Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikushi)

Sen to chihiro no kamikushi

She isn't the hero we want, but she's the hero we need

dir: Hayao Miyazaki


The great difficulty in reviewing one of Miyazaki’s animated movies, compared to just watching them, is that the temptation to reel off superlative after superlative usually proves too great for the humble reviewer. Also, Miyazaki is revered to such a degree as the reincarnated Japanese alternate reality Walt Disney that everything he touches is tainted with greatness in the eyes of reviewers, humble or not.

The high praise makes latecomers come to his films with an insane level of expectation, which usually results in bewilderment when they see something like this, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbour Totoro which are different but simpler stories than what they could have expected.

Well, I’m neither a worshipper nor much of a reviewer, so it’s as easy for me to reel off expletives and superlatives as it is to watch one of his flicks and to sit there, thrilled out of my goddamn mind.

Spirited Away is a singularly beautiful experience, as similar as his other films (plucky female characters triumphing over adversity with hard work and intelligence), and as resolutely different from anything else in existence. The story mixes recognisable story dynamics with quintessentially Japanese story-telling (which doesn’t resemble at all the usual ‘hero’s journey’ Campbellian crap at all) and presents it all within the production of the
most beautifully simple and complex animation not reliant on thousands of computer geeks working in concert.

It would be a lie to say that all of the animation is hand-drawn, because it’s not. Miyazaki carefully uses CG in appropriate circumstances to create images and transitions between scenes not possible otherwise. But in every other circumstance it looks like every frame of every cell has been lovingly painted by a craftsman who loves what they’re doing.

Chihiro is a young girl travelling with her parents to their new home. She is unhappy with the move, having to leave her school and school friends behind. The sullen little minx. Her parents are a boorish pair oblivious to her moody pain.

The family car comes to rest after a wrong turn before a tunnel. The parents eagerly, the daughter reluctantly, walk through the tunnel to the other side.

They find what looks like an abandoned amusement park, which the father assumes was part of the explosion in parks that happened during the 90s boom preceding the necessary bust part of the cycle. Daddy smells some appetising aromas, and he and Mumsy track down a whole heap of tasty treats that logic would dictate should not be there, or eaten, for that matter.

Chihiro neglects to partake, and is therefore left exempt when the partaking somehow transforms her parentals into pigs for being so greedy. Big stinky pigs.

Before you know it, dark shapes start appearing everywhere, and we get the impression that the family somehow crossed over a barrier between the human world and the spirit world.

This spirit world is chock full with strange and fantastical creatures, none of which conform to the idea of goblins, fairies, elves, orcs or unicorns. Being Japanese, the spirits and gods are generally nature deities, in line with the animist aspects of the Shinto religion with a lot of Buddhist stuff thrown in for good measure.

Chihiro is very, very freaked out. It is made clear to her very early on that humans are not exactly welcome in this world. Their smell is easily picked up by the other spirits. A strange being calling himself Haku tries to help her, and leads her to an enormous bathhouse ruled by the strange Yubaba, who is a powerful witch.

Chihiro’s objective is to get her parents transformed back into people, since their current parenting skills leave something to be desired, so it is through cultivating the various denizens of the bathhouse that her goals can be achieved. Especially in terms of staying on Yubaba’s good side.

The many levelled bathhouse caters to the bathing needs of all the strange spirit denizens of their world. Herbal baths, sulphur baths, scalding hot baths, cold baths and body scrubs. As to why they need baths at all, well, I guess hygiene and relaxation is just as important in their spirit world as it is in parts of ours.

She has many adventures in this kooky, incredible place. The colours and designs of everything down to the walls and what you would think are minor elements are impeccable. The characters themselves, major and minor, are all incredibly well drawn. Chihiro always, always looks like a real person, more real than characters in CGI efforts even. The transparency of her emotions, the way her thoughts and feelings come across make you forget that you’re watching animation.

She is, above all, the perfect Miyazaki protagonist. Plucky, resourceful, polite, steadfast and considerate to the needs of all around her, she is less a character and more the ideal of what every Japanese parent wishes their child was like. She’s also a bit goofy, in an endearing way, and often falls about like a drunk toddler.

But she’s no caricature. The residents of the bathhouse mostly treat her with contempt because of her humanness, even the doorknocker insults her, but she has a few friends to help her out. There’s still the mercurial Haku, who is nice to her one second and then distant in the next. He is in thrall to Yubaba, and often does her dirty work, usually
when taking on the shape of a dragon. Chihiro and Haku are linked in a way neither of them knows until the end, and they share something beautiful together.

Also being nice to Chihiro are Lin, another spirit who looks pretty much like a regular girl but isn’t, and Kamajii, the strange, multi-armed creature, reportedly based on Miyazaki himself, who powers the bathhouse’s hot water system.

Will she achieve her objectives and come out of this strange world unscathed, or will Yubaba triumph? Will her parents be turned into bacon, or will Chihiro, with a mixture or moxie and pluckiness save the day by being smarter than the average cartoon character? You be the judge, you cynical bastard.

There are special moments and images that stand out profoundly, such as the train that runs through water, or the bath prepared for the filthy Stink Spirit, or a strange, greedy spirit called No Face who bribes obsequious compliance from the bathhouse’s attendants with lumps of gold, which Chihiro rejects, compelling No face to then go
on an eat-crazy rampage to rival anything Marlon Brando ever managed.

But for every moment you pick out, there are countless more. It’s a beautiful story, languidly told (don’t expect speedy storytelling any time you sit down to one of Miyazaki’s films), with impeccable production values and excessive attention to detail. All within the context of a sweet fantastical story about a girl doing her best in a strange world.

Part of the difficulty for Western audiences in relation to this film (and the rest) is that it doesn’t proceed in a conventional manner. Some elements seem to come out of nowhere, the deep reverence for the natural world has a unique quality, the lack of villains and plot dynamics means you’re not always sure what’s happening and why. To be honest, it’s taken me multiple viewings to actually “get” Spirited Away because the first time I watched
it, admittedly with booze in my system, I just didn’t get it.

Now, I do get it. Having watched a few more Miyazaki films along the way, I do get it: It’s about the beautiful journey along the way, not the destination you have been indoctrinated into believing should be adhered to by countless lesser films and stories.

This is rightly regarded as one of Miyazaki’s greatest gifts to us, and he deserves all the fawning accolades it has inspired. Spirited Away makes the world a slightly more beautiful place.

10 giant babies, who insist you play with them or die, out of 10

“Welcome the rich man, he's hard for you to miss. His butt keeps getting bigger, so there's
plenty there to kiss!” – Spirited Away