A Spirited Wonderland: Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY

When it comes to animated features, there have been many masters. The old cartoonists of the early twentieth century put their ink to cell to create wonder. They refereed to cartoons as “wish fulfillment” because anything was possible if you could draw it. Soon ink was coupled with paint and the dream machine ran. One of the greatest masters of this art is Hayao Miyazaki, a skilled portal maker with the power to send us into worlds untold. His films are unmistakably his, beautiful and deep, yet even the smallest child can follow along with them. Among the many worlds he has shown us, one of his best loved, is Spirited Away. This is a story of a young girl trapped in the spirit world were she must use her wits to survive and find a way back. An amazing story, but certainly not a new one. In fact, more than any other Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away takes a Western fairy tale template and applies it to the pantheon of Japanese Shintoist ghosts. But to understand this, we must visits the dream weavers from before animation.

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Lewis Carroll is certainly known well for his stories of Alice and her adventures. The poor girl, having been swept up in an adventure or two, only to find confusion, misery, and danger. L. Frank Baum told a similar tale of a young girl forced into a world where her amazing spirit is the driving force for adventure in a land called Oz. In both these cases, the stories were written to not only be a children’s story, but to reflect the culture that produced it. Alice in Wonderland was famously about French culture at the time it was written. Similarly, Through the Looking Glass was about the British. Those title might make sense more, if you know that. The American Oz stories also tell about economic issues as an allegory for the debate over the gold/silver exchange. Dorthy’s shoes were originally silver in the book. In fact, the land is called Oz in reference to the abbreviated form of “ounce.” Spirited Away is really no different.

It is a trip to the spirit realm of Japan, where there are hidden ghosts that embody rivers, and grassland; fire and magic. The Shintoist culture of Japan, spawning from the native religion, permeates in this film. Nature and ancestor worship is still very present in Japan, even as other religions have gotten more popular. Spirited Away very clearly represents this culture. There are literally hundreds of spirits in the film, each one more wondrous and fantastic than the last. Creature here are not unlike, tin men, walking vegetation, munchkins, giant caterpillars, playing cards, and flying monkeys from Carroll and Baum. Instead we have frog men, soot sprites, walking tuber men, giant ducklings, blobs of slime, etc. As with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and, Lion represent intelligence, compassion, and bravery, (or lack there of) the spirits of the hotel represent things like greed, pollution, obsession to please, and other human traits. This is a rich world, even if it is mostly one small island. There is also one other similarity between this world and that of Oz that should be noted… there be witches, both good and bad.

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The story begin with young Chihiro and her parents in the middle of moving to a new town. Chihiro is not at all pleased and sullenly rides along. The small car slowly finds itself lost, off main roads. Ancestral spirit markers line a dirt road in a forest leading to a mysterious tunnel. Dad wants to check it out as he is clearly adventurous. Chihiro is unwillingly lead with her parents through the mysterious tunnel. They come upon an abandoned amusement part. Well, it looks abandoned at first. Mom and Dad quickly find food and immediately dig in. Chihiro senses wrongness and refuses to partake and runs off. This is where she finds her white rabbit, a boy named Haku. She feels and instant connection to him, like she remembers him. He tells her she must go and she must do it before nightfall.

She tried to find her parents, but finds that they have been turned into giant pigs. She is trapped and alone, but more importantly it IS getting dark. As it gets dark, shadowy spirits appear. Chihiro is forced to find Haku to gain entrance to the large hotel/resport, which is the main setting for this tale. She skillfully passes and enters. Her terror slowly fades as some of the workers in the hotel are friendly and asks her to help, which she does. Quickly she is offered a position to work there, despite being a human, by the witch who runs the place. The price of her employment being her name. She is given the new name Sen. With new identity, she begins to be a shining example of a worker in the bathhouses, helping the spirits relax in the resort. She helps solve some troubles with some of the various tricky spirits.

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She ends up becoming a fast moving observer of the hotel, with a finger on the pulse of what’s going on at all times. In this way, she notices a dragon in the distance outside the hotel struggling in flight. It is being attacked. Sen helps the struggling creature and discovers that the dragon is actually her pal Haku. She uncovers a power struggle between the wicked witch who runs the hotel and her good witch sister who lives elsewhere in the spirit world. Sen goes on a journey to save the very hurt Haku. Sen grows up a lot along this adventure and is soon able to bring everyone together in harmony, with a little help. She discovers why she seems to know Haku. She is given one last chance to win her and her parents freedom before she can go back to reality. And as these tales usually end, she is able to return home a better, stronger person.

The story is a magical one already, but being a master animator, Miyazaki had to make sure it was gorgeous as well. He excels at this. This film in particular has a very warm feeling to in. Unlike many other of his film, this one take place indoors for most of it. Rooms feel almost humid in the bathhouses. Chilly catwalks around the building seem drafty and unsafe. The ocean that surrounds the island looks infinite and glassy. Single paint stokes representing storms come alive forty feet across the movie screen. It is definitely a visually stunning film.

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This film won the Academy Award for best animated feature the year of its American release. It was one if the first anime features played nationwide. For many, this was the first time they heard of Studio Ghibli. This film was essentially the one that took Ghibli films from underground to foreground here. Princess Mononoke had come out to an American release two years before. Although very well reviewed, it was a little too adult. Spirited Away is suitable for anyone. My only complaint about doing this review, is that I can’t go into detail on the individual spirits and characters because they are just way too many. I feel like I could write a short book on that alone. That is a testament as to how big and inhabited this film is. It focuses on one character, who we are with the entire time. We observe all the strange beauty through her eyes. Because of this, Spirited Away deserves to be on the shelf of any fan of animation or adventure. It is for the deepest of philosophers and the most innocent observer. And unlike many other Ghilbi films that don’t always get a spotlight, it will undoubtedly remain a classic for decades to come.

 

John Edward Lee: Nerd Savant and Science Fiction Beatnik. Constant student of Star Wars, cartoons, and games.
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A Spirited Wonderland: Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY

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