Thoughts on "Spirited Away"
(Winner of the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Feature! -3/03)
I normally don't write essays about anime movies - since I usually
can't just flip to, say, page 38 and make sure I understood the scene
- nor do I usually write reviews after just one viewing.
I think I'll make an exception for "Spirited Away" ("Sen to Chihiro no
I Went in with Doubts, But...
To be honest, when I first heard the premise, I was a bit horrified.
When I was a sensitive little kid, the thought of watching a movie in
which one's omniscient and nigh omnipotent parents were transformed
into ... pigs ... would've been far, far too much for me to take. And
then for me the little kid to have to save them
... whew, scary. And for me as an adult, the idea of having to do
nasty menial thankless labor for a bunch of literal monsters at a
Japanese bath house - whoa, even scarier!
Also, to be honest, there were flaws with this film - the last
thirty minutes seemed a bit rushed and one can't help but wonder what
important footage was left "on the cutting room floor." (What
does that hairband do?)
But boy, when I saw "Spirited Away" (subtitled, in a local Boston
theater, thankfully without having seen any trailers), I did not want
the movie to end. I wanted it to keep going. And it wasn't just
because the love interest had some serious SA from a Japanese shojo
point of view.
Why Is It A Good Movie?
Why did I wish the movie would just keep going and not end? I think
it's because Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli do certain things really well,
things they did especially well in this film. These things are:
It should be no surprise that this last point was, in fact, one of
Miyazaki's goals - as can be seen from some of the quotes above. [It
should also be no surprise to anyone who knows my writing that it's
one of the big points of this essay.] If, as C. S. Lewis once
observed, it is in trying to tell the truth that true originality is
born, no wonder Miyazaki's works sometimes seem like the ultimate in
constructive creativity. Here in the US, I think far too often we get
films that are merely trying to be different and new, and hence only
manage to be trendy (not to mention all the films made because they
are sequels and hence guaranteed profit). What we have with Studio
Ghibli, however, are timeless films that tell little pieces of truth
in as truthful manner as possible - where fantasy is surely a great
technique for conveying parables - and hence we get magic.
- Create interesting, living characters. Almost none of the
characters are flat - almost all of them change and grow or reveal new
aspects of themselves as the film progresses. Perhaps the only ones
who don't change or reveal new facets of themselves are ... sadly
... the heroine's parents.
- ("It was important that the
leading role not be someone extraordinary, but more like an everyday
real person," said Miyazaki. "This kind of character is more difficult
to create." NY
Daily News, 9/18/02 "Chihiro is a heroine, because of her power
not to let herself be eaten up. She is a heroine, (but) not because
she is beautiful or because she has a matchless heart. This is the
merit of this film, and this is why it is a film for 10 year old
"The Purpose of the Film" translated at nausicaa.net)
- Create living, breathing, deep, intricate fantasy
worlds... This world, like all the worlds I've seen Ghibli do,
seem to have a deep history, its own "laws" and "logic," and a future
- a future one wishes one could see.
- ("The reason why I made the
world of Yu-baaba pseudo-Western is because it is a world filled with
Japanese traditional designs, as well as to make it ambiguous whether
it is a dream or reality." Miyazaki's
"The Purpose of the Film" translated at nausicaa.net)
- Create stories of complexity, beauty, and a mixture of tension
and serenity. Not only is the plot multi-staged and textured with
large and small themes, but the seasoning mixture of action, humor,
and restful peace seems to be delicately and near perfectly balanced.
- ("There is a view that there has to be a lot of action
at the climax of a movie," Miyazaki said. "But at the key moment in
this movie a little girl gets on a train. I'm inordinately proud of
review, 9/18/02 "...[I]t's not a story in which the characters grow
up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them,
brought out by the particular circumstances... I wanted to tell such a
story in this movie. I want my young friends to live like that, and I
think they, too, have such a wish." Interview
translated at nausicaa.net) )
- Create the artistic and cinematic effects to back up the above
points... This really must be seen to be understood.
...and last but not least
- Give a spiritual gift of hope, courage, and vitality to the
viewer.... This is, if one reads the reviews, a film clearly
intended to give something to the viewers.
- ([John] Lasseter admires that his pal [Miyazaki] "doesn't just make
movies. He makes movies for a reason." USA
Today 9/17/02 "I would like to make it a film in which 10 year old
girls can find their true wishes." Miyazaki's
"The Purpose of the Film" at nausicaa.net)
Of course, I do wonder how much the cultural barrier may impede the
free-flow of understanding. Among the perhaps hundred examples I
could choose from.... If you've never been to a Japanese traditional
inn, or a public bath house (or even just a private Japanese bath),
the ambiance of the bath house where our heroine works might be a tad
off-putting. The signs hanging all over the bath house would make
more sense and be less intimidating if one knew they bore the kanji
for "Oil" (the name of the bath house) - and the same for the big
curtain out front that had the hiragana "yu" as the traditional indication
of hot baths. Seeing people sleeping in their futons, like mounds of
fabric laid side by side on the floor, may also strike the Western eye
as a bit bizarre and perhaps even quaint. As for personal
appearances, I know one person who saw the film was negatively
impressed by the love interest's sort-of medieval haircut - to which I
was luckily inoculated by having read enough Japanese manga where some
boys (usually the highly traditional/old-fashioned ones) do, in fact,
have that hair style. And last but not least, the whole concept of
gods and spirits and nature deities, so very Asian (and in this case
so very Shinto), is probably anathema to any conservative
Behind the Cultural Barriers
But aside from these aspects, which I would argue we could put aside
for now as being more cultural than anything, what do we see of the
characters and story? We see a 10-year old girl getting dumped
head-first into the world of business and work contracts and corporate
hierarchy and profit-seeking - and yet, despite all this, somehow
managing to remember the important things: kindness, selflessness,
dedication, and the desire to help others. We further see the ripple
effect of kindness as her influence reaches out to touch other people,
from the smallest soot spirits up to the big CEO boss-hag herself. We
see examples of peace and friendship and humble-but-happy living
contrasted with the busy-but-lonely existences of the greedy and
worried. We get our fair share of moral warnings, too: we see the
dangers of being spoiled and powerful (the dangers to both the spoiled
person and his victims); we see the dangers of throwing away our
identity in the pursuit of power and knowledge; we see the dangers of
being so focused on greed and gain that we risk losing not just life
but our soul. And, of course, we see how compassion can save
those endangered souls.
And it is a complex story, too, as Miyazaki points out, with those
deliberate analogies made between our heroine's story and the real
world existence around many of us adults ("Spirited Away is also,
surprisingly, one of the best films made about entering the work
Lanier, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02) - and anyone who has
studied corporate anywhere knows the good and bad intermixed with
capitalism. Plus, following the tradition of good anime in showing
the three-dimensional depth and humanity of villians, even the
short-tempered and threatening head of the bath house is not "just"
evil. ("She's having a hard time managing the bath house; she has
many employees, a son, and her own desires, and she is suffering
because of those things. So I don't intend to portray her as a simple
villain," says Miyazaki at
nausicaa.net's translated interview.)
So ... there is no slaying of evil (except for stepping on one nasty
little bug). There is no sword fighting to vanquish the CEO. There
is no destroying the Death Star of divine bath houses. No - that
would be the equivalent of teaching children that the right way to
deal with corporate frustration is to rise up and shoot the bad
president with a gun. That's not how life works (at least, not how it
should work), and that's not what Miyazaki teaches, and that's
not how the heroine of the movie works either. Everything must be
done with dignity, perseverence, and quiet fortitude - the way of
peace, kindness, integrity, self-discipline, and courage.
Gee ... peace, kindness, integrity, self-discipline, courage
... these sound sort of almost... well... spiritual.
We're Back to Spirituality - the Quiet Kind
Thus, stripped of its cultural roots - as much as they were deeply and
deliberately planted to ground the Japanese viewers - the film at its
heart is about spiritual values, and moreover, the practical
application of spirituality in the adult working world. It's
about holding fast to one's soul in the midst of a dirty, polluted,
beautiful, mixed-up universe. It's almost like an aikido allegory of
bringing peace and harmony without violence - an almost religious
parable showing how to turn the other cheek for the sake of others,
how to treat even one's enemies with compassion and dignity, and how
to give oneself up for the sake of others. ("One... savors the
worldview that seeps through [the film], which is an eminently kind
one." "[It's the heroine's] denial of self, more than any
precociousness or bravado, that allows her to succeed...." Chris
Lanier, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02)
Sure, it's about good versus evil, but this is a quiet, humble, yet
unyielding good. No loud flashy fireworks of goodness here - no macho
posturing, no explosions, no wreaking vengeance. And also no sugary
sweet goodness, no sticky syrup of niceness, no "and knowing is half
the battle" trite packaging of morality. Just Good doing its quiet
job and causing its usual ripple effect of positive changes and
renewed hope. The only fireworks are of the invisible kind - the kind
not seen by the eye but by the mind and heart.
...Come to think of it, I guess one big reason I wanted the film to
last longer was to see more of the "fruit" of the heroine's labors -
the change in atmosphere, the new light in people's eyes, the hope of
reconciliation and understanding, the continuation of new friendships,
and the newly-catalyzed growth and maturing of interesting characters.
One can't help but think that, should more people take up the
heroine's selfless, caring attitude, the entire realm they inhabit
might someday become a cleaner, brighter, more pleasant place.
But Does It Work in the Real World?
("It's 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, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02)
Will adults get it? Some of the articles suggested that adults may
have more problems understanding this film than the children.
Certainly American audiences may fall away against the impressive
facade of Japanese cultural imagery and symbolism. But even if only
half the children who view this film "get it" - well, let me just
say I have one more tiny little bit of hope for the future of
society - both Easten and Western.
E. Izawa, 2002.
P.S. (For Fall 2002) If you have a chance to see this film in the US
theaters and can afford to do so, I hope you will go see it. If
nothing else, it may encourage Disney to make accessible more
Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films to the American public.
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