From The Archives: Miyazaki Month – Spirited Away

Published May 10, 2013

Haku and Chihiro walk through a floral maze

Haku and Chihiro walk through a floral maze

Spirited Away has a deserved reputation as Hayao Miyazaki’s Magnum Opus, and even managed to outgross Princess Mononoke at the Japanese box office. It’s also, to this date, the only traditionally animated non-Western animated feature to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Which really should be called the Pixar Award For Distinguished Achievement At Being Pixar. I have trouble believing that the film is 12 years old, because it feels like it was released only yesterday. I slightly prefer Princess Mononoke, but Spirited Away is just as much a masterpiece as Miyazaki’s other works.

And, of course, it’s feminist too.

The English dub is not as accurate as Princess Mononoke’s was. It’s still very well done, but there was a lot more ad-libbing, extra dialogue, and some slight fiddling around with plot points. The Captain Obvious problem happens again with some of Chihiro’s dialogue, (“Haku! You’re bleeding!”) and they have her talk about Haku a lot more often than she does in the original script. The other characters often make allusions to The Power of Love that weren’t there in the original. Zeniba even says that her curse on Haku was broken by Chihiro’s love for him, though I think this change was added not so much to push the romance angle but to make the whole situation with Zeniba a little clearer. …Not that it helped much. I prefer the casting of voice actors in this film, as there aren’t any gratuitous celebrity voice actors this time. Of the main cast, the most well-known name is the late Suzanne Pleschette, and she would only be familiar to Baby Boomers for the most part. Even then, she and almost all of the others had previous experience as voice actors for Disney. And yes, Disney, you get a cookie for casting Daveigh Chase (who was fantastic as Lilo) instead of one of the Fannings. One other thing I have to commend the English dub for is that hilarious song about No-Face that John Ratzenberger ad-libbed for his character. Definite improvement over the original, which was already a very funny scene. I don’t know why the English dub team decided to go back to doing celebrity voice actors for future Ghibli releases, especially ones that are destined to immediately date the film like a Cyrus sister and a Jonas brother would.

Chihiro is the type of little girl heroine I wish I had when I was younger. Hayao Miyazaki has said that he specifically designed her to be average, relatable, likeable, and non-sexualized. He has also said how much he resents that a hero can be unattractive, but a heroine must always be cute. Chihiro really does look, act and feel like a real Japanese child, not a fantasy of what one “should” be. Her story has been compared to Alice in Wonderland, which I can sorta see (little girl is trapped in a dreamlike world where people are needlessly hostile to her and not much makes sense). One thing I really love about how Chihiro is depicted in this movie is all the little touches that make her feel real. When she puts on her shoes, she taps her toes on the floor to make sure the shoe is on properly as she walks off. Something that we normally don’t even think about, our tiniest little unconscious habits, Hayao Miyazaki has thought of, and added to the depiction of his heroine.

As mentioned before, one of Miyazaki’s favourite themes is environmentalism, and it plays a role in the plot in two instances. First, Chihiro proves herself to Yubaba and the other workers by successfully “curing” the Stink God that was actually the spirit of a severely polluted river. The “Stink God”’s appearance is a pretty heavy condemnation of how disgusting pollution is. The characters make it clear with their expressions that the bathhouse guest is the worst thing they have ever smelled in their lives. Its very presence rots the furniture. It’s actually pretty hard not to feel grossed out during that scene, and again at the end when Chihiro and the others pull the enormous pile of garbage out of the river spirit. This scene gives a strong visual consequence of pollution, and by adding a spiritual element to it, gives another reason for sympathy. Environmentalism is referenced again when Haku turns out to be the spirit of the Kohaku River. Chihiro had fallen in the river when she was very small, and he had saved her. She tells him that the river was drained and built over, which is why Haku forgot his name and identity and entered his life of servitude to Yubaba. A major character’s life was ruined by a lack of reverence for nature.

Chihiro and Haku remember how they know each other

Chihiro and Haku remember how they know each other

I am appreciative that once again, romance is not the most important “goal” of the story, but what is most important is to just to show Chihiro’s maturing (though I do think the English dub pushed the “power of love” angle a bit too much). And really, I honestly feel uncomfortable thinking of Chihiro and Haku’s relationship as romantic. The characters mention that Chihiro loves him, but it’s a very shortsighted person who immediately concludes that the only definition of love between non-related people has to be romantic. She’s a little girl, he’s an immortal dragon spirit. There’s no way their relationship (if there even is one) can work – they’re better off as friends, just like Ashitaka and San. And really, who’s to say that Chihiro isn’t the type of person who just loves everyone? She’s shown to be a kind and generous person, and she even shows some degree of affection towards Yubaba.

It is fitting that the beginning of the film is about Chihiro and her family moving to a new home, as the major theme of the film is transition and change. Chihiro is just at the cusp of puberty – that awkward, rather unpleasant time where you are rapidly leaving childhood and you’re not sure what’s going to happen next. She starts out petulant and sullen as she hates having to leave her friends behind. And right from the beginning, we see how negligent and foolish her parents are, as they let Chihiro roll around in the backseat without a seatbelt (and her father drives around like a maniac!). It’s too late for her parents to learn anything, so Chihiro has to step up and be the responsible one. She has her moments of weakness, especially near the beginning when she repeatedly breaks down and cries, but this is a reasonable reaction for her. I’m (supposedly) an adult, and I’m not so sure I wouldn’t panic if I were in her situation. It’s very striking when Chihiro shows maturity – she remembers her manners again, she works hard without complaint, and she shows that she has a great intuitive ability. This is very deliberate, I suspect. Just like Chihiro’s parents, we often make the mistake of dismissing a child entirely because they’re a child. And little girls in particular seem to be dismissed and underestimated the most. Look at the crappy toys they get. “Here, honey, this is a plastic iron and ironing board so you can play at doing work! And here’s a doll that talks about nothing but shopping!” Miyazaki has given us a heroine that shows us just how strong and capable children can be – intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

The other characters go through a character arc of maturity and change as well, and likely as a result of meeting Chihiro. Haku starts off ambiguously – he confusingly shows great kindness and yet great coldness to Chihiro at the same time. But when he regains his name, and regains his freedom, his cold eyes become warm and affectionate. He starts off as a kind of saviour or guardian to Chihiro, which she repays by being a kind of saviour to him. Rin, the spirit that Chihiro assists in the bathhouse, very quickly goes from contempt to kindness as she gets to know Chihiro. Her third helper, Kamaji, starts off gruffly, but quickly goes well out of his way to help her, such as pretending that she’s his granddaughter, and even giving her train tickets that he had been saving for 40 years. These three characters who serve as her helpers all have one thing in common – they make a complete arc from rejecting Chihiro to totally embracing her.

Chihiro passes by a mysterious stone statue

Chihiro passes by a mysterious stone statue

The twin sorceresses, Yubaba and Zeniba, also go through a character transition. Yubaba is apparently the villain of the story, as she steals Chihiro’s name and forces her to work for her parents’ freedom. And yet she is not entirely evil, (there’s that trademark Miyazaki moral ambiguity again) as she clearly loves her baby Boh, and even keeps her word to release Chihiro’s contract if she passes her test. She’s not a nice lady by any means, but when the story ends she doesn’t seem nearly as horrible as she did at the beginning. Boh himself goes through a fairly quick maturation, as he starts off as a coddled shut-in paranoid about germs, and ends up happily assisting Chihiro, and both figuratively and literally stands up to his mother. Zeniba… I have a little more trouble understanding. When we first see her, she’s clearly trying to kill Haku for stealing her golden seal. She also physically transforms all the creatures in Yubaba’s room, which seems to be a punishment against her sister. At that point, she is not only physically identical to Yubaba, but identical in personality as well. So it is pretty jarring for her to be suddenly sweet and grandmotherly to Chihiro when they meet. She’s still kind of brusque, but definitely a complete transformation from her introduction. I’ve never entirely been able to figure it out. There’s a theory that Yubaba and Zeniba are two halves of the same person (which is hinted at when Chihiro calls both of them “Granny”), which sort of gives an explanation…but it’s hard to wrap my mind around.

The whole movie is kind of a mind screw, really, and I don’t think that’s entirely because I’m mostly unfamiliar with Japanese mythology. When I finished rewatching it yesterday, I had more questions than answers. I cannot take credit for this observation, but my mind was blown when it was pointed out how different the entrance to the tunnel was at the beginning and the end of the film. At the end, the red paint has worn off. The tunnel has been covered in ivy. The cobblestones are covered with grass. The foliage is thicker. And the little stone statue has been eroded by weather. Chihiro’s father points out that there are leaves all over the car, and dust inside it. But just how long were they trapped inside the spirit world? It seemed like less than a week to Chihiro’s perspective, but it has obviously been much longer than that. All of those changes from beginning to end suggest that they were in there for decades. Time and space clearly have no meaning there (for one thing, the day/night schedule is flipped), because why would it matter to something immortal and immaterial? But then the horror hit me. What happened when they arrived at their new home? At the very least, this family has been missing for a week. Pretty heavy implications there.

I have other questions too, not just about the period of time and ambiguity of Zeniba’s character. Is Boh actually Yubaba’s baby? How long has he been a baby? What do the bathhouse workers actually look like (their humanoid appearance is obviously not natural)? What will happen to Haku, since the river that he represents is gone? Did cleaning the polluted river spirit actually clean the river itself? Were Chihiro’s parents genuinely being gluttonous, or were they enchanted to act that way? How did it become nighttime so quickly after Chihiro’s family crossed into the spirit world in broad daylight? Were Chihiro’s family the only humans who stumbled into the spirit world, or have there been others? (The tunnel’s not all that well hidden, after all!) But the fact that I want all these answers tells me that this is the mark of a film with rich world-building, and a film that shows rather than tells. When I woke up this morning, I thought I didn’t have as much to say about Spirited Away. And yet, here I am babbling for 2100 words. That’s the sign of a film that is special.

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