After a five year break from making films, Hayao Miyazaki returned with Princess Mononoke, his lead for-kids movie and one full of anger at the world and its political, social, and environmental unrest. It was an astounding piece of work, but this was the man who’d made My Neighbor Totoro; surely he wasn’t finished with seeing fantasy realms through the eyes of children. And, indeed, he wasn’t. In 2001, he made his most highly acclaimed movie, and the one which earned him his sole Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. This film, Spirited Away, was certainly a return to having a young female protagonist experiencing strange and mystical things, and in many ways it’s the perfect version of that. However, he hadn’t completely lost his sense that the world is a big and scary place, that sometimes the supernatural isn’t friendly or welcoming, and sometimes it includes a giant, crying nightmare baby, a gluttonous spirit creature, and your parents turned into grotty pigs. I guess Miyazaki loves pig stuff, too.
Spirited Away is one of the deepest and most complex movies in Miyazaki’s filmography and one that deserves a great deal of thought. Whole books can and have been written about it and I’ve got merely a couple of pages on a website to do this, so it probably won’t be as in-depth as it ought to be, but I’ll do my best. Instead of summarizing the plot as I do sometimes in this series, I’m going to just talk about it and assume you’ve all seen it. Is that cool?
The film, as you know, concerns a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who is traveling with her parents to their new home. Right away, we get the context for how Chihiro must be feeling, because she looks so small in the back of the family car and her parents look so large and talk to each other about making wrong turns and what not. The parents do indeed get lost and, without heeding Chihiro’s concern, they all walk through a tunnel into a deserted street where they find food that the parents begin to eat uncontrollably. They slowly turn into pigs while doing so. Chihiro then walks further and finds a young boy named Haku who warns her to get away before sunset, but she can’t and is instead stuck in the spirit world with her huge pig parents and a number of strange entities.
I can’t think of anything that sums up a young person’s worry about moving and leaving their friends, school, and life behind. Chihiro’s parents become pigs, perhaps to signify that they are concerned much more about their own wants (needing a new city or taking a new job or what have you) than that of their daughter, and by the end of this sequence Chihiro feels totally alone, and is in fact fading away out of sight. Haku, her first friend in the spirit world, helps her remain corporeal and gets her a job at the bathhouse run by Yubaba, the sorceress of giant features who can turn into a bird (and has a bird that looks just like her). Yubaba takes people’s names away to make them forget who they were, another allusion to feeling out of sorts and alone when moving to a new place.
Chihiro gets given the name Sen and is put to work in the bathhouse, perhaps a nod to prostitution, child labor and kidnapping rings (Miyazaki is certainly very socially conscious and concerned about the well-being of children, so I wouldn’t put it past him), where she inadvertently welcomes in No-Face, the large shadowy specter wearing a white mask. He offers her a pile of gold, which he produces seemingly out of nowhere, but she refuses, instead having to go attend to a “stink spirit,” which she figures out and wins the respect of some of her co-workers. But No-Face offers riches to another employee who greedily accepts, allowing No-Face to devour him. He ends up devouring another two employees and becomes a gluttonous mass that devours everything and everyone helps in hopes that they’ll get riches as well.
No-Face represents the smiling, seedy underbelly of life. It tempts, it offers riches, it engulfs and overtakes, and it keeps growing until it’s almost unstoppable. I think it’s very telling that when No-Face is shoveling food into itself, its mouth appears in about the middle of its body; by this I mean, it’s not in the mouth part of the mask. This is simple: it doesn’t have a face. He is literally faceless, an inky amorphous blob that isn’t welcoming at all, but it hides behind a pleasant (though I think still terrifying) smiling face. It’s only when Sen offers it a magic dumpling, which then causes it to vomit out everything it had eaten, that is begins to follow her around. It’s now become an ally of sorts for her, which is a theme in a lot of Miyazaki’s work: the ally from an adversary.
That happens a lot in this film, particularly in the case of Haku. At first, the boy is the only one who seems willing to genuinely help Chihiro/Sen and she is immediately drawn to him because of this. Doesn’t hurt that he appears to be a human of similar age, either. However, he’s also working for Yubaba as her lieutenant and enforcer, so Sen is told by many people not to trust Haku. He also turns into a dragon that seemingly has no humanity in him at all and she then has to truly fight to win his trust in this form. Haku represents what fate very well could befall Sen if she doesn’t keep her identity, even a little. He’s good at heart, but he’s been corrupted by the world, at a very young age, and wouldn’t be able to get back any of his former life without the little human girl’s help.
Which brings us to the twin witches, Yubaba and Zeniba. They look completely identical, and what’s very interesting about the exaggerated (let’s face it: scary as hell) way they’re drawn is that their features have different connotations depending on which character it is. Yubaba is the antagonist for sure and is quite frightening, but she’s also a mother; her son Boh is an enormous, sobbing baby who drops the dime on Sen when she’s in Yubaba’s palace. Zeniba, on the other hand, is benevolent and Sen begins to call her “Granny,” which is a term of endearment. Zeniba transforms Boh into a small, cute, still chubby mouse which becomes Sen’s chum for most of the rest of the picture. Yubaba also has three really weird jumping heads which Zeniba also transforms into a decoy version of Boh, and the bird that looks like Yubaba gets transformed into a regular bird. One old hag does negative things and one old hag does positive things, but they look exactly the same.
Ultimately, through Sen’s feelings for Haku, and saving his life, she remembers her own name of Chihiro and she is able to leave and return to her parents, who are human again, and everybody in the spirit world waves her off. This is a movie that manages to prove that a ten-year-old girl has the power within her to overcome the scariness of the world on her own. It’s not a coming of age story as much as it is a being capable at your age story.
Spirited Away, a bit like Alice in Wonderland, takes a normal girl into a realm of terror, uncertainty, and general weirdness and makes her have to outsmart and outfeel everything to come out the other side. Chihiro has confidence at the end of the film and has truly gone through a lot, whether it really happened or merely happened in her own mind. This is Miyazaki’s most powerful film and it speaks to all ages in a way that Mononoke does not, as great as it is. It earned Miyazaki a much-deserved, and well-overdue, Academy Award and it still is his most acclaimed and lauded work. It’s for this reason, I’d imagine, that Disney are saving it for last in the round of Blu-rays. But, one of the first to come out on Blu-ray was Miyazaki’s follow-up, made 3 years later, and completes his trilogy of titles having to do with castles: Howl’s Moving Castle is next week.