited Away defies description and simply must be experienced. My favorite passage finds Chihiro straying farther off course than she has in the entire movie, all in an effort to restore health to the badly wounded Haku by appealing to Yubaba’s kindly twin Zeniba. She boards a train that glides along on the surface of the ocean outside the bathhouse, traveling all the way to the last stop with her friendly companions in tow. There’s something so melancholy and beautiful about these lonely, transparent spirits on the train, heading to whatever destination the afterlife has determined for them. I can’t explain what it means or why it’s so affecting, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a children’s film strive for such a oddly transcendent tone. There are no words:
Animation Month continues…
Apr. 23: The Triplets Of Belleville
Apr. 30: Millennium Actress
Back to business…
May 7: Careful
May 14: The Big Lebowski