Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2001)

8. Spirited Away
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi

Where “Princess Mononoke” failed to break Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into something near the American mainstream, “Spirited Away” succeeded. The film was an enormous hit in Japan, exceeding the director’s previous picture’s grosses. In other countries, “Spirited Away” generated a massive amount of buzz on the film festival circuit, even being the first animated film to win the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Despite receiving a small theatrical release and, in much the same way as “Princess Mononoke,” having its advertising buried, the film rode a wave of hype all the way to the Academy Awards, where it became the first (and thus far, only) anime to win Best Animated Feature. All of this is very unexpected since “Spirited Away” is an exceptionally weird movie.

Ten year old Chihiro is displeased with her parents. The family is moving to a new town, forcing the young girl to leave her friends behind. While on the road, her dad takes a wrong turn, parking the car in front of an odd tunnel. Walking ahead, the family discovers a seemingly abandoned town. It’s no ordinary town though. In actually, the place is a town for spirits, based around the bathhouse run by old witch Yubaba. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs, forcing Chihiro to take a job at the bathhouse, in hopes of earning their freedom. However, the witch steals her name, rechristening her Sen, so her parents’ freedom isn't the only thing on the line.

“Spirited Away” has an extraordinary first fifteen minutes. Chihiro sits in the back of her parents’ car, glumly holding onto a bouquet of flowers. Attached to the flower is a note from her friends, wishing her well. By using visual shorthands like this, the film establishes so much about its main character in very quick ways. After her parents stop the car, a genuine sense of eeriness comes over the film. Chihiro doesn’t want to explore the empty buildings, already sensing that something is off. As is usually the case in fables like this, her parents pay the girl’s warning no heed. Before her eyes, her parents transform into pigs, which are huge and appropriately grotesque. As the sun sets on the area, strange black spectres begin to lurk around. The panic and fear begins to subside as soon as Haku finds the girl and begins to establish some order to the chaotic setting. For those first fifteen minutes, “Spirited Away” is truthfully sort-of creepy. It’s the closest Miyazaki has ever come to directing a horror movie.

As “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” were both takes on established genres, “Spirited Away” belongs to a genre that includes stories like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Labyrinth,” and others. A normal young girl accidentally stumbles into a strange, other-wordly dimension and, by discovering her own inner strength, makes her way back out again. There’s nothing extraordinary about Chihiro to begin with but, over the course of her time at the bathhouse, she shows amazing strength, generosity, and foresight beyond her years. The film is more surreal than most versions of an all-ready odd genre, filled with distinctly Japanese oddities. Yet the roots that connect it with older stories are easily seen. Some of the inhabitants of this new world are friendly to the girl, like Kamajin the old man who runs the furnace, but others are less then greeting. More than a few times, they even threaten to eat Chihiro. The film equally works through the fear and wonderment that usually accompanies the genre.

“Spirited Away” is also, unexpectedly, an example of a far more recent genre: The work place comedy. In a round about way, the film is about a young girl’s first job. Her boss is belligerent and hostile. Many of her co-workers openly resent her. She’s low enough on the totem pole that Chihiro gets stuck doing the worst jobs in the business. Despite being in such a lowly position, she pulls off a crazy task, pleasing an important client, and winning the respect of her employer and co-worker. However, the differences matter. Chihiro’s boss is an elderly witch with a giant head who, literally, steals the young girl’s name. The annoyed co-workers that don’t respect her are odd creatures that just as actively want to eat her. In this case, the grunt work is cleaning out an especially filthy bath. The difficult customer is a Stink God, a blatantly excretal, ambient pile of sludge. As a way to spite the girl, her employer chooses Chihiro to works with the client, whose odor is strong enough that people collapse around him. Despite the difficulties, Chihiro proves herself when she notices something is wrong with the Stink God. The movie does a clever play on the “thorn in the lion’s foot” fable. Instead of pulling a single, small shard out of the monster’s body, an entire sludge-caked bicycle is yanked out. Turns out, the Stink God is actually a River God and his body was clogged with pollution. By noticing a small thing and solving it, Chihiro proves herself to those around her and quickly finds her place at the bathhouse.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the film was mostly inspired by Miyazaki spending time with friends of his family and their ten-year old daughter. As with “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the origin of the character comes from wanting to make a film that more accurately reflects the target audience. At story’s beginning, Chihiro appears to be a perfectly ordinary pre-teen girl. She is slightly moody and prone to panic but otherwise there’s seemingly nothing special about her. As the story evolves, so does her character. One notable example has her running down a drain pipe just as its about to collapse. She becomes braver and more confident in her own ability. Yet even then the movie is playing with expectations. In most stories of this sort, the climax would be a big confrontation between the young heroine and her captive. Here, the film builds towards… Sen spending some time in a nice old lady’s cabin and helping her spin some thread.

A reoccurring element throughout most of Miyazaki’s films is a budding romance between a young girl and boy. “Spirited Away” is partially a romance between Sen and Haku, the young boy who first rescues her at the beginning of the film. Haku is actually a dragon, who can merely shape-shift into human form. After saving her life earlier in the film, Sen returns the favor by saving Haku. After being injured running an errant for Yubaba, the witch is prepared to sacrifice the dragon’s life. Sen doesn’t stop at preventing the dragon from being dropped in a hole. She ventures on a quest, riding a ghost train and ready to walk submerged train tracks back to the bathhouse. The most emotional moment in the film comes soon afterwards. While riding on the dragon’s back, Sen recalls a childhood memory of falling into a river and being rescued. Remembering his name for the first time in eons, the dragon separates into a cloud of white butterflies. The two youths fall through the sky, holding hands, tearfully pledging to return to each other. It’s the sort of poetic, visually beautiful moment that the director specializes in.

Probably the biggest joy of “Spirited Away” is the truly bizarre and unforgettable characters put on-screen. Every frame has something interesting to look at. If the film has a villain, it’s Yubaba. She’s not just an old hag. Instead, she has a head that’s as big as the rest of her body. I’m not sure if we ever see her feet moving. She seemingly levitates everywhere she goes. For reasons that aren’t entirely explained, during the day she transforms into a vulture and flies off. Amusingly, the transformation is simple and cartoonish, wrapping herself in her cloak, her long nose becoming a beak. As stingy and unreasonable as Yubaba is, she has a soft spot. Surely the weirdest element of “Spirited Away” is the Baby. The old witch takes care of a giant baby who spends all day inside an elaborate nursery. The baby’s bigger than an adult male and expresses some homicidal tendencies towards Sen. For a large portion of the plot, the Baby is turned into a chubby little mouse. Yubaba’s pet bird is shrunk down to tiny size and proceeds to carry the baby-mouse around, buzzing from scene to scene. Meanwhile, Yubaba’s trio of disembodied, bouncing heads combine and transform into a copy of the Baby. Did I not mention the green, leaping heads with unfocused eyes? “Spirited Away” can be fucking weird, is my point.

The film is certainly full of bizarre characters. Some of the more interesting are barely glimpsed. While fleeing through the bathhouse, Sen catches a ride on an elevator. She hides behind an obese bathhouse patron who can only be described as a cross between a naked mole rat and a sumo wrestler with a starfish growing out of his face. Literal bipedal frogs, along with humans with stretched-out faces that resembles frogs, are employed in the bathhouse while the clientele include giant cartoon ducks, animated robes, and oni-masked piles of colorful goop. Even the relevant characters are bizarre, like Kamajin the spider-like old man who tends the furnace. He also lords over the soot sprites, reappearing from “My Neighbor Totoro,” who carry the single lumps of coal into the fire.

“Spirited Away” is, of course, visually spectacular. As is to be expected, an amazing amount of detail is put into the animation and background. One spectacular sequence has Yubaba, with a curl of her fingers, sending Chihiro flying through a series of hallways. Each one of those hallways is impressively detailed, with ornate pillars and bright red walls. Another example is the furnace, with its door routinely opening and closing. Haku in dragon form is attacked by a swarm of paper angels, latching to his body and cutting his skin. Naturally, the detail is not limited to the environments. The film successfully captures the mannerism of a young girl, with Chihiro tapping her shoes onto her feet or crying over a note, her body trembling.

“Spirited Away” is visually captivating and features things happening on-screen that no other film can boast. However, I can’t rate it as highly as other Ghibli fans do. The film doesn’t have much of a story. Sen essentially wanders from encounter to encounter. A lengthy series of sequences has a spirit called No-Face wandering into the bathhouse. The faceless entity is glutenous, swallowing hordes of food and plying the bathhouse employees with handfuls of fake gold. Sen has a few encounters with No-Face, even prompting his rampage around the film’s mid-section. The characters don’t have much to do each other otherwise. The way No-Face exits the film, becoming Yubaba’s twin sister’s assistant, seems like especially messy writing. Speaking of Yubaba’s twin, she enters the film suddenly without build-up or earlier references. Why the twin sisters have a rivalry is left up to the viewer. After over two hours of Sen’s encountering random characters, the plot is resolved in a very quick way, with her picking her parents out of a selection of hogs. For all its strength, “Spirited Away” lacks in the story department.

By this point in his career, it’s easy to pick out Hayao Miyazaki’s trademarks. The required flying sequence is accounted for, when Sen sails on Haku’s back. Kamajin’s bushy mustache covers most of his face and his saucer-wide glasses cover the rest, like the old men in many of the director’s movies. Though it’s a small moment, the River God having pollution removed from his body is where the filmmaker’s ecological themes occur. Yubaba even resembles Dora from “Castle in the Sky” or other tough, older women featured in his films. Miyazaki’s affinity for pigs is evident in Chihiro’s parents being turned into fat hogs. The biggest trademark of all is Chihiro herself, a resourceful, intelligent girl on the cusp of adulthood.

Despite winning an Oscar and being critically beloved, I can’t warm up to “Spirited Away” too much. It’s fantastic to look at, is limitlessly creative and thematically rich. On the other hand, the story has less to offer while the director seems to be repeating himself in some regard. Nevertheless, Ghilbi films became easier to find in theaters and video stores in the aftermath of “Spirited Away’s” success and, no doubt, urged more people to check out both anime and the films of Miyazaki. [Grade: B]

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