“Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.”
In coming at last to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, I sense this is for many the summit of their works and I’m feeling the pressure. Reviewing the entire Ghibli canon has been difficult but Spirited Away is one of the most widely known of all the legendary director’s works. It’s critically acclaimed and has received several awards. It has a large, devoted fan-base. Further, it is very culturally-specific, it has a host of strange and baffling characters, it is a masterpiece in terms of luxurious art, and it has always been thematically incomprehensible to me. So yeah, I feel the pressure.
I think it’s safe to say there’s been much confusion over this film, even though it is very famous, given the sheer number of wildly different interpretations of this movie. Take a moment to Google “What is Spirited Away really about?” if you like.
You’ll find a vast assortment of fan theories and so-called in-depth analyses. Chihiro is the mother in My Neighbor Totoro and her sandal in the river was actually Mei’s sandal. The story is an allegory for prostitution and the bathhouse is a brothel. It was all just a dream and Chihiro wakes up at the end. Yubaba’s baby boy grows up to be Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle. The movie is just a metaphor for the rigors of working in the modern world. The movie is just a metaphor for the horrors of capitalism. Chihiro dies when entering the Spirit World and never really leaves; it’s just an illusion.
So which is it? Is it all of these theories at once? Is it some of them? Is it none of them? Was Miyazaki too clever? Did he hide his meaning too well in Spirited Away, or are the claims from people outside of the creative process saying “Lo! A hidden meaning!” simply trying to look too hard? Is Spirited Away merely a fairy story for children with moderate but fleeting themes which relate to the adult experience?
I can, of course, only give what I think to be the best interpretation: the only one I saw in it with my own two eyes. I’m leaning toward Spirited Away being primarily a fantasy story with themes on its surface and no sinister, dark, “hidden” infrastructure. Why? Well, because the man said so. (For you people using that quote about Miyazaki saying the modern world is symbolized in the sex industry, I’d like to see the interview transcript in which he applies that directly to this film.)
I can say with absolute certainty that the movie is not about prostitution any more than it is about environmentalism. Clearly not. It is about a little girl who becomes a worker in a bathhouse for Japanese deities and tries to save her parents who became pigs. Environmentalism is a part of its meaning but not in some sort of secretive way.
This is what Miyazaki actually said of Spirited Away:
“This movie is a story about a 10-year-old whose father and mother happened to eat something they shouldn’t have, and so became pigs. The movie appears to be satire, but that isn’t my purpose. I have five young female friends who are about the same age as Hiiragi-san*, and I spend every summer with them at my mountain cabin. I wanted to make a movie they could enjoy. That is why I started this film, and that is my true purpose.”
An Interview with Hayao Miyazaki
Animage, May 2001
And there you go. As with My Neighbor Totoro, I’m slightly irritated with those individuals who have strained to come up with these “hidden meanings” which turn normally innocent films into real-world correlative horror stories about children dying or being sexually abused. Come on, people. That’s really sick. Can’t these movie be great on their own, without needing a hidden meaning of some kind? Or are people just that morbid? What, is everybody Tim Burton?
For those who turn to the Japanese language in defense of their argument, let me say this: I don’t know Japanese. I don’t speak it. I can’t read it. I have a scant handle on their vocabulary. I read one book on it in high school. I’m fascinated by their folklore and have read up on that, but I won’t pretend to be an expert at such complex foreign linguistics. And I think you should be honest and admit that, too (unless you actually are one of the people who is fluent in the language, of course).
Appealing to a language you hardly understand to contrive word-pictures, allegories, types and metaphors is sloppy scholarship. Miyazaki himself said he simply wanted to make a movie which 10-year-old girls could enjoy. His heart went into the film, as would any artist’s, but I’m straying from the suspicion that there’s hidden meaning.
So, ahem, without further ado, let’s talk about the actual movie and then I’ll tell you about the interpretive lens which I thought was for it.
Chihiro is a young girl moving to a new town with her parents, which she seems pretty upset about. She comes off as a spoiled and ungrateful child. Her dad thinks he’s found a shortcut and he takes it up into these woods and stops at the entrance of a mysterious tunnel. By then, Chihiro is creeped out by grinning statues standing among the trees but her parents insist on exploring. She follows them down the dark tunnel, clutching her mother’s arm.
On the other side is a wide open fields of hills and ruined homes. Dad says it’s an abandoned theme park. While exploring, they come across some food and Chihiro’s parents sit down and begin to engorge themselves. Chihiro refuses to eat it, saying they’ll get in trouble.
She wanders off and discovers a bridge leading to a massive, ornate bathhouse. A boy, Haku, appears and seems shocked that she’s there. He tells her she has to leave as soon as possible, before the sun sets. The light quickly fades.
Rushing back to her parents in the dark, she finds that they’ve eaten so much of the food that they’ve been transformed into pigs. Horrifying.
The buildings and streets fill with spirits and Chihiro panics, rushing back the way she came only to find that the way back to her family’s car has been buried beneath a river. She’s trapped in the spirit world and her only option is to trust Haku and seek a job at the bathhouse or be destroyed. She has to work under the menacing witch Yubaba and even forgo her own name and be renamed Sen, if she wants to have an opportunity to rescue her parents and return to the world of humanity.
The title of the film in Japanese is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (“Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away”). The idiom “spirit away” means to be taken without anyone noticing, to be captured without an easy explanation. That perfectly sums up this film. Not only is a lot of it difficult to explain (you just have to accept it as it unfolds), but Chihiro is thrust into the situation through no fault of her own and has to manage almost entirely on her own in this new, bizarre and hostile world.
I can’t help but be reminded of two parallel children’s stories when viewing Spirited Away. They are The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and more significantly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I’m not the only one to make these connections.
There are a few passing similarities between Spirited Away and The Wizard of Oz: both characters are girls who are thrust into a faraway fantasy land and must reconcile their fears while facing witches and befriending monsters. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are more specific.
Like Alice, Chihiro has an advanced imagination and lets her fears overpower her, almost into paralysis. Alice’s Jabberwocky is replaced by Chihiro’s gods and spirits. At the start of the film, Chihiro is apprehensive of the tiny houses her mother identifies as shrines. To her mother, it’s just a matter-of-fact explanation of something commonplace and ancient in their culture, but for the daughter, the shrines stir up numinous feelings. And that’s mostly how she, and through her the audience feels, throughout the film. It may be the best example of a film that uses numinous fear, apprehension at the presence of divinity or spirits.
It’s impossible not to think of Alice chasing the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland as Chihiro steps into the long, dark tunnel into the land of the spirits. The big difference is that Chihiro is following her parents down the tunnel, and not her own curiosity of a rabbit. In fact, Chihiro doesn’t want to go down the tunnel at all and she’s constantly begging her caricatured parents to go back.
Like Alice in Wonderland, this world is populated with characters who seem antagonistic, nonsensical, threatening, and eccentric. This is a world with its own rules and its own logic, as illogical as that sounds. Things don’t work the same way in the spirit world as they do in the regular one. Here, food denotes whether one has a place or not and owning one’s name equates to owning oneself.
I am of course referring to the book Alice in Wonderland, not its many adaptations with which many people are more familiar. Disney’s animated version is one of my favorite films but it woefully oversimplifies the tale and irons out all of the unsettling wrinkles in its characters, turning some of the harsher, more uncomfortable aspects of Wonderland’s inhabitants into cartoonish innocence.
But in Spirited Away, the employees of the bathhouse and its patrons seem positively dangerous. It’s actually very frightening, and I wonder a little at Miyazaki’s decision to make this particular film to entertain young girls. Characters talk about breaking Chihiro’s arm, ripping her mouth out, calling someone to come kill her, and there’s plenty of blood in a few scenes. It’s very charming since it is a Miyazaki film but it is also a film with more than a little edge.
However, there are many differences between Carroll’s book and Miyazaki’s film. This is one of the director’s works which is less dominated by vignettes. It follows a more traditional plot structure. Alice in Wonderland on the other hand is very episodic.
Spirited Away is an important film in the Studio Ghibli library. It marked the beginning of Pixar’s John Lasseter’s involvement in English adaptations of Ghibli’s works. It was the winner of an Academy Away for Best Animated Feature. It is one of the highest-grossing films in Japanese history. It’s easy to see that it is a creative and imaginative film, as well.
I’m guessing that almost everyone who reads this has seen it at some point. Statistics show that it is one of the most popular and widely viewed Ghibli films. In making a film for young girls, Miyazaki ended up making a film that appeals to a much bigger audience. I’m curious to know your thoughts on it in the comments!
The 8-bit Review
Miyazaki and his animators reached the peak of their abilities in Spirited Away. Every background frame is a work of art. They lavished, lavished their skills and talent on this art. Everything feels more tangible, physical, buoyant, textured, and weighted than ever. I kept thinking “Imagine how I would feel if I spent a month drawing a background with an incredibly intricate vase and some elaborate reliefs on the wall, only to have my painting appear for two or three seconds of screen time. Would I be satisfied?” I wonder.
The animators should be satisfied with the finished product. This is one of the best animated films from Studio Ghibli, and they are renown for their animation. The amount of action and movement in some of the scenes is truly captivating. And not to mention on top of that is all of the extra fluff, what Roger Ebert called “throwaway details”. These are subtle but natural movements of characters such as Chihiro tapping her shoes after she slips them on, or the personal activities of characters sitting, waving, laughing, talking, dancing in the corners and extreme edges of the screen.
Generally in animation, the trend seems to lean toward simplicity. The more there is to animate, the harder the work load becomes because it grows bigger. In Spirited Away however, it seems they spared no expense. Everything is animated. You know how anime is stereotyped by characters and extras just standing motionless, mouths hanging open, as all of the action centers around the main cast? You won’t find any of that here.
This kind of animation is a luxury.
As technology has continued to improve, so too has Ghibli’s use of it in their films. Spirited Away features more supportive CGI than any other film to date. There are maybe two moments when it looks even slightly obvious and therefore dated, but it is used to breathtaking effect. The flowers scrolling past Haku and Sen as they run. The placid waters surrounding a house as the train passes by. It is only here to maintain the sensibility of it being done by hand, not to take the place of traditional animation itself. This seems almost entirely foreign to animation philosophy in the West, by now, where “old” is equal to being “bad” rather than something which is to be refined, cherished, and preserved for as long as possible.
The movie has a pinkish-red hue over it. I wonder why that is. I have no profound or educated guess to explain it. It makes the film feel warmer and fleshy.
The music in Spirited Away by composer Joe Hisaishi is simply beautiful. It is surprisingly gentle and heartfelt, with a hint of sadness. Next to the violence, irrationality, anxiousness, and fear in the spirit world, the music seems almost to belong to a different movie. Yet as always, Hisaishi hits the nail on the head here.
It is the soundtrack of a pianist but it is just a grand and epic as any of Hisaishi’s adventurous scores. Despite Spirited Away’s very Japaneses nature, the music sounds more European than ever with the use of a traditional orchestra. Whenever the music swells and the crash of all the instruments come together to raise the melody from the lonely ivories, it gives the film a sense of grandeur. It’s a brilliant tactic by Hisaishi to utilize musical gentleness, almost a kind of silence, and then throw in massive musical crescendos to amp up the drama.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After Chihiro runs from her parents-turned-pigs, she finds that she can’t escape and her body begins to become transparent. Haku tracks her down and feeds her a berry, explaining that she will disappear if she doesn’t eat any food from the spirit world. He tries to sneak her into the bathhouse by instructing her not to breathe as they cross the bridge, but a frog jumps in her face and she gasps, alerting the spirits to her presence. Haku rushes her out of there but the whole place is in an uproar at the sighting of a human. Haku leaves Chihiro with instructions to visit Kamaji the boiler man and insist that he give her a job. But he already has workers, the tiny soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro.
Kamaji sends Chihiro with Lin, a female bath attendant, who sends her to see Yubaba, the head witch and manager of the bathhouse. Yubaba is a cold and greedy monster who gives Chihiro a job but takes her name, her identity, and gives her a new one: Sen. Haku will later warn Sen, when visiting her parents’ pig-pen, that Yubaba controls people by stealing their names and Sen must remember that she was Chihiro if she ever wants to escape.
Sen is afraid and treated badly in her job in the bathhouse and given the dirtiest tub to clean out with Lin. When a putrefying stink spirit arrives at the bathhouse, it is Sen who is personally tasked by Yubaba with showing it to the bath. Sen struggles to help the Stink Spirit and finds that it is actually the spirit of a river who was polluted by human garbage. The river god gives Sen a magic dumpling as thanks.
Later than night, No-Face, a masked entity which Sen let into the bathhouse thinking it was a customer, sneaks into the bath and begins to hand out gold in exchange for services. No-Face becomes obsessed with Sen and becomes so bloated with food that it begins devouring some of the bathhouse employees.
Sen realizes that Haku can transform into a dragon when he is attacked by magical paper ghosts. He is injured in his confrontation and Sen follows him up to Yubaba’s chambers. There, Sen runs into Yubaba’s gigantic baby, Boh, and narrowly escapes by showing him Haku’s blood on her hands. The baby is horrified, having lived his entire life in his bedroom, afraid to go out because of germs.
When Sen catches up to Haku, she meets Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba who is angry with Haku for stealing her golden seal. Zeniba turns Yubaba’s baby into a mouse and one of Yubaba’s bird servants into a tinier bird, then transforms Yubaba’s disembodied heads (weird) into a baby decoy. Sen and Chihiro just barely escape and fall down into Kamaji’s chambers.
Sen uses the magic dumpling from the river spirit to make dragon Haku throw up the golden seal he stole and also a black slug. Sen crushes the slug underfoot. She says that she wants to take the seal back to Zeniba for Haku and apologize on his behalf. Kamaji gives her some train tickets he’s held on to.
Before she can leave, though, it turns out everyone is looking for her in the bathhouse. The No-Face she let in has become an uncontrollable monster demanding to see her. Yubaba throws Sen into the room with No-Face, who offers Sen gold like he did with all the other employees but Sen doesn’t take it. She just wants to go home. She gives No-Face the last of her magic dumpling and the spirit begins throwing up everything it ate, becoming furious at Sen. In a horrific scene, the monster chases her threw the bathhouse, past terrified employees, slowing down as it pukes up more and more, eventually even throwing up the still-living people it devoured.
Meanwhile, Yubaba discovers that her baby is in fact missing and the gold from No-Face is false, and she orders that Sen’s parents be turned into bacon. Haku bargains with the witch to retrieve Yubaba’s baby in exchange for Sen and her parents’ freedom. Yubaba agrees but only if Sen can pass a final test.
Sen leaves the bathhouse with the mouse and tiny bird, and a now timid No-Face to travel by train to Zeniba’s house. There, she returns the seal and Zeniba turns out to be kindly. She reveals to everyone’s surprise that the black slug Sen stepped on was actually Yubaba’s magical curse on Haku to control him and Sen was able to destroy it because of her love for him. Then Haku as a dragon flies to Zeniba’s house to retrieve Sen and the baby.
On the way back to the bathhouse, Sen tells Haku that she remembered his real name which the witch had taken and he had forgotten. He was the Kohaku river that Chihiro had fallen into as a child. Haku, the river deity, had carried her safely to the shore. The revelation turns Haku into a human and he and Sen fly back to the bathhouse safely, hand in hand.
When they return, Sen confronts Yubaba, returns her baby, and easily passes the witch’s test, which was to tell her which pigs were her parents. Having won her freedom, Chihiro leaves the spirit world, saying goodbye to Haku, and rejoins her parents. As they get back to their car, they find it’s covered in leaves and dust. Chihiro is bolder, more confident and less whiny now. As they drive away, her mother remarks that it’s scary to move to a new house, but Chihiro responds that it’s not so bad.
I personally think that Spirited Away feels like a movie that’s missing pieces. A lot of its moments don’t make sense to me and seem to come out of left field. Miyazaki did admit that the film was cut down and it was originally much longer. Besides that, it was a story which developed in the telling and did not possess a script, like many Miyazaki films. I think that on the one hand it gives the film a dreamlike quality but on the other it makes it somewhat meandering, with characters and moments which don’t entirely gel to make clear, cohesive themes. Nobody doubts that Miyazaki’s movies have powerful thematic content but sometimes his unorthodox creative process makes for uniquely vague films. Case in point Howl’s Moving Castle.
Clearly, there are some themes in the film which are obvious. The polluted river spirit disguised as the stink spirit is an example of Miyazaki’s favorite environmental theme. The director took part in cleaning out a river in real-life and that informed the spirit that was clogged up with junk.
But many of the film’s other themes are nebulous, evidenced by the wide array of different interpretations. To me, it resonated in terms of Chihiro’s job and her entering the adult workforce. It’s a scary, confusing, strange experience. I used to work for pure evil: corporate America. There’s a lot of greed (Yubaba) and a lack of empathy (the bathhouse administrators) and they make you feel like a number rather than a person (Chihiro losing her true name to become Sen). You find desperate allies in your coworkers (Lin and Kamaji) and serve customers who seem like selfish, bottomless pits (No-Face).
As in Alice in Wonderland, it seems to me that the cruel, bizarre, eccentric Japanese gods are pictures of adults from the perception of children. The parents at the beginning don’t seem at all bothered by the abandoned theme park but Chihiro is already on edge from seeing a few grinning statues and talking of spirits.
I think that’s just one example of a kind of interpretation one could walk away with, but I’d hesitate to say that this film is about the abuses of corporate business any more than I’d say it is about child abuse. That’s not at the film’s core. The subject there is Chihiro and her having to dig deep within herself for the strengths of character which were already there. It’s just like when you and I had to do the same and suddenly discover that we are indeed adults ourselves, while maintaining our own identities as best we can, keeping our real names in a sense.
“If [girls] find this movie to be exciting, it will be a success in my mind. They can’t lie. Until now, I made “I wish there was such a person” leading characters. This time, however, I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize, someone about whom they can say, “Yes, it’s like that.” It’s very important to make it plain and unexaggerated. Starting with that, it’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.”
The most remarkable thing in Spirited Away, then, is that which is ordinary and not that which isn’t.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
Spirited Away was made for children but personally I think it’s a pretty scary movie with threats of violence, blood, and lots of hostility. There are some rather creepy spirits like No-Face among the more whimsical characters. It makes me a little uncomfortable but maybe that’s just me. But hey, seeing your own parents turn into huge pigs? That’s got to be every child’s worst nightmare.
Spirited Away has a large cast. The two leads are Daveigh Chase as Chihiro/Sen and Jason Marsden as Haku. I think that both of them do pretty good but they don’t have much range in this movie, especially Haku. Most of his lines come off as monotone, though he has a kind of varying warmth and coldness to his voice that makes us not trust him at first. As for Chase, she’s alright. I don’t think she’s the most emotive of the Ghibli actresses. There’s a scene where she becomes emotional and yells at her parents as pigs that she won’t forget them, and it comes off as awkward rather than panicky or desperate.
The supporting cast is swell, though. Susan Egan returns to Ghibli here as Lin the friendly bathhouse attendant. David Ogden Stiers is perfect as Kamaji the boiler man. Even John Ratzenberger (a Pixar favorite) has a small part as one of the managers of the bathhouse and Paul Eiding (Roy Campbell of Metal Gear Solid) voices another bathhouse administrator. Tara Strong is immediately recognizable as the gigantic baby Boh. The best performance in the movie has to be Suzanne Pleshette’s as both Yubaba and Zeniba. I’d say she has the biggest range of character to depict between cruel and kindly, evil and good.
Spirited Away is undeniably a unique and visually gorgeous children’s fantasy. It may or may not have consciously taken cues from other stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it stands on its own narratively and thematically. Out of all the Ghibli films, it is one of the most creative and imaginative. Can you even name another film with a radish spirit in it?
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Personally (which is what this score entails), this is not my favorite Ghibli film. It’s not as warm as some others I’ve enjoyed by the studio and sometimes it’s downright unsettling to me. Some may prefer their fantasies a little darker like this, but it’s not my personal cup of tea. I obviously recognize that Spirited Away is a work of art and a masterpiece of animation, an acclaimed movie by an acclaimed director.
Is it overrated? In my opinion: slightly. It’s been named the 4th greatest film of the 21st century and it’s considered to be one of the greatest animated films ever. Yeah I believe that’s slightly overstating things. It’s an excellent work to be sure but I think that vague and confused (notice I didn’t say “confusing”) elements work against it rather than for it. There, I said it. Prepare to lynch! Just kidding. Let me be clear that I vastly appreciate this film as a work of art, but it just doesn’t happen to be my favorite.
Even though these films are beloved, I think we can have an open discussion. And if you do disagree with me, feel free to let me know with reason and gentility!
Aggregated Score: 8.9