You’ve heard of Spirited Away. Everyone’s heard of Spirited Away. Released in 2001, Spirited Away soon overwhelmed the Japanese box office and became the highest grossing film of all time, defeated only by Miyazaki’s future films. I try not to be too much of a Japanophile on this blog, but I can’t help but think that a country where a film like Spirited Away can break box office records is a country I’d like to be in. Through the work of Miyazaki fanboy John Lasseter and his promotion of the film, it gained Miyazaki greater exposure in this continent, and the result of that introduction was an even wider release of his next films. While I am no fan of some of Lasseter’s localization decisions, anything which increases the reach of the Studio Ghibli brand name is fine by me.
Spirited Away is clearly one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces, and this is obvious enough that I don’t really need to tiptoe around it. The sheer depth of imagination and creativity in this film leaves me (and many others) in awe every time I watch it. When his previous film, Mononoke-hime, had finished its production, Miyazaki commented that his involvement in directing would have to decrease due to his age. Reading that, one would have gotten the impression that Mononoke-hime would have been the peak of his career (and it certainly could have filled that role quite well). But that wasn’t the case, and a few years later, he returned with Spirited Away. It would have been difficult to match the brilliance of Mononoke-hime, but Spirited Away managed it.
Chihiro, our main character, is a young, somewhat bratty ten year old girl who is moving into her new home – and isn’t all too happy about it. The core story of the plot involves Chihiro, through various circumstances, finding herself trapped in a strange, unfamiliar world filled with mysterious sights and sounds. Chihiro begins the film trembling with fright at her surroundings, and must adapt to this new world and endure until she can rescue her parents. A simple premise, yet writing it in such a way does little to convey the sheer scope and beauty of what Miyazaki has created here. The centerpiece of Miyazaki’s world in this film is a teeming bathouse which services gods and spirits. I see words like “magical” used far too much in reviews of animated films that don’t deserve it, but Spirited Away presents a truly magical setting that practically jumps off the screen and engulfs you. It is wonderful.
Chihiro is a different kind of heroine than many of Miyazaki’s other films. Miyazaki often likes to present confident and intelligent young female characters who are role models for viewers, but his intent with Chihiro was to have a main character that would resemble the girls in his audience. Many critics call Spirited Away a story about a girl who “grows up” due to her adventures in the fantasy world, but Miyazaki’s intent was different. According to interviews, he wasn’t trying to create a story where a spoiled teenager experiences hardships and becomes a better person. He wanted this scary new world to instead bring out aspects of Chihiro’s personality which had been dormant, but existed already within her and by extension, the members of the audience. Thus, in the original ending (that Disney unfortunately failed to grasp and changed the meaning of), it is left ambiguous whether Chihiro remembered anything from the fantasy world or not, because this detail isn’t important for the message he wished to convey.
The numerous gods and spirits in the film, mergers between the mind of Miyazaki and the limitless depths of Japanese mythology, are a delight to behold. One common favourite, which echoes Miyazaki’s common ecological theme, is a so-called “stink god” who approaches the bathhouse covered in sludge and grime. But when Chihiro notices something stuck inside him, all of the bathhouse attendants work together to pull it. First a dirty bicycle emerges, then piles of trash and junk come flowing out of the creature until we finally see its true identity – a river god carrying the weight of years of pollution and abuse. This is just one of many of the wonderful ideas that grace the screen in this film.
If I had to voice a complaint, it would probably revolve around one small aspect of the story which involves Haku, a boy who works at the bathhouse and attempts to help Chihiro. When they meet, Haku tells Chihiro that he has known her from a very small age, a detail that fades away until returning near the end when it is resolved. I like the idea behind it, but wish it had been developed a little more substantially.
Of course, much of the delight of the film comes from the brilliant artwork. There is something visually compelling on-screen nearly every second of this film, and it is littered with the kind of details that Miyazaki is known for. I’ve praised Ghibli for their visual depictions of movement before, particularly of children, and the same applies to Chihiro, who intentionally doesn’t physically resemble many of Miyazaki’s earlier heroines (echoing his request to have a “normal girl” as the star of this film). There is a scene where Chihiro must climb down a rather long staircase – with a steep fall if she makes a mistake. Slowly, she lowers one foot, then the other, then drags her whole body and hugs the next step down. The fragile nature of her movements, portrayed so realistically, are more than enough to communicate her fear and apprehension.
Supporting the visuals is a restrained, gentle score by, as always, Joe Hisaishi, which features a lot of soft strings and tinkling piano phrases. After a thematically powerful score like the one he delivered for Mononoke-hime, the less melodic musical background here might come as a bit of a disappointment. However, it works well in the film, even if it lacks an overarching cohesiveness, and there are some beautiful moments. Among these is what I would label the main theme, a piano theme which appears in the opening of the film and in a few other moments. It is quite delicate and enjoyable, but hearing it more tightly woven into the score with greater variety would have been rewarding. The ending song (“Itsumo Nando Demo“) is pleasant and enjoyable, but is not quite as musically satisfying as other Ghibli songs such as “Kimi o Nosete“. Hisaishi later reworked his main theme into a song called Inochi no Namae with the same singer as the above song, and that one is quite a highlight, and would have been a wonderful closer to the film.
One of the interesting things about Miyazaki is his love-hate relationship with anime. Obviously, as a creator of anime, he respects the medium, but at the same time, he dislikes much of the anime (and manga) that he finds the Japanese audiences, particularly younger ones, consuming at increasing rates. It’s hard to blame him, because for every good anime or manga out there, there are dozens of stories of shallow shoujo-esque crushes, harem fantasies and shounen violence – and since these are so large in number, they end up defining the image of anime that many people have. Within Japan, Miyazaki’s films, as well as some long running shows like Sazae-san, generally exist in their own separate plane of “respectable anime” to the Japanese public. But already Miyazaki’s films have converted people outside of Japan who initially dismissed anime, and animated films altogether, into those who approach it with an open mind (Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies was also important in that regard). Upon finishing Spirited Away, I too was left in awe at how many imaginative worlds and stories Miyazaki has brought to life, and how many more might still be inside his brain somewhere.
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