"Of course this film is fantasy. Of course it's a complete fabrication. But within the context of that fabricated reality, I feel like I didn't lie to the kids."—Hayao Miyazaki
Chihiro Ogino whines, mopes, and complains. In other words, she is a typical 10 year old girl. She shares none of the enthusiasm of her parents as they travel to their new home. She just wants everyone to shut up and go away.
The last thing she wants is for her parents to take a wrong turn. But there they are, at that strange tunnel, and that train station that leads out into the field. Is this an abandoned amusement park? And then there are those empty restaurants, with mounds of piping hot food. Mom and Dad should not be eating that—and they certainly should not be turning into pigs. And where are all those ghosts coming from?
What's a girl to do?
What is Spirited Away, or as it is known by its full title, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, or "Sen and Chihiro are Spirited Away?" It might be enough to say that it is the most successful film in Japanese history. Or that it won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, among a host of other awards. Or that it is the story of one girl who becomes another girl entirely, growing from sullen and spoiled to capable and confident, thanks to a strange, sometimes terrifying journey to another world.
The other world is inhabited by gods and monsters, Alice in Wonderland with a Shinto bent. With Chihiro's parents transformed into pigs, the frightened girl must acclimate herself to the rules of this new world—and its unusual power structure. Led by her mysterious new friend Haku, she must go to work in the local bathhouse for the witch Yubaba, signing away her name in exchange for a job. Now called Sen, she must figure out a way to rescue her parents before she forgets her identity and becomes trapped forever in the spirit world.
But that simple plot synopsis cannot convey the extraordinary texture of Hayao Miyazaki's latest, and perhaps most sophisticated, masterpiece. This is a film in which every scene enfolds a wealth of detail, both visual and thematic. The world of the bathhouse is full of visual splendor. From its realistically rich backgrounds to its infinite supply of unusual supporting characters, the film is full of surprises, a bravura display of sheer invention. Miyazaki displays a casual confidence here, the sure hand of an artist who trusts his audience. The film is filled to overflowing with strange and wondrous images, but they all feel organic to that world, never thrown on screen simply for their own sake. There is an internal logic to the spirit world, and for all its wonders, it seems materially grounded. Workers in the bathhouse beg for tips; the trains require expensive tickets; everything has rules and regulations that must be obeyed, even above the miracles of magic. Everything fits; everything has purpose and meaning.
Spirited Away is not merely animated eye candy. All the allegorical names—bathhouse matron Yubaba ("Old Bath Woman"), the boiler man Kamaji ("Old Boiler Man"), Yubaba's sister Zeniba ("Old Money Woman")—suggest that we are to look beyond the surface of Spirited Away, that Chihiro's journey is not just the journey of a fairly realistic 10 year old thrust into a magical realm and forced to cope with its almost mundane details. There are so many possibilities…
Of course, the first and most conspicuous reading one might make of Miyazaki's film is, as Miyazaki himself suggests, that it is about a girl who "gets trained, learns about friendship and devotion, and survives by using her wisdom." In other words, a coming of age story. On this level, certain details of the film become suddenly clear. And consider this a warning right now: our analysis will require a few spoilers, none of which will minimize your pleasure in this film. Why must Chihiro hold her breath when crossing the bridge to the bathhouse? Why must she get an odd sort of "cootie shot" when she crushes the strange worm that plagues her friend Haku? These are all things that happen in a child's world. Chihiro's quest to win back her name is about finding herself, her true identity. It is about finding the potential she has so far squandered as a typical, indifferent child. Parallel to her quest, Yubaba's enormous baby (whose name "Boh" simply means "Baby," of course) must learn to leave his comfortable nest and brave the sicknesses of the outside world, to learn to walk on his own.
Chihiro might also represent Japan itself, or more precisely, the modern, cynical Japan that has come to ignore its traditions. The bathhouse, as a gathering place for gods, satirizes the commercialization of Japanese traditions. All the spirits of the past visit in order to be worshipped, but only as a customer is worshipped based on how much cash he has. But like the battle between the ancient and modern in Miyazaki's previous film, Princess Mononoke, there is no call here to reject the modern entirely for the traditional. Those who succeed in the world of Spirited Away have learned to strike a balance.
Where the balance has failed, nature becomes corrupted. Consider Chihiro's (now Sen's) encounter with the "Stink God," who oozes into the bathhouse for her first challenge from Yubaba. Sen's conscientious customer service saves the day, revealing the big stinker (so rank he can even rot food) as a polluted river god. This foreshadows a major revelation later in the film concerning Chihiro's relationship with Haku. In all cases, nature, or embodied nature spirits in the case of the bathhouse's function as a tourist trap, may be threatened with exploitation. After all, somebody had to plow under all that land to make those now-bankrupt theme parks Chihiro's father talked about.
Indeed, the collapse of those utopian playgrounds suggests yet another theme (and they are clearly piling up by the moment): the illusion of Japan's post-war economic miracle. The first thing we notice in approaching the tunnel that leads to the spirit world is that it seems to be made of plaster. Abandoned buildings sit surrounded by unkempt grass: is this an amusement park gone to seed? Chihiro's father thinks so, remarking that many theme parks were built in the 1990s in Japan, only to fall into bankruptcy. Later, as day turns to night, a garish ferryboat brings the tourists to the bathhouse, suggesting that the bathhouse is a tourist trap for gods.
The most conspicuous figure in this reading is No Face, the embodiment of Japan's burst economic bubble. He is pure consumption, eating everything in sight (like Chihiro's own piggish parents) and offering gold by the ton. Of course, everyone in the bathhouse grovels at his feet, except Chihiro, who is too busy trying to help her friends to be seduced by No Face's supposed generosity. And of course, No Face quickly turns into a dangerous monster, and his gold turns worthless. It is curious that at the same time No Face is dispensing his illusory largess to the crowd, Haku (transformed into a dragon, the very embodiment of Asian power) is being attacked by pieces of blank paper, signs of empty credit.
And where does Chihiro fit into this? Upon her arrival at the bathhouse, Chihiro must demand her right to work for Yubaba, and Yubaba is bound, by some mysterious economic magic that overrides her own formidable powers, to oblige. Chihiro's name (which means "a thousand fathoms," suggesting her potential depth and fitting nicely with her consistent connection to water in the film) is transformed into Sen, or "a thousand," suggesting her immersion in the faceless masses of workers, like the shadow commuters on the train late in the film (watch the shadow girl on the train platform, perhaps another Chihiro that did not make it out). In this sense, Chihiro's altruism, her willingness to help others, is disruptive to the system. Consider the scene when Chihiro helps Kamaji's soot sprites with their burden of coal. Although Kamaji demands that she "finish what you started," he also berates her for disrupting the sprites' work, making them all demand her help (and doing nothing themselves). Of course, while altruism upsets the traditional economic stability of the bathhouse, it also pays off positively in unexpected ways: Kamaji helps Chihiro get a job upstairs in the bathhouse by claiming she is his granddaughter. This is the first of several instances in the film where business relationships transmute into family relationships, a closer and more preferable ethical connection.
I have seen it suggested by at least one other critic that Chihiro might also represent the exploitation of women, perhaps prostitution itself. She does, after all, work in a bathhouse servicing odious customers and has her name stolen by the local "madam." Of course, the development of female power and responsibility is a common theme in Miyazaki's work (Kiki's Delivery Service) as well as satirical jabs at male authority (Porco Rosso). Note how Chihiro's father is the one who charges ahead through the tunnel and into danger. Consider here that Chihiro's two models of female power, Yubaba and Zeniba, may suggest a somewhat conservative approach on Miyazaki's part, as Yubaba's attempts to juggle executive authority (running the bathhouse) and motherhood (Boh) have turned her into a fire-breathing fiend who is jealous of the simple life of her sister (hence her attempt to steal Zeniba's identity by stealing her chop, or seal).
The stolen chop (the seal or signature that marks Zeniba's identity) leads us into the theme of the stolen name. Naming has always been a means of power in every society, and Miyazaki develops its importance throughout the film. Yubaba and Zeniba are twin sisters, two halves of a whole according to Zeniba. Boh switches places with the bobbing Kashira heads (whose name literally means, you guessed it, "head"). No Face has no clear identity, half spectral and eager to please whomever treats him kindly. And, of course, there is the central conflict of the story: Chihiro's transformation into Sen and her struggle to remember her name.
Well, that looks like a good start. Certainly, there are many other possibilities here. And Spirited Away is without a doubt a beautiful and thoroughly watchable film without considering any metaphors at all. Chihiro is realistic enough—just watch how she squirms down the outdoor stairs to get to Kamaji's boiler room—to anchor this world in spite of its weirdness. Watch the faces of the characters as the "Stink God" enters the building. Miyazaki has given his world a visceral quality that takes on the substance of a live-action film, while always keeping in balance that universality that good animation has, that ability for an audience anywhere to identify with the experiences of the characters. Spirited Away works so well because, examined through any facet, it still shines.
In order to present Miyazaki's film to American audiences, Disney decided to make an even more thorough effort than with his last picture, Princess Mononoke (which featured an English script by Neil Gaiman). So they handed the project over to Pixar's John Lasseter, a longtime friend and fan of Miyazaki. He hired a strong voice cast and put veteran animation director Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast and Atlantis, which showed a marked Miyazaki influence) in charge of preparing them. The English dub, with Daveigh Chase as Chihiro, Jason Marsden as Haku, and Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba and Zeniba, is quite successful. The English script sticks pretty close to the original (although it plays up the budding romance between Chihiro and Haku a little too much, considering her age) and is mostly free of the sometimes overdone exposition that filled in the silences during Disney's version of Castle in the Sky. Fortunately, Disney offers both the English and Japanese soundtracks in 5.1 Surround. Because the film is so new and was produced digitally, the anamorphic print is flawless.
Like all of Disney's new Miyazaki DVD releases, Spirited Away comes packaged on a double disc set. Unlike Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away though, the extras here do not seem so superfluous.
Well, except for John Lasseter's one-minute introduction to the film, which does not say much other than to tell kids how lucky they are to watch the movie. I know Lasseter is a huge fan, but this is unnecessary gushing. The behind-the-scenes featurette on Disc One, called "The Art of Spirited Away," is surprisingly substantive however, offering tantalizing clues to first time viewers on how to interpret the film, along with appearances by Lasseter, the voice cast, and Hayao Miyazaki himself. The program even includes a long and candid discussion of the translation process, acknowledging some of the cultural hurdles Don and Cindy Hewitt (the American screenwriters) faced working on the project.
Like the packaging, the featurette was produced before Spirited Away deservedly won its Oscar. How ironic that Disney, the king of marketing, did not get an opportunity to exploit that selling point. Of course, the featurette also does not mention how Disney shafted this film at the box office, releasing it to only 150 theaters (I had to drive 70 miles to see it) and criminally underpromoting it. Disc One also features an Easter egg: a brief interview with Miyazaki and Lasseter at the North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Disc Two begins with a six-minute featurette on the American dubbing sessions, as the cast chats about the difficulties in performing within the limitations of the existing film. This is more detailed than the similar featurettes on the other Miyazaki discs, plus you get to hear David Ogden Stiers say "booger." The difficulties the American cast faced in postsynching the film are amusingly similar to the postsynch recording sessions shown on the 42-minute Nippon Television special on the making of Spirited Away. Miyazaki talks about the real life inspiration behind Chihiro (a friend's daughter whom Miyazaki found "a typically indifferent and unsociable child") and other characters and situations in the film. We see the Studio Ghibli crew laboring under time constraints (the film's production was terribly rushed—although that is never evident from the finished product) and technical hurdles. No Disney studio footage ever showed Walt telling his animators to "get the lead out." Or showed him cooking for his exhausted staff. This documentary, in Japanese with subtitles, follows the film from design to animation to sound recording and music (both Joe Hisaishi's orchestral score and the ethereal Yumi Kimura song that closes the picture) in great detail.
We also get a single storyboard-to-scene comparison (use your angle button to switch) for the opening 10 minutes of the film. More would be welcome here, particularly since the other Miyazaki films released by Disney at the same time contained complete storyboards. Disney also throws in 30 (!) minutes of Japanese trailers for the film. They may get a little redundant, but they should give you some idea of the enormous media blitz that accompanies a Studio Ghibli film in Japan.
Given the huge success of this film in Japan and elsewhere in the world, where it made over $200 million before even entering the United States, can you imagine the lines that are going to form next year for Howl's Moving Castle? With each new film, Miyazaki threatens to retire out of sheer exhaustion, but he has far too much talent to keep to himself. Hayao Miyazaki is an international treasure.
Spirited Away is not just the best animated film of 2002, it is the best film of 2002, period. And perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying animated films ever made, in terms of both its visual splendor and thematic depth. It will amaze kids with its cornucopia of surprises—and the fact that it never talks down to them and gives them a role model more realistic than any live-action Disney Channel show. It will give adults plenty to talk about—artistically, politically, and philosophically—for years to come. When Uncle Walt built Disneyland, he wanted a place where children and adults could play together, for, as Miyazaki says, "the people who used to be ten years old and the people who are going to be ten years old." The world of Spirited Away is one of those places, a Disneyland on screen, a palace of wonders.
Sen's contract is rendered voided by this court, and her name is hereby returned to her. All others in thrall to Yubaba are released. Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio Ghibli crew, and John Lasseter's American production team are rewarded with a vacation to the best bathhouse in both worlds. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Introduction by John Lasseter
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.