Two Dissolve writers keep the Spirited Away conversation going…
Scott: Allow me to indulge, briefly, in a personal anecdote: When my eldest daughter was 3 or 4 years old, her favorite movie was My Neighbor Totoro. And that struck me as curious for a couple of reasons: One, the pace of the film is slow and lyrical, with nothing like the freneticism of American cartoons or animated features. And two, its story about two sisters who befriend a giant, mewling forest sprite is abstracted to the point where adults might struggle with it, let alone a pre-preschool kid. (I’m reminded of Groucho Marx considering an official document in Duck Soup: “Clear?! Why, a 4-year-old child could understand this report! Now run out and find me a 4-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail of it.”)
Watching Spirited Away again for Movie Of The Week, I think I’ve come upon the answer to why Miyazaki’s films are so broadly appealing, even to the very young: They have an emotional core that’s simple and graspable, and allow him to imagine all sorts of weird creatures and elaborate curlicues of logic without losing the audience. For that, he probably has Lewis Carroll to thank. Spirited Away, along with other Miyazaki films like Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, are about lonely little girls thrust into fantastical worlds. In Spirited Away and Totoro, the girls are moving to a new place in the country, and the experiences they have ultimately make them feel better about it. But the fact that we can, at all times, relate to their loneliness, uncertainty, fear, and wonder keeps us engaged in plots that form their own dream logic. The fuller the synopsis you try to give for a film like Spirited Away, the more ridiculous you sound—and the more unpersuasive, too, especially if you were trying to convince parents to take their child to see it. But if you start just with this little girl, going on an adventure through the looking glass, that’s the essence of its appeal.
So how about you, Genevieve? What’s the secret of Miyazaki’s success? How do you account for the allure of a film like Spirited Away?
Genevieve: I think the dream logic you mention is a big part of it. This was at least my fourth time seeing Spirited Away, and I was still often a little disoriented, not entirely sure of what was coming next. Certain big scenes and images stick in the memory—Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs, the gleefully disgusting stink-god sequence, the big Baby revelation, No Face’s creepy-cute “eh, eh” noise—but it’s easy to forget how they all fit together once you’re no longer under the film’s immediate spell. Part of that can be attributed to the film’s loosely episodic structure, and part of it is the cultural divide that makes the film’s mythology feel so fantastic and surreal. Sprites, dragons, sorceresses—none of these figures are unfamiliar to Western audiences, but the way they function in Spirited Away and other Miyazaki films is informed by a cultural perspective that’s much different from the one that informed how, to use the most obvious Western counterpoint, Walt Disney approached those same figures. It all adds up to a distinct feeling of familiar unfamiliarity, the sense that the ground is solid, but could warp beneath viewers’ feet at any time.
There’s also the simple matter of the film’s visual beauty. My God is this a gorgeous film. The glowing streets of the spirit world’s restaurant district, the melancholy of the ghostly train gliding through the water, Chihiro and dragon-Haku’s moonlight flight: There’s an abundance of memorable visuals in Spirited Away that border on hypnotic. Even when it’s being overtly disgusting (and make no mistake, there is a lot of stuff in this movie that is flat-out gross—beware, emetophobes!), there’s a painterly beauty to Spirited Away that lends an aura of magical distance to everything. If my dreams looked like this, I’d never want to wake up. Because of that, combined with the aforementioned narrative disconnect, I always think of the images first and the story second with this film. What about you, Scott? Is there any particular Spirited Away imagery that you find especially sticky?
Scott: The train gliding through the water is one of my favorite sequences in all of animation, so I’ll start there. There are times when Miyazaki treats the spirits who visit this bathhouse with the whimsy and cuteness such a premise deserves, but the tone of that train sequence is so haunting, owed in equal parts to the watercolor beauty of his imagery, Joe Hisaishi’s lovely score, and that ineffable something that makes the film itself so wonderful and hard to define. We know that the four tickets to ride the train are old and hard to come by—they’re discovered in a drawer, where they’ve obviously been tucked away for a long time—yet there’s a ticket-taker and passengers on board who have presumably been there for an eternity. Never in Spirited Away is its status as a ghost story asserted quite so strongly, but even that doesn’t entirely account for why those few minutes of screen time are so bewitching. Maybe it has something to do with a reversal of what we expect from trains, which are noisy and billowing black smoke on land, but serene and magical on water. Or maybe it’s the transition from day to night. Or maybe it’s the extension of this fantastical world to a place beyond where we imagined its borders to be.
Other images I love? The “stink god” creeping toward the bathhouse, with a placid expression that contrasts amusingly with the dread and panic of those who must attend to it; the black ghosts that emerge in the village as the lights go down, after Chihiro loses track of her parents and before she encounters Haku; the irresistible charm of the giant baby turned into a giant mouse and carried around by a tiny buzzing bird; the mysterious coos of “No Face,” and the way its form is affected by the actions of those who encounter it. That latter point leads me to a question for you: What are the takeaways from this movie? How does Miyazaki get across a moral vision? He’s more explicit about environmental concerns in Princess Mononoke, but Spirited Away also has some messaging that seems worth talking about.
Genevieve: I don’t think Miyazaki has made a film that doesn’t have at least a bit of an environmentalist message; it’s one of his pet themes, and pretty much every movie he’s made has engaged with questions about the human impact on the natural world in some way or another. As evidenced by a 2005 New Yorker profile, Miyazaki is a little obsessed with the idea of environmental collapse, and maybe even a little excited by the idea that humanity’s time in dominion over nature is drawing to a close:
“I’d like to see Manhattan underwater. I’d like to see when the human population plummets and there are no more high-rises, because nobody’s buying them. I’m excited about that. Money and desire—all that is going to collapse, and wild green grasses are going to take over.”
There’s a fair amount of this worldview coming through in Spirited Away, particularly in the buildup of pollution that renders the powerful river god into a stinky pile of goo, and in the comment by Chihiro’s dad toward the beginning about all the abandoned amusement parks dotting the countryside. And the damaging, dehumanizing effects of greed and desire are literalized in the saga of No Face, a chaos agent who tempts spirits in with gold, but devours them if they take the bait. And just in a more general sense, the world of Spirited Away exists far outside modern industrialized society, one where the natural world—or at least some fantasy version of it—is not only all around the characters, but often personified in those characters.
But I’d caution against translating these themes into specific messages, because I don’t think that’s how Miyazaki approaches his films. For one thing, he doesn’t work from a script, instead opting to develop his characters, then let the story take shape throughout the storyboard stage. So while his pet concerns manifest in those stories, they’re not necessarily baked into his premises. For another, Miyazaki himself said, in that same interview, that his intent with Spirited Away was specifically to make a film that addresses 10-year-old girls, a group he felt was lacking stories that spoke directly to them: “With Spirited Away, I wanted to say to them, ‘Don’t worry, it will be all right in the end, there will be something for you,’ not just in cinema, but also in everyday life.”
To me, that sentiment gets to the core of Spirited Away. When you strip away all the mythology and cute/terrifying creatures, Spirited Away is an effective story about the journey from childhood into maturity. Chihiro is essentially abandoned by her obliviously greedy parents-turned-pigs, and has to fend for herself in a strange world. Her first instinct is to cry and retreat from this strange new world, as she begins to fade away, Back To The Future-style. But with Haku’s assistance, she learns to ask for help, demand the things she needs to survive, be a diligent, hard worker, and eventually strike out on her own to make her own destiny and save her parents. (If we really want to extend the metaphor, that last part speaks to the idea that one of the biological imperatives of procreation is creating someone who can take care of us once we’re unable to do so ourselves.) And when she returns to the real world—without looking back, as she’s been instructed—she’s able to accept her new life in a new town in a way she wasn’t able to at the film’s outset.
In that vein, Scott, I wonder what you make of how the film portrays the adults and authority figures in Chihiro’s world—not just her parents, but those she meets at the bathhouse.
Scott: In a word: Corruptible. You’re right to say that Miyazaki is generally message-averse—though Princess Mononoke makes his pet environmental themes too explicit in my view—but he’s more hopeful that the younger generation can make constructive decisions than their elders, who have mucked up the world with their greed and avarice. Given Chihiro’s parents’ concern for her, and their curiosity about the abandoned amusement park they happen upon—her mother laments they didn’t pack a picnic to enjoy such a beautiful place—it’s actually a little surprising to see Miyazaki turn them into pigs feasting at a trough. As adults, they have the expectation that they’re entitled to consume whatever’s in front of them—and though that may seem relatively benign in this instance, Miyazaki casts it in a different light.
Once Chihiro crosses over to the spirit world, her relationship with adults (and the film’s attitude toward them) is a little more complex, since there are elders (the boiler-man, Yubaba’s more benevolent sister Zeniba) who give her shelter and come to her aid. On the other hand, the temptation of No-Face’s gold proves too much for most in the bathhouse to resist, and they too become part of an ugly act of consumption that mirrors that of Chihiro’s gluttonous parents. The character of No-Face is an interesting litmus test—the “face” it takes is dictated entirely by the integrity of the people with whom it comes into contact. Much like nature itself, it’s gentle or beastly, depending on the input.
Genevieve, you’ve talked about having seen Spirited Away at least four times. Is it your favorite of Miyazaki’s films? Though I have a soft spot for My Neighbor Totoro—the first appearance of the “catbus” stands alongside the water-train here as one of my all-time favorite animated sequences—it’s hard to deny the complexity and sophistication of what Miyazaki does here, and the lightness with which its dream logic goes over.
Genevieve: I’m not sure I can say for certain it’s my favorite Miyazaki, in part because my love for movies like Totoro and Ponyo are on the same level, and in part because I still haven’t seen a few of his films. But it is the Miyazaki I think of as most representative of both the director and his Studio Ghibli at their best, so it’s the one I tend to recommend first to others, which sometimes means I end up re-watching it with them. It’s also, as we’ve hinted at, probably the most appealing to the broadest age range of viewers: I’d hesitate a little before recommending Ponyo or Kiki’s Delivery Service to people who, maddeningly, still consider animation to be kids’ stuff, but that complexity and sophistication you mention makes it easier to sell Spirited Away to those poor, unenlightened souls. (The fact that it won an Oscar certainly sweetens the deal.) But it also has a child-friendly energy and spirit that makes it an equally appealing proposition for young viewers, too. That description can certainly be applied to many Miyazaki and Ghibli films (though certainly not all), but Spirited Away achieves that delicate balance with a certain grace and beauty that remains remarkable to this day.
Also today, Tasha Robinson kicks off our Spirited Away discussion with her Keynote essay on how the film fits in to Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, with its powerful emotions and relatively weaker villains. And tomorrow, Noel Murray presents a survey of other “kids down the rabbit hole” stories.