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January 18, 2013: Revisiting “Spirited Away”

January 18, 2013
Some really fantastic fanart of "Spirited Away" by Silver Melody

Some really fantastic fanart of “Spirited Away” by Silver Melody

I had the pleasure of seeing “Spirited Away” in theaters back when it first came to the states in 2001. Thanks to the Hudson Public Library I was too able to revisit it (as well as eleven other Studio Ghibli animations) in a great boxed set I discovered on their shelves.

“Spirited Away” is one of the most popular animations of all film history, not only in Japan (where it has won many awards and was the first film to surpass “Titanic” in sales there) but also pretty much the rest of the world as well. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, much in the vein of classic “coming of age” tales such as “Alice in Wonderland” “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz,” “Spirited Away” follows the adventures of ten-year-old girl, Chihiro, as she is mystically transported to an “otherworld” to suffer the bewilderment and loneliness of a stranger in a strange land. Foreign to the “rules” of this world, she is forced to find aid from the otherworldy people and creatures she finds there to overcome adversity, learn what is important, gain strength, find acceptance, and eventually…love, only then to find a way back home again.

Chihiro on Street_smAt the beginning of “Spirited Away” Chihiro, her mom and dad are traveling to a new town where they are moving. Close to their new house, the dad takes a wrong turn and comes to a dead-end of a standing stone in front of a tunnel. Curious, they enter the tunnel which comes out in a kind of abandoned amusement park. The parents notice that all the shops are restaurants, and eventually settle on one to begin eating. Chihiro, who is bit freaked out by the eerie surroundings to eat with them, walks on and finds a boy, Haku, who is surprised to find her there and anxiously orders her to return or else she will be trapped there if she doesn’t return before nightfall. As night descends, the park lights illuminate a town filled with specters. Chihiro runs back to the restaurant where she left her parents to find them transformed into pigs!

spirited-away-smChihiro is forced to return to the bath-house, which is the center of the town, where she starts to disappear, but before she can dissolve completely, she is rescued by Haku who feeds her a berry that restores her. Haku tells her that to prevent being turned into an animal herself, Chihiro’s only recourse is to find work from the witch, Yubaba, who runs the onsen (bath-house.) Chihiro strikes a bargain with Yubaba, who’s contract includes stealing Chihiro’s name. The work turns out to be a bit harder and bizarre than Chihiro expects as the onsen’s clientele are “gods” (but to Western eyes, they appear more like monsters.) One creature that Chihiro keeps running into is Nil-Face: a dark and insubstantial spirit with a blank expression and a rather innocent and benign temperament. Nil-Face helps Chihiro gain favor, aiding her to clean a “Stink-god” who then transforms into a river-god after the bath, leaving behind gold amidst the muck. Nil-Face notices the appeal the gold has on the staff and uses it to gain service for an outrageous amount of food. As Nil-Face consumes, he grows…and changes. He becomes more aggressive and eventually violent. He tries to tempt Chihiro with gold, but she resists and feeds him a charm that makes him disgorge the food, transforming him back into his benign form.

The story continues with more adventures for Chihiro, including a considerable amount of magic; a rivalry between Yubaba and her “good” twin sister Zeniba; the true nature of Haku, his prior history with Chihiro, and an assortment of odd “otherworld” characters…not the least of which is Yubaba’s 500Lb. “baby.”

“Spirited Away” is wonderful on many levels: first, the animation is just gorgeous. Not only the character animation, but even the backgrounds are stunning! The music is very well done, throughout, culminating with an especially pretty vocal piece for the credit sequence. Rich in details, I pick up something new from “Spirited Away” with each viewing. As always, story must be king and “Spirited Away” has a depth of story that draws on a plethora of mythological images, themes, and ideas from not only Japan, but from European sources as well. It’s one of those great films that prompt a good after-film-coffee discussion. There are better and more learned sources for the Japanese mythology, but either as part of the collective unconscious, or borrowed directly from the European sources I was familiar with, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me that really made the story work.

Chi+Nil-Face_on_trainFirst, the structure of “transport” into the spirit or faerie realm as the tunnel guarded by a standing stone could be straight from the many of Celtic legends of “faerie hills” that have just such a construction. Once within the faerie world there are rules: humans must never eat faerie food. To do so will bind you to that world and erase your memory of the mortal world. [Persephone, daughter the harvest-goddess Demeter, was condemned to six months in Hell for eating six pomegranate seeds given by Hades, which is why we have Winter.] It is careful that you never reveal your true name, as this will allow power over you by the faerie. [The clever Odysseus goes by the moniker “Noman” so that his actions against the gods can be said to be done by “no-man.”] Also borrowed from the Odyssey is the witch, Circe, transforming Odysseus’s men into pigs. There is usually a faerie guide in these stories to aid the human caught in their world. This guide normally does not return to the mortal realm with the hero(ine.)

Miyazaki weaves his own personal beliefs and experiences among the classical themes, to good effect. His protest over human disregard for the environment is shown in the transformation of the “Stink-god” into a “River-god” through the ritual bath. He seems to say that it is up to the compassion of youth today to act in order cleanse away the ills of our pollution of nature. With the transformation of the benign Nil-Face into a monster/destroyer, Miyazaki seems to suggest that avarice/desire is the antithesis of spirit and will destroy harmony of the self. Miyazaki has been quoted saying “Everyone has a Nil-Face within themselves.”

Of course, whether it is Alice, Wendy, Dorothy, and now, Chihiro, the most important theme of these stories is that in order to overcome adversity (not to mention just plain weirdness) pass from childhood into adulthood, and to finally return safely home, you must be first find…and then be true, to yourself.

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