Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Miyazaki's Spirited Away

I’ve only seen this film once, so I may be fuzzy on some of the details, but I think that this film is, in it’s way, as great as Pinocchio. I never thought I’d say that about a new animated film.

As with all Miyazaki films, the animation adheres to a different approach than the North American model. There’s not a lot of stretch and squash. The designs are not nearly as appealing as the Fred Moore school. The acting is subdued. However, within their own approach, there’s the same interest in the psychology of the characters and it’s built on observation. Early in the film, Chihiro nervously twists the bottom of her shirt with both hands as she tries to stop her parents from exploring the bathhouse area. It’s a gesture that communicates without being cliché.

I’ve always thought that Pinocchio was the greatest Disney film because of the internal symbolism that reinforces the film’s structure. Spirited Away takes the same approach. Practically everything in the film is echoed in another way. The film is full of doubles. The doubles are either different versions of the same issues or are examples of growth from one to the other.

Chihiro takes two journeys. One into the bathhouse and one to Granny’s house. In the first case, water stops her from returning. In the second, she willingly goes knowing that the train can only take her one way and that she’ll have to cross the water on the way back.

On the journey to Granny’s, she takes the monster No-Face with her, even though the monster appears threatening. She intuitively understands that the monster has to be removed from the bathhouse environment in order to return to its natural temperament. This foreshadows Chihiro being able to do the same for her parents.

Chihiro has to cross the bridge to the bathhouse with Haku, who tells her that she can’t breathe until she gets across. She fails. When leaving the bathhouse, Haku tells her that she can’t look back until she is through the tunnel. Here she succeeds.

Everyone in the bathhouse has two names: their real one and the one given to them by Yubaba. Their real names represent control over their own lives. Yubaba’s name is an emblem of their servitude.

There are two babies in the film. Chihiro herself, starting out in the womb of the car and reluctant to leave it, and Yubaba’s baby, who has never left his room. In each case, the babies go into the wider world, are transformed into something else (Chihiro into Sen and Yubaba’s baby into a mouse) and then return to their original forms more in command and less afraid. Both babies are introduced to work and thrive on it: Chihiro in the bathhouse and the mouse baby working a spinning wheel.

There are two river spirits who have ingested items that poison them. Chihiro is able to take out the items and return the spirits to their pure form.

Yubaba has a twin sister who is the opposite in temperament.

The central tension in the film is between selfishness and love. It starts out with Chihiro’s parents ignoring her fears and satisfying their own curiosity about what they think is an abandoned theme park. After that, they ignore Chihiro’s pleas to leave and gorge themselves on food, which results in them turning into pigs. I don’t know if this is an homage to the Pleasure Island sequence of Pinocchio, but it easily could be.

The bathhouse is a place where various gods are served, but not due to religious devotion. They are served for profit. The river god mistaken for a stink god is barely tolerated and the lowliest employee, Chihiro, is sent to serve him. No Face, a monster, is treated like royalty when it appears that he can conjure up unlimited amounts of gold. The staff cares nothing about what is best for No Face so long as they can get at his money. Only when their greed literally causes No Face to consume them do they change their attitude.

Towards the end, Haku tells Yubaba that something she values highly has been replaced and she hasn’t noticed. The first thing she looks at is a pile of No Face’s gold, not at her nearby baby.

Chihiro moves from fear to love. She returns kindness with kindness and takes risks to improve the lot of others. This is what enables her to save her parents and escape Yubaba’s clutches. This is the moral of the movie. You’ve got to look beyond your own fears and selfish desires and be concerned with those around you. Miyazaki is urging people to fully engage in their lives and not be self-centered or hide from experience.

Beyond the structure and the symbolism, there’s a level of invention here that is rare in animated films. The only two Disney films that might compare are The Three Caballeros and Alice in Wonderland. The problem with each of these films is that the inventiveness is not tied to theme or plot. While they are entertaining, they entertain solely on the surface. Spirited Away constantly amazes, yet each new thing ties in with the film’s meaning.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think that Miyazaki’s body of work is superior to any other feature animation director’s with the possible exception of the pre-war Disney films. While there are contemporary animated feature directors I admire, like John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Nick Park, none of these people has produced as much work as Miyazaki (who admittedly is older) or produced work with as much depth. In some ways, there’s Miyazaki and then there’s everybody else.