Chris Lanier discusses the themes of Hayao Miyazakis Spirited Away. What starts as a parable of the terrifying adult world turns to a world of delight due to Miyazaki's trademarks of kindness and humanity.
Hayao Miyazakis Spirited Away starts off with a very large detour. Ten-year-old Chihiro is in the back of a car, driven by her parents, traveling toward a new home in a new town. On the way, they are strangely drawn to a beguiling, and apparently deserted, town. Chihiro is creeped out by the place, but her parents insist on exploring, and they eventually find a restaurant with platefuls of delicious food lying about. Chihiro has no interest in eating any of it, but her parents dig in, and turn into pigs. Not figuratively, either. They sprout snouts and curlicue tails, and chop-sticks become useless: mom and dad slouch to the ground, suddenly quadrupedal. Night falls, and the inhabitants of the town slow come into focus: a grand parade of spirits, gods and witches, crystallizing out of the air.
Its here, in the exploration of the spirit world, that Spirited Away spreads out into one of the most visually baroque films ever made. Its look and density are so unique, rather than comparing it to other films, I found myself comparing it to paintings: intricate Byzantine art, or ancient Buddhist frescoes of the universe religious art suggesting transparent skyscrapers or towering hives honeycombed with buzzing spirits windows opening onto fantastic figures, each one particular and strange, each inhabiting its own individual corner of the vast cosmological blueprint.
A World of Terror
It would be easy to get lost in the thicket of detail, as Chihiro herself feels lost, but Miyazaki understands that one can give free reign to the imagination, so long as there is one primary hinge, one central conceit, that the fantasy swings on. As well as being an inventive fantasy in the mold of Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away is also, surprisingly, one of the best films made about entering the work force. In order to free her parents from their porcine slavery (and to divert them from their eventual destination of some spirit-figures dinner plate), Chihiro has to throw herself on the scant mercy of Mistress Yubaba. Yubaba is a witch who runs the town, and more particularly its bathhouse, where the Shinto-like gods of the surrounding countryside come to get washed. Chihiro must work in the bathhouse to win her parents freedom.
And here is the hinge that Spirited Aways fantastic world swings on: the bizarre, endlessly fecund spirit-world is actually the mundane adult world, seen from the margins at the gate of entry, as it were, with all its grotesquerie and strangeness fresh and intact.
The work at the bathhouse is like most work embarked upon at the beginning of ones employed existence, at the bottom of the ladder, with no skills or training to ones credit. Its work made up of dimly understood responsibilities and routine humiliations. Ive never worked in a bathhouse, but with stints at janitorial and dishwashing work long-buried on my resume, Chihiros bathhouse posture brought back pungent memories: back bent over, sleeves rolled up, arms up to the elbow in other peoples muck.
Those who have been at the work for a longer time, who have made a home there, make up a society geared to codes and habit that seem, to the greenhorn, as impenetrable as the rituals of a long-dead religious order. The more humanoid creatures who work in the bath house and Yubaba herself have strangely proportioned, outsized faces that look like masks (the painted makeup on the women heightens this effect) just as age becomes a mask. In the adult world, personalities have settled into place. Possibility has ossified into actuality.
Along the borders of the story are more disorienting nightmares of adulthood. Child-rearing gets a nod when Chihiro is locked in a room with a buffalo-sized baby (it seems a possibility he might eat her whole). She is given a taste of the daily commute on a tram-ride filled with ghostly gray passengers (the passengers, embarking then disembarking to their anonymous lives, are translucent as clothes that have been through the wash several times too many). Over all the activities in the bathhouse hovers the mysterious, tactile strangeness of sex, and the unpredictable metamorphoses of the body. The bathhouse clientele is composed of weird fleshy creatures some bulbous, some pale, some disturbingly inflated or deflated that look as if a force even greater than puberty had had its way with them.
Even the predicament of her parents carries strange echoes of adult experience. Her parents become pure animal appetite, no longer able to recognize her, moved beyond words and beyond the bonds of memory just as Chihiro can barely recognize them, once theyve been mixed in with all the other pigs at a pig-farm. It could be a pitch-black comic take on committing ones parents to the nursing home as they disappear into the haze of senility, and being confronted by the awful leveling of old age, as it erases differences of sex and personality reducing loved ones to bodies that need to be fed, and washed, and set to sleep in their little identical cubicles.
Chihiro's parents, before they are transformed into porcine characters. Their predicament could be an allegory for when children commit parents to nursing homes.
A World of Delight
All of this probably makes it sound as though Spirited Away is dour and downright terrifying. I certainly cant think of anything scarier than being a gainfully employed adult. But the terrific energy of Miyazakis fantasy makes this world of terror a world of delights. And thankfully, while Miyazaki may approach things that are threatening or scary, these negative forces arent fodder to manipulate his audience down the pathway of his plotting. Good and evil arent jerry-rigged to provide an engine of conflict in his films: its hard to find a bona-fide villain in his work with Studio Ghibli (the only one that can be reduced to such is the antagonist of Laputa). In Spirited Away, we come to find the tyrannical Yubaba has her own problems (for one, that buffalo-sized baby is her own), and while she may not be quite sympathetic by the end, shes become absolutely fascinating. She displays a terrific charisma that has to be admired. To neutralize her entirely would be a great disservice the kind of Pollyanna maneuver that even kids (or maybe especially kids) know is bunk. The world cant be solved. But it can, with the right perspective, be made a little more comprehensible, a little more enthralling.
Miyazaki is an interesting case as a director, in that his body of work is of a very high order, and yet its hard to single out a film of his as a perfect one. He has certainly directed sequences that are compressed masterpieces of timing and framing, and Spirited Away features one of his best: the arrival of a stink god at the bathhouse, who Chihiro must clean her first night on the job. This sequence is a case-study in masterful pacing, escalating on its own internal logic before delving into sly ecological commentary, and then, even more unexpectedly, jetting forward into some pure fount of dream-imagery (this is where its utility as a case-study ends Miyazaki has transcended scene structure, and the only way to emulate his example is to dive deep into ones own unconscious).
Ultimately, though, despite the number of impressive set-pieces, Spirited Away becomes too much of a good thing: the intense energy of its imagery gets dissipated by the time the film meanders toward its amiably low-key resolution. Miyazakis close friend and fellow director at Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, has been less prolific than Miyazaki, but he has a surer grasp of story structure, of building his sequences toward a satisfying whole (his Grave of the Fireflies is the best film Studio Ghibli has made). Takahata, however, doesnt seem to elicit the same amount of affection as Miyazaki, which may have to do with the fact that Takahatas personality doesnt make itself as forcefully felt through his work. The lack of focus toward the end of Spirited Away isnt fatal to the film ultimately, when the movie is over, one doesnt chiefly savor its sequences or incidents, or even the audacity of its imagination. One rather savors the worldview that seeps through it, which is an eminently kind one.
More than Miyazakis visual motifs and thematic preoccupations, what makes his films a body of work is their deep-seated humaneness. Repeatedly, his movies present a somewhat threatening world that the protagonists penetrate bit by bit, and the more they understand its intricacies, the less malevolent it appears. In Totoro, the forest gods will whisk you to see your sick mother, convalescing in a city far away. In Nausicaä, the poisonous forest that seems to be taking over the world is actually purifying it. In Laputa, weaponized robots become keepers of a skyborne arboretum. In Kikis Delivery Service, a thirteen-year-old girl arrives alone to a bustling city, to be treated as a member of an extended family. Miyazakis picture of the world as an ultimately humane place, with its most abiding communities ruled by kindness (though the kindness might be distorted or misdirected at times), is probably his chief achievement as a fantasist.
The U.S. View
It will be interesting to see how Spirited Away plays with audiences of American kids. Theyll certainly be less anxious than adults about issues of cultural translation. From the perspective of a gaijin, at least, Spirited Away seems very Japanese, fed by a rich folk culture that seems both fascinatingly exotic and tantalizingly obscure. One eye-popping scene, for instance, features a dragon being attacked by a swarm of paper birds. These paper birds are never explained; one assumes they have some mythological significance. Kids, however, wont worry about it, theyll just take the scene for what it is: magic. If there are any directors more capable than Miyazaki of showing how magic looks, Im unaware of them. After a brief sequence where Chihiro is levitated, against her will, down a long hallway of doors, and then whisked past tall, ornately painted jars standing in rows, my wife leaned over to me and whispered: They shouldve hired Miyazaki to direct the Harry Potter movie.
The hitch there would be that, while Miyazaki could creditably be drawn to the light-gothic European ambiance of the Harry Potter books (hes always had a weakness for castles), I think the child protagonists would fail to spark his imagination theyre romanticized in a way hed probably find uninteresting. Some early reviews of Spirited Away complained that Chihiro is a dull character, but to my eyes Miyazaki has been incapable of making an uninteresting heroine since the cipher love-interest of Castle of Cagliostro. Chihiro is less dynamic than most of Miyazakis heroines, but her ordinariness, and lack of heroic dimensions, is part of her appeal (her near-paralysis, huddled on a stair when shes first abandoned in the ghost-town, is both entirely believable and entirely sympathetic). In fact, its her denial of self, more than any precociousness or bravado, that allows her to succeed: first, refusing the food that turns her parents to pigs, and then refusing or giving away money and magic tokens that are offered her by the mysterious figures that appear in the bathhouse. Its something so culturally alien to mainstream American entertainment, it comes across as revelatory: a heroine who ascends into the world on steps of renunciation.
Chris Lanier is an animator, writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco.