Forgive me for having completely obvious taste, but Spirited Away is my favourite anime movie. More than that, it’s in the running for my favourite movie of all time, and if I had to pick just one animated flick that you absolutely had to watch, there’s a good chance I’d choose it over all those Disney and Pixar masterpieces.
Anyway, it’s the highest grossing film in Japan and the most well known and celebrated of Hayao Miyazaki’s films in the west. The latter, I think, is as much a matter of timing as anything: it was the first Miyazaki film to get a big marketing push and theatrical release from Disney, and that has given it a sort of pop cultural prominence that Princess Mononoke (which also ran in western theatres) never got, even though it is far more western friendly than Spirited Away is.
Similarly, for myself, timing was everything. Although it wasn’t my first Miyazaki film, it was the first one that I anticipated, and it hit me at just the right time in my teenage years to prevent me from writing off animation as kiddie stuff. So you’ll have to be patient with me if my post devolves into more of the typical mindless gushing.
The plot of Spirited Away is much too episodic to neatly summarize, but the gist of it is: Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is a tween whose family is moving to a new home, and is understandably in a bit of a funk about it. On the way to their new house, her parents take a wrong turn into what seems to be an abandoned theme park, but which actually turns out to be a point of intersection between the human and spirit world. Her parents quickly get turned into pigs for eating food that isn’t theirs, and Chihiro is left stuck in the spirit world on her own. With the help of a mysterious boy called Haku (Miyu Irino), she lands a job at a local bathhouse that caters to various spirits and gods, and which is run by the very mercenary Yubaba (Mari Natsuki). Much of the movie is about her slowly gaining the respect and trust of the bathhouse staff while also looking for a means to rescue her parents and escape back to the human world.
All this ties into my suggestion that, on the face of it, Spirited Away doesn’t seem terribly accessible to a general western audience: it draws heavily upon distinctly Japanese spiritual and cultural elements, and mixes up the beautiful and cute with the nightmarish and grotesque on a level that hasn’t quite been seen in American animation since the heyday of Don Bluth.
And yet it has a very immediate, universal appeal. A large part of this comes from how we’re seeing things from Chihiro’s perspective, who is naturally spooked and confused by the goings on. But more importantly, it functions as a sort of narrative that I often refer to as childlike, or elemental or primal, where emotional logic and tone matter more than intellectual comprehension. We never get a good feel for what the rules of the spirit world are, and much of Chihiro’s adventure has a serendipitous feel to it. This, in itself, puts us in a perspective similar to that of a child’s, where the world appears more fundamentally mysterious and “big,” for lack of a better word. In turn this is reflected in the characters, who are often difficult to get a handle on, frequently showing more than one face (sometimes literally) over the course of the narrative. But there’s always that emotional arc to keep us from feeling lost.
All this doesn’t touch upon how the film looks, which is at least as important as any of the writing. It’s perhaps the most visually opulent of Miyazaki’s works, detailed and full of incident to the point where it almost feels like overload. But it’s all in the service of making its world as much a character as Chihiro is – in particular, the bathhouse, which is one of the great movie locales. It’s given an impressive amount of architectural presence, from the hustle and bustle of the lower staff quarters, to the ornate baths and hotel rooms of the customers, to Yubaba’s own baroque suite at the top. And, of course, its own denizens are marvels, ranging from the humanoid to the bizarrely abstract. One of Miyazaki’s own limitations as a character designer is his tendency to default to two or three facial templates, and picking a setting that has primarily nonhuman characters helped to free him up in that regard.
As a bit of an aside, I haven’t seen an animated movie that has quite emphasized the tactile qualities of handling icky stuff the way Spirited Away does; whether it be wading through sludge, force-feeding medicine to a sick animal, dodging projectile vomit, etc. I bring this up because, aside from being extremely vivid, if you’ve worked in a service industry or trade, or have had children, or have had pets, or even have just had a body, you probably have some experience with this stuff. But you don’t see it that often at the movies.
What struck me during my recent rewatch was the tension in the movie between the modern, human world, and the traditional spirit world that it has forgotten. This is more for personal reasons than for what it might say about Shintoism vis-a-vis modern Japanese society (a topic of which I’m not able to give any knowledgeable commentary on). But nevertheless there’s an undercurrent of melancholy throughout the film, a sense that the modern world has lost its spiritual roots and the ability to see reality as fundamentally enchanted.
Which strikes a chord with me. The sacramentalism of the Catholic Church stresses the fundamental enchantment of the world as a consequence of the Incarnation – from the sacraments themselves, where seemingly everyday things like water or bread become points of contact with the Divine, to the various icons, rosaries, shrines, statues and whatnot that all serve as a reminder of the supernatural that underpins the natural world; and which has entered into the natural world in a tactile, flesh and blood manner in the person of Christ.
The trouble is that this is often all very intellectual for me, something I can nod my head at and affirm, but which doesn’t easily translate into lived experience. For I am also a child of modernity, and have been formed to see things in the way it sees things. It’s the air you and I breathe.
At church, the architecture, the chant, the incense, the vestments and the whole deal are designed not to communicate some intellectual knowledge or even to provide aesthetic pleasure but to envelop your imagination in that holy, Incarnational world, as a counterbalance to the ways in which the world outside the Church tries to reach you. But this, too, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this post, has gradually been forgotten by the Church in North America.
And so I feel like the vision of that world, like the spirit world Chihiro ventures into, is tucked away and forgotten. There are moments where I think I see it clearly, and others more dimly. It’s a place where I am still a not particularly precocious child, and one which I sometimes worry may evaporate like a dream. This is perhaps a not uncommon place to be. “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Such, then, is the power of great art: it speaks to your heart in different ways at different times in your life.