Reviewing Ghibli: Spirited Away
When I began this series of reviews last year, I intended to review this film, that holds such importance to me as a lover of movies, last.
And then Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement yesterday
Yes, I know it’s not the first time. It’s the third time, I think. But I think this one is going to stick. He’s 72 years old, and would probably be 75 or 76 should he finish another film. He has given us opuses and visual operas the likes of which we might never see again. His most recent film, The Wind Rises, is by most accounts a quiet and personal film for him. As actual retirement goes, this seems about right.
So screw it, I’m writing about Spirited Away.
And, fair warning, this is going to be a less polished piece than I usually write. This film means so many things to me that I’m not going to bother trying to tie everything into a neat thesis. I just recommend that only people who have seen the film read on, because I imagine that will help make sense of things.
Unlike Princess Mononoke, I have no trouble describing why I revere this so very deeply revered movie. And lord, is it revered. Spirited Away established Miyazaki as one of the finest filmmakers in the world in any medium. It gave him his biggest international hit (it held the world record for the highest-grossing non-English language film until The Intouchables broke it last year) and his Academy Award (still the only Animated Feature Oscar to go to an anime).
Spirited Away occupies my top tier of Ghibli films, joined by Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, and Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart.
All of these films light up different parts of my brain and my heart and my soul. Princess Mononoke inspires reflection and awe; My Neighbor Totoro, delight; Grave of the Fireflies, grief; and Whisper of the Heart warmth.
Spirited Away generates a feeling that cannot be described in a single word. Many people have attempted. Perhaps the most common word you’ve seen describing it is “enchanting”, or perhaps “beautiful” or “dazzling”. It is all of these things.
But my reverence for Spirited Away is less for its visual splendor, and more for the sense that Miyazaki achieved something totally uncanny: he made the film I had always hoped to see as a child, and never thought could actually be made, the movie that visualized my daydreams and nightmares.
He made a movie more true to the spirit of a child’s imagination than any other fantasy. He started on this path with Totoro, but to commit to it completely, he’d have to make the film scarier, bigger, more immersed in the worlds of spirits and gods and things that adults grow out of seeing. My Neighbor Totoro imagines a magical world existing alongside ours. Spirited Away tumbles headlong into its maw.
At his best, Miyazaki completely disregards the notion of the obligatory. Many films are little more than obligatory elements stitched together into two-and-a-half hours of footage. Obligatory, boring characters in an obligatory, boring story with obligatory action scenes thrown in to keep you interested even if said action is filmed with little skill or excitement.
Spirited Away is blessedly devoid of exposition. Chihiro, the heroine, doesn’t have the luxury of convenient explanations, so why should we? And what a joyful thing that is. Spirited Away is a bull rush of a movie at its outset, throwing Chihiro into a world worse than she could possibly have dreamed before, and forcing her into immediate survival mode. Within minutes of her stumbling into this world of gods and monsters, she is employed at a magical bathhouse, her parents ready to be turned to pork, and there’s no apparent way out. Your move, Chihiro.
This film shows Miyazaki in total command of his instrument. Every scene is robust and assured, moving the story forward, telling us about this world, these characters, showing us something he knows we have never seen before. Earlier this summer, I wrote about my disappointment with Monsters University, and how a good film can still be unsatisfying if it could easily have bucked convention doesn’t bother to try. Spirited Away has so little regard for the conventions that held Monsters University back, and is such an immersing experience, that it achieves greatness without seeming like it’s trying. It’s not a complicated film. Greatness often isn’t complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a vision and committing to it, without being bogged down by the particulars.
It is a dazzling film, but Miyazaki’s loving attention to detail is as crucial to its success as its grandeur. I remember talking about this film with my sister, and she mentioned how she loves one moment when Chihiro ties her hair into a ponytail. She actually ties it, her fingers working her hair through a hairband in a split second, quick but clearly visible. Miyazaki didn’t need to throw in the extra frames to make this sort of detail realistic, but finding truth in Chihiro as a character, down to the smallest actions, makes her journey through this world all the more gripping.
On numerous other occasions, I’ve spoken to people who, without prompt, mentioned a throwaway moment where Chihiro is putting on her shoes, and she taps her toe against the ground to make sure the shoe is on all the way. Miyazaki relishes these moments, which are a hallmark of Studio Ghibli animation. I mentioned before how full of movement the characters in Whisper of the Heart; their physical actions are not purely reactionary to something we can see. Much like Shizuku in that film, Chihiro is a character chock full of movement and unconstrained emotion.
It’s interesting that for a film that is easily Miyazaki’s most lauded, Spirited Away is at times his most sentimental. The film is rather unabashed about Chihiro’s deepening friendship with Haku being her primary motivation for her actions in the film’s last third. And one scene that I’ll get to in a moment is simultaneously one of the sappiest and most triumphant in any Ghibli film.
The film doesn’t lean on sentimentality, it’s just not afraid to acknowledge it when it’s appropriate. Miyazaki’s command of this story allows him to both break from the plot when he feels he needs to (defying conventional storytelling) and delve into sentimentality, knowing his story has earned it (or transcend conventional storytelling).
The film’s two best scenes are brilliant examples of this dichotomy working in tandem. The first is the oft-mentioned sequence where Chihiro and her motley crew of companions (including the legendary No-Face, who is very good at spinning thread like that) go on a train ride. This scene is a perfect illustration of storytelling detatching from the plot. As a plot point, the scene could be described as “Chihiro takes a ride on a train”. But the scene lingers, and lingers, and lingers. It acts as a visual tone poem, both eerie and soothing.
The train is full of shadowy passengers. We don’t know who they are, any more than we do the fellow commuters we might encounter on a long train ride. The train tracks are laid on top of a body of water and cut through a series of environments that show us a world much, much bigger than just the bathhouse. We pass an island with a single house on it, and many passengers come and go, all looking like clothed silhouettes. At one point, Chihiro focuses on a girl, a small shadow dressed in a pink skirt. Who are these people? We don’t know. They are just part of the world Miyazaki has constructed and he is showing them to us because, well, the film is better for it.
In the other scene, one of intense sentimentality, Chihiro suddenly remembers Haku’s name as they fly back to the bathhouse at the film’s end, which will allow him to be freed from serving Yubaba. More than that, she remembers that, as a toddler, Haku, a river god, had saved her life when she’d fallen into a river. Chihiro and Haku fall through the sky together as Joe Hisaishi’s triumphant theme plays. The scene would be corny as hell if it weren’t so completely earned. In the train scene, Miyazaki lets the film breathe. In the “name scene”, Miyazaki goes for the heartstrings, knowing it’s what we want and, more importantly, it’s what the characters deserve.
Yes, the film’s story is its driving force, but it’s the sights that linger on long after it is over. The barrage of stunning sights would seem surreal, except they continually serve logical purposes within their universe. It reminds me of how differently I perceived dreams as a child. Today, I awake from an unusual dream and think how the strangeness should have been a giveaway that it was a dream in the first place. As a child, what I dreamed while asleep was not all that different from what I perceived when I daydreamed.
Spirited Away is the film that will define Miyazaki’s career, and it’s the right one to do so. Ask ten people what their favorite Miyazaki film is, and you might very well get ten different answers. But Spirited Away is both his most universal story and the clearest, strongest demonstration of his artistic voice. Movies so often reduce the experience of children to noise and crude humor. Spirited Away speaks to truths about childhood we so often forget: that the things we know as adults are myths and fables are as real to us as children as they are to Chihiro. And it shows us that, just maybe, what scared us within our imaginations as kids might actually astound and enchant us as adults. If only we could remember what we imagined.