Dir. Hayao Miyazaki.
To wit: a girl, goaded on by her parents, accidentally enters a world where spirits are visible and not always nice; where her gluttonous parents are turned into pigs and left on the edge of slaughter for days; where she must fight for a job just to be allowed to stay, where she loses her name as part of her contract, and where her status as a human is a crippling disadvantage; where treachery and skulduggery on the parts of the most powerful beings are expected; where the beings she encounters range from merely gross to actively dangerous. Yet when it became clear that Chihiro had triumphed against all odds, and would be able to leave with her unpigged and unremembering parents in tow, I found myself tremendously sad. Spirited Away may not evince a fantasy world that I would ever like to be a part of, but there is something deeply intoxicating in Miyazaki’s vision, and some of the most beautiful sequences I have ever seen are here.
About halfway through the movie, a tremendous rainstorm comes to the grove where the bathhouse is, and gray has hardly ever looked so good. Part of the joy is the glow that they’ve managed to create for yellows and reds, making them islands of light in oceans of stormclouds.
I’m also fond of the tremendous detail that goes into faces, the wrinkles and expressive lines which make characters all by themselves. Not everyone gets it all of the time, but when it does show up in the movie’s frequent close-ups, you can see the painstaking effort of the animators.
All the same, the primary example must be the train ride that Chihiro takes to return Zeniba’s seal, accompanied by a pair of transfigured sidekicks and No-Face, the enigmatic and hungry demon. The train rides effortlessly over the layer of water covering the tracks; when Chihiro walks out to the platform with a precious ticket in hand, it seems as if she is walking on water.
As Visconti does in The Leopard with the Sicilian landscape, Miyazaki blurs our ability to differentiate between sky and sea: it takes a moment to track the teal of the sky and the cerulean of the water (which one usually reverses), and that’s before we must reckon with the clouds reflecting in the water beneath them, as if cumulus had somehow risen above cirrus.
The view from the train is even more lovely, filled with the kind of images that can bring tears to our eyes, and backed with the soft and reflective piano music that can help us get there.
The baby and the bird, transfigured into a weird rodent and a much smaller bird, bounce up and down at the window, excited to see the world outside the bathhouse, excited to be on a trip. Chihiro is not serene, exactly, but she is totally calm. She turns her head to the side, and in profile sees what we see: a more vast and painterly land than we ever knew existed. The fellow passengers on the train are shades in suits and shawls, inexpressive by design and silent. They do not look like the colorful patrons of the bathhouse, nor do they seem to possess the magic that someone like Haku or Yubaba can wield. Their lives are as mysterious as any other single element of the movie, and for that reason I find them particularly haunting. There is a quotidian world somewhere under these few inches of water, far beyond the horizon of these train stations you’d need a train just to reach. It’s impossible to know if Chihiro is thinking about any of this, or if her affection for Haku or her fear for her parents or her persistence in her mission takes the first place. But after Spirited Away has furiously thrown every type of sensory attraction at us for one hundred minutes, this brief respite is nothing short of masterful. It commands our attention and refocuses tone.
There’s certainly a lot to digest, too! In one scene, before Chihiro has managed to adapt to the fact that her parents have been transformed into pigs by eating the wrong food, a glowing riverboat appears at a river which had not been there in daylight, and what disembarks is a strange menagerie of creatures indeed. There are fish out of water, an inordinate number of giant ducks, and what is addressed as a radish but is also about ten feet tall and barely wears any clothes. Most of the attendants at the bathhouse are “frogs,” but then how do we explain the literal frog who accidentally sees Haku bringing Chihiro into the bathhouse? (When Chihiro’s parents first began to explore this little parcel of Outside, her father hypothesized that this used to be an old amusement park, probably one that went bankrupt. It is noteworthy that it takes place at an amusement park, or the ghost of one, anyway; the ride that Chihiro is about to get on is totally fun but also more than a little scary.) Spirited Away is not afraid of how little we understand of Yubaba’s little fief, nor does it make Haku into the kind of guide we might have expected. After a few hints and a little nudge in the right direction for Chihiro, he fades out of the story for some time, leaving us alone with our heroine and her new guide, the edgy bathhouse employee Lin. (The English-language dub of Spirited Away is extremely good, and Susan “Meg from Hercules” Egan’s nasal drawl is either my favorite or least favorite interpretation of a character.) Lin is slightly more helpful, and at least provides some context we can grab onto; useful in his own way is Kamaji, half spider and half mustache, who allows himself to be the first rung on Chihiro’s ladder to stability.
The more we see of her, the more we like her. The movie’s prologue watches her with her parents as they drive to their new home, and she is understandably if frustratingly whiny. All the same she has the good sense not to eat when her parents do, and once she is given a task for her own survival, she carries it out to perfection. She turns out to be a resourceful employee at the bathhouse when she is maliciously assigned to care for a “stink spirit” which wanders in; it turns out that it is the spirit of a river, and she manages to relieve its suffering stinkiness through hard effort and without complaint. There’s a way to look at this movie which sees her as our hero largely because she is immune to the consumerist, capitalist ideologies which infect virtually everyone else. Her mother and father meet their unsavory transfiguration because they took what was not theirs, although her dad is sure that his “cash and credit cards” can assuage any misunderstanding. Her coworkers unknowingly put themselves in danger once No-Face begins to hand out enormous tips from the gold he appears capable of producing from thin air; Chihiro is herself immune to this temptation, which amazes the demon. Yubaba thinks in economic terms first and foremost, and compared to her more amicable twin sister, Zeniba, she seems heartless in all matters outside of her giant infant. Chihiro’s focus on doing the right thing makes her stand out from the mass of folks in the movie. When Haku is badly injured by a storm of paper (there’s probably a very technical term for this which I don’t know), it’s because he’s been ordered by Yubaba to steal Zeniba’s gold seal. She decides to take it on herself to return it and, more importantly, make Haku’s apologies to Zeniba. By the end of the movie, just about everyone feels some loyalty to her, from Kamaji and Lin to the soot spirits carrying coal and, of course, those of us watching her.
Part of what makes her (and the movie itself) appealing is the fact that she doesn’t really change. Her outward reactions to things are different at the end than they are at the beginning; one returns to her complaining in the car at the beginning and looking stonily ahead in the train. But we’re not given an arc to follow which takes her from selfish person to giving person, or mean person to nice person, or whatever. No task has made her different from the beginning to the end, and no drawn-out scene emphasizes some newness in her. She is simply given more chances to be mature and thoughtful, and she takes them. What has changed is her setting, not her heart, and that’s more than enough.