Miyazaki Retrospective: “Spirited Away”

So here we are. The last film of the Miyazaki retrospective, at least up until Miyazaki’s next film comes out. And this movie was saved for last for a reason.

In some ways, it’s pointless to debate Miyazaki’s best film. The man is such a chameleon, who can work in so many varied styles, and is so consistently brilliant, that when you talk about the top of the pile you’re talking about little more than personal preference. I have seen – seriously – “Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “The Wind Rises”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” ALL ranked at number one on some list or another.

With that said – I think it is safe to say that “Spirited Away”, the only Miyazaki film ever to win an Oscar, is the film most commonly cited as Miyazaki’s masterpiece – and not without reason. “Spirited Away” is an astonishing film, absolutely packed with imagination, incredible visuals, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. There’s scene after indelible scene, all underpinned with a metaphysical and philosophical depth that the average director can only dream of, and an attention to detail that’s nothing short of astonishing.

I’ll start off by talking about the dub, something I generally ignore but that is worth being commented upon in this case. All of the Disney dubs are good, and some are even great, but “Spirited Away” is absolutely perfect, easily the best dub job I’ve ever heard. The real coup here is the casting of Daveigh Chase, best known as the voice of Lilo from “Lilo and Stitch”, as Chihiro. Chihiro is a difficult and demanding role, and without an excellent voice actor the character could easily come off as bland, but Daveigh Chase is simply perfect. She nails every aspect of the character, and if not for her brilliant performance the movie would never have worked as well as it did in English.

The opening to “Spirited Away” is one of my favorite scenes of all time. After arriving at a mysteriously empty amusement park, Chihiro’s parents, against Chihiro’s advice, eat piles of food sitting in an abandoned restaurant stall. While they eat Chihiro wanders the park, discovers a magnificent Japanese bathhouse, and encounters a boy named Haku, who warns her to cross the river separating the amusement park from the outside world before sunset. Chihiro tries to leave, but the river is flooded and too deep to cross; worse yet, her parents, having greedily eaten food that didn’t belong to them, have transformed into literal pigs (and in this case, particularly hideous ones), a take on the mythological theme of avoiding the food of the fairies – for a classic example read the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for more modern examples take a look at Ruff the dog in John C. Wright’s “Moth and Cobweb” series, or even Edmund eating Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

The scene where night falls on the park, and the spirits come out for the first time, is a truly stunning sequence, a wonderfully animated setpiece bursting with fantastic imagery. There’s so much to love about this scene – the detailed animation, the fantastic creatures, the score, the way Miyazaki somehow creates a believable fairy world that also comes across as alien and otherworldly, the creepiness of the whole thing, the way he puts us effectively in Chihiro’s shoes and helps us identify with her terror…all of it is simply amazing. And this is the first scene!

This is the hardest of Miyazaki’s movies to work through simply because of sheer originality. If I went through every single reason the movie worked so well, I’d be up all night writing this article. The spirits and fairy tale creatures are fantastic (fans of “Totoro” may recognize the soot spirits used by the wonderful  spider-like character of Komaji), the setting of the bathouse is extraordinarily detailed, the animation is astoundingly well-executed, and the movie simply bursts with ingenuity; everywhere you turn there’s some new feast for the eyes and mind.

Once again, with his handling of Chihiro Miyazaki puts all modern handling of female characters in western animation to shame. Chihiro is brave and admirable, but not in a ball-busting tough as nails feminist way. She is admirable because she never loses hope, never gives up, is kind to those that others shun and revile, and refuses to be deterred from her goals.

An excellent example of this sort of admirable but quiet courage comes early in the film. Haku tells Chihiro to ask the boiler-maker Komaji to help her get a job; no matter what Komaji says or does, she is not to leave until he helps her.

Chihiro goes to the boiler-maker and begs him for help. He ignores her. She begs him again. She ignores her. She takes the time to help his soot spirits bring coal to the boiler, which finally impresses Komaji enough to send her to Yubaba, the witch who rules the Bathhouse. Chihiro doesn’t get mad at Komaji. She doesn’t run away when she sees his frankly terrifying spider-like body. She doesn’t leave when Komaji refuses her. She simply refuses to give up.

Similarly, when she is told to ask the witch Yubaba for a job, the western feminist answer to Yubaba’s refusal and threats would be to challenge her back, or maybe get insulted and try and find some way around her prohibitions. But Chihiro doesn’t do that! Once again, she quietly persists, refusing to leave until she is granted her job, no matter how afraid she gets and how much Yubaba threatens her. Chihiro knows this is her best chance of getting out alive and rescuing her parents, and doesn’t ruin it by acting like a Rey brat.

Later in the movie, when forced to work as, essentially, a slave in the Bathhouse, Chihiro again doesn’t complain about her lot but does the work asked of her to the best of her ability, however unreasonable, and even takes the time to show kindness to spirits and beings that others ignore or hate. Her motivations remain pure; she just wants to rescue her parents. When the spirit No-Face offers her gifts, Chihiro refuses, and in fact she is the only person who is able to use things No-Face gives her without being negatively affected because she is the only one who doesn’t *ask* for his help and doesn’t accept it  for selfish and materialistic reasons.

Two scenes in the movie have become famous in their own right. First is the sad and creepy “ghost train” sequence, where Chihiro rides without speaking on a train to the afterlife surrounded by the silent spirits of the dead. The scene is sad and beautiful, and, as always with Miyazaki, it’s the subtle details that make it; you may find yourself getting bored until your heart skips a beat when you realize that one pair of spirits is clearly a father sitting with his young child, and suddenly a whole history of unanswered questions floods through your mind. The fog outside of the trail, slowly gliding across the surface of the water, is so haunting and gorgeous that your heart practically bursts.

The second famous sequence is the “Dragon Haku” sequence; where the Ghost Train ride represented loss and acceptance, the scene where the dragon form of Haku bringss Chihiro back to the Bathouse represents life and the reviving power of love and kindness; Haku literally carries Chihiro back to the world of the living, something only possible because Chihiro was willing to risk her life and make sacrifices in order to save him. The animation here is – again! – absolutely gorgeous, brimming with energy and dynamism.

There is so much more to say about this film; I’ve barely scratched the surface, really. It is, without question, an absolute masterpiece.

Now, all of that said, do *I* think it’s Miyazaki’s best film?

Actually…no. After a lot of thought, and after changing my mind, I think I still have to give it to “Princess Mononoke”. “Spirited Away” was original and marvelous and beautiful, but “Princess Mononoke” took the varied and conflicting motivations of a changing world – significantly, not unlike the atmosphere of “A Game of Thrones” – and instead of making it either nihilistic sludge or some sort of epic tragedy, made it superversive, and somehow did it in a way that felt in no way like a betrayal of the sort of story he was telling. Miyazaki had a huge cast of characters with their own understandable agendas and motivations that changed throughout the course of the movie, an extremely complex political landscape to navigate through, and some of the best dialogue of any of his films (Lady Eboshi again…”Watch closely, everyone. This is how you kill a god. The trick is not to fear it.”). It’s a marvel he made any sense of it at all.

Epic in scope and ambition, brilliantly executed, and a setting tailormade for tragedy somehow turned superversive…well, when I put all of that together, it’s hard for me to rank it below *any* movie, really, even the great “Spirited Away”.

Does this take away from “Spirited Away”? Not in the slightest. It is a brilliant, amazing, almost perfect film. It is an achievement that no artist but Miyazaki could accomplish. It has earned every single accolade it’s received. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing more than missing out on one of Miyazaki’s best films. You’re missing out on one of the greatest films, animated or otherwise, anime or otherwise, ever made.

Watch it, and if you haven’t gotten it already perhaps you’ll understand why Miyazaki is not just great. He stands on his own – a giant in the field, matched by nobody, perhaps ever.

Watch this movie, and understand how lucky we are to be able to witness his genius.

  • Terry Sanders

    I saw the parents’ transformation less as “fairy food” than Circe’s Buffet of Doom from the *Oddysey.* Men turned to pigs as punishment for their abuse of hospitality–by a witch who’d set a trap to provoke exactly that reaction.

    And that seemed to me to be a major theme–as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, a fairy-tale has as rigid a set of laws as our world–but the Law of Conservation of Mass (for example) is not one of them. The witch can turn you into a pig with ease, under the right circumstances; but she has no power over the honest and respectful. The physics of fairyland is moral.

    In that, SPIRITED AWAY resembles the Russian folktale of Wassalissa the Beautiful, who ends up defeating Baba Yaga by never losing her patience. (Well, she also has magical help, but so does Chihiro. And in both stories, honesty and respect play a part there, too.)

    • Bellomy

      Your interpretation is quite correct (and an excellent parrallel that slipped my mind), but I always put that sort of thing under the fairy food prohibition category – but we’re splitting hairs now.

      • Terry Sanders

        And I wouldn’t have quibbled except for the “moral physics” aspect. Fairy food is about trickery and the need for caution, whereas Circe’s (and the witch’s here) power over her victims is enabled by their own wrong actions. Similar in structure, but different in theme. And I thought the greater theme was worth bringing out.

        In other words, no disagreement here.

        • Bellomy

          Chihirio is actually far more similar to the character of Snow White from the Disney movie than any feminist: Work hard, never give up, win people over with kindness, and you will be rewarded.