Stubborn, spoiled, and naïve, 10-year-old Chihiro Ogino is less than pleased when she and her parents discover an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house. Cautiously venturing inside, she realizes that there is more to this place than meets the eye, as strange things begin to happen once dusk falls. Ghostly apparitions and food that turns her parents into pigs are just the start—Chihiro has unwittingly crossed over into the spirit world. Now trapped, she must summon the courage to live and work amongst spirits, with the help of the enigmatic Haku and the cast of unique characters she meets along the way. Vivid and intriguing, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi tells the story of Chihiro's journey through an unfamiliar world as she strives to save her parents and return home. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
I am going to talk about Spirited Away (yeah, obvious). It’s been quite a long time since I watched it for the last time, more than a year in fact; but I became a really fascinating and influential piece for me at that time, far enough to define my current love for Miyazaki’s works, the Studio Ghibli and animation in general as an art and a strong way of expression. Today it’s still one of my favorite animated features of any sort, and not because of its lack of flaws than its amazing blend of concepts.
The first thing that appeals the audience in this movie is its art and animation. I, as unexperienced and poor in technical knowledge about the subject, think it’s utter fascinating, it manages to create a whole world out of nothing, and the use of lights and shades, the forms and colours make the overall experience a visual joy. And in addition to that I find the characters’ gestures and movements extremely plastic and realistic, some other scenes have been mentioned in that aspect by other reviewers but I was particularly fond of that one where Chihiro is walking with her parents and she gradually moves away, only to come back to her position with a little run-up. These things don’t happen, usually, in animation. In so far as they are unnecessary, easily ignorable and feel like a waste of resources, we hardly see characters making these little movements which in the end result in nothing relevant. Ghibli, however, animates them, and does it with such a mastery, a love for detail and a goddamn naturalism that I can’t help but feel amazed.
As if the visual aspect wasn’t good enough, the movie is also a pleasure for our ears and has what I consider the best track of my heavily worshipped Joe Hisaishi, one of the best (if not the best) film composers I have ever heard. Spirited Away is exceptionally good at that aspect; I’d say it’s one of the very few cases in which there is, at some scenes, such a strong fusion between story and music, that I can’t conceive nor think of one without the other.
But despite all of these beautiful qualities about its setting, the real substance of this movie is at its story. I apologize in advance, again, because as I’m going to develop some points I will give some free spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie I’d recommend to stop reading at this point.
It has been said many times by critics that Spirited Away felt like a senseless blend of magic elements, just a simple story filled with many things the author introduced undiscriminatingly to drag out the experience. Well, I have a quite different point of view for that device. I just can’t conceive that the animation, for example, is taken to such a high level of detail and, on the other hand, that doesn’t happen with the story. And by rewatching it repeatedly in a short amount of time (once every two months, more or less), I began to develop some theories about the nature of the world that is depicted here.
What must be considered at first is that all this magical world, with strange creatures and spells, is just an allegory for the always difficult transiton between childhood and the first steps of adulthood. It’s the age you start dealing with responsibility, when you realize your acts have consequences and you have to make decisions that will affect your future; you define yourself and the course of your life. Miyazaki puts these simple concepts by transforming the need of finding an identity into a way to escape the wonderful yet cruel world where Chihiro is suddenly trapped. Its hostility imitates quite well the drama of the process, as it reinforces the need of an additional effort every one of us have to make at some point and reset our lives and our positions.
Does this mean that Yubaba’s world is an undeveloped blend of magic, hostile things that only serve as a situation that Chihiro has to overcome at some point? Well, I don’t think so, as it seems to have a clear structure and hierarchy. One of the stories I see compared more often with this one is Alice in Wonderland. However, I would define that as a blend of unrelated events, a story whose main charm lies in its anarchic, nearly nightmarish, narrative. Spirited Away is not like that in any way. In fact I think there is an effort to transmit a strong sense of logic throughout, it tries to delimit the causes and consequences of every single case.
The key character to understand how Yubaba’s tyranny works is, in my opinion, Lin. She just happens to be the link between Chihiro and the rest of the magical creatures, just like somebody that is in some sort of intermediate level. Her physical appearance looks slightly transformed, but not as much as the rest. She is aware of the existence of another world outside of that one, the importance of remembering her name, her “identity”; and knowing that, she helps Chihiro and takes the role of a mother. I have the theory that every one of the creatures that live in Yubaba’s world were once human, maybe little boys and girls like Chihiro who couldn’t find the way to escape, or other people; and they ended up forgetting who they were, losing their “humanity” and becoming mere pieces of this world. Lin is a special case because it seems she’s not lost her identity yet, at least not at all, but forgot at one point her name, the key to come back home, and knows her situation is irreversible. She maybe observed this in some of her companions when she arrived, and Chihiro reminds herself of that. Maybe because of that, because she knows and appreciates what she’s doomed to lose, she decides to help her in an altruistic way.
And what about Kamaji? Another key character in Chihiro’s development in there; he seems to be quite aware of his situation too. I’d say he is a bit like the “sacrificed” individual, who Yubaba used to start his project and maybe the only one that didn’t lose his identity at all. He’s a slave in this world, he knows it but can’t help it.
So yes, I have a more “adult” and crude view of the overall concept. This definition of the magical public baths as a place were people are doomed to end up losing what makes them “special” is quite harsh and melancholic for a -as targeted and admitted by Miyazaki- kid’s movie, and it might feel even weird, but that’s how I interpreted it and I think it makes some sense.
Does this mean Yubaba is a villain? Well, define villain. Somebody whose only objective in life is to harm people? That’s hardly what Yubaba is. She, for better or for worse, created a world, and made it work. She imposed some rules. We could even say she created her own utopia (and that doesn’t mean she is naturally “bad”), why not? And, most important, she has a strong sense of honor, she dictates and also OBEYS her rules. One of the (maybe) main reasons why she loses her battle against Chihiro, in fact, is that her weakness is shown eventually (giant baby); and reveals a hypocritical attitude, as she is protecting her lovely child from any influence while she’s always preaching the exact contrary. As she knows it, it’s a shameful thing to admit and maybe here is where her image of forcefulness starts to teeter.
All in all, these examples just show that the real strength of this story lies in the characters, as they are always depicted in a detailed way. Yubaba not being the typical villain, or not even being a “villain” at all; Haku, the hero and the “positive” one here has also an overambitious side and is for the most part guilty of his situation… and Chihiro, of course. She is a spoiled brat who learns to appreciate some things, but in no way overreacting at these points, as she sounds real and relatable at every damn scene. It’s quite easy to understand her, she’s not made to be likeable but her portrayal is solid enough to make us join her development through the story.
I could spend hours and hours talking about this precious anime and its many details, the enigmatic role of No Face, the negative influence of the parents in Chihiro’s behaviour, and so much more… I love it. It breathes mastery at (almost) every one of its points, and I can enjoy it in many levels. My only grip would be the way things are resolved, which I have always found too rushed; reading Miyazaki’s opinion on that ending I’ve come to understand the intention behind, but still I’d say the metaphor is made too subtle for the audience, and maybe the execution is also somewhat clumsy. But aside from this minor flaw, I can’t help but admire this fascinating, eye-captivating piece of art, my second favorite anime behind Grave Of The Fireflies.