Thoughts on "Spirited Away"

(Winner of the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Feature! -3/03)

I normally don't write essays about anime movies - since I usually can't just flip to, say, page 38 and make sure I understood the scene - nor do I usually write reviews after just one viewing.

I think I'll make an exception for "Spirited Away" ("Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi").

I Went in with Doubts, But...

To be honest, when I first heard the premise, I was a bit horrified. When I was a sensitive little kid, the thought of watching a movie in which one's omniscient and nigh omnipotent parents were transformed into ... pigs ... would've been far, far too much for me to take. And then for me the little kid to have to save them ... whew, scary. And for me as an adult, the idea of having to do nasty menial thankless labor for a bunch of literal monsters at a Japanese bath house - whoa, even scarier!

Also, to be honest, there were flaws with this film - the last thirty minutes seemed a bit rushed and one can't help but wonder what important footage was left "on the cutting room floor." (What does that hairband do?)

But boy, when I saw "Spirited Away" (subtitled, in a local Boston theater, thankfully without having seen any trailers), I did not want the movie to end. I wanted it to keep going. And it wasn't just because the love interest had some serious SA from a Japanese shojo point of view.

Why Is It A Good Movie?

Why did I wish the movie would just keep going and not end? I think it's because Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli do certain things really well, things they did especially well in this film. These things are:

It should be no surprise that this last point was, in fact, one of Miyazaki's goals - as can be seen from some of the quotes above. [It should also be no surprise to anyone who knows my writing that it's one of the big points of this essay.] If, as C. S. Lewis once observed, it is in trying to tell the truth that true originality is born, no wonder Miyazaki's works sometimes seem like the ultimate in constructive creativity. Here in the US, I think far too often we get films that are merely trying to be different and new, and hence only manage to be trendy (not to mention all the films made because they are sequels and hence guaranteed profit). What we have with Studio Ghibli, however, are timeless films that tell little pieces of truth in as truthful manner as possible - where fantasy is surely a great technique for conveying parables - and hence we get magic.

Cultural Barriers

Of course, I do wonder how much the cultural barrier may impede the free-flow of understanding. Among the perhaps hundred examples I could choose from.... If you've never been to a Japanese traditional inn, or a public bath house (or even just a private Japanese bath), the ambiance of the bath house where our heroine works might be a tad off-putting. The signs hanging all over the bath house would make more sense and be less intimidating if one knew they bore the kanji for "Oil" (the name of the bath house) - and the same for the big curtain out front that had the hiragana "yu" as the traditional indication of hot baths. Seeing people sleeping in their futons, like mounds of fabric laid side by side on the floor, may also strike the Western eye as a bit bizarre and perhaps even quaint. As for personal appearances, I know one person who saw the film was negatively impressed by the love interest's sort-of medieval haircut - to which I was luckily inoculated by having read enough Japanese manga where some boys (usually the highly traditional/old-fashioned ones) do, in fact, have that hair style. And last but not least, the whole concept of gods and spirits and nature deities, so very Asian (and in this case so very Shinto), is probably anathema to any conservative Christian.

Behind the Cultural Barriers

But aside from these aspects, which I would argue we could put aside for now as being more cultural than anything, what do we see of the characters and story? We see a 10-year old girl getting dumped head-first into the world of business and work contracts and corporate hierarchy and profit-seeking - and yet, despite all this, somehow managing to remember the important things: kindness, selflessness, dedication, and the desire to help others. We further see the ripple effect of kindness as her influence reaches out to touch other people, from the smallest soot spirits up to the big CEO boss-hag herself. We see examples of peace and friendship and humble-but-happy living contrasted with the busy-but-lonely existences of the greedy and worried. We get our fair share of moral warnings, too: we see the dangers of being spoiled and powerful (the dangers to both the spoiled person and his victims); we see the dangers of throwing away our identity in the pursuit of power and knowledge; we see the dangers of being so focused on greed and gain that we risk losing not just life but our soul. And, of course, we see how compassion can save those endangered souls.

And it is a complex story, too, as Miyazaki points out, with those deliberate analogies made between our heroine's story and the real world existence around many of us adults ("Spirited Away is also, surprisingly, one of the best films made about entering the work force" Chris Lanier, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02) - and anyone who has studied corporate anywhere knows the good and bad intermixed with capitalism. Plus, following the tradition of good anime in showing the three-dimensional depth and humanity of villians, even the short-tempered and threatening head of the bath house is not "just" evil. ("She's having a hard time managing the bath house; she has many employees, a son, and her own desires, and she is suffering because of those things. So I don't intend to portray her as a simple villain," says Miyazaki at's translated interview.)

So ... there is no slaying of evil (except for stepping on one nasty little bug). There is no sword fighting to vanquish the CEO. There is no destroying the Death Star of divine bath houses. No - that would be the equivalent of teaching children that the right way to deal with corporate frustration is to rise up and shoot the bad president with a gun. That's not how life works (at least, not how it should work), and that's not what Miyazaki teaches, and that's not how the heroine of the movie works either. Everything must be done with dignity, perseverence, and quiet fortitude - the way of peace, kindness, integrity, self-discipline, and courage.

Gee ... peace, kindness, integrity, self-discipline, courage ... these sound sort of almost... well... spiritual.

We're Back to Spirituality - the Quiet Kind

Thus, stripped of its cultural roots - as much as they were deeply and deliberately planted to ground the Japanese viewers - the film at its heart is about spiritual values, and moreover, the practical application of spirituality in the adult working world. It's about holding fast to one's soul in the midst of a dirty, polluted, beautiful, mixed-up universe. It's almost like an aikido allegory of bringing peace and harmony without violence - an almost religious parable showing how to turn the other cheek for the sake of others, how to treat even one's enemies with compassion and dignity, and how to give oneself up for the sake of others. ("One... savors the worldview that seeps through [the film], which is an eminently kind one." "[It's the heroine's] denial of self, more than any precociousness or bravado, that allows her to succeed...." Chris Lanier, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02)

Sure, it's about good versus evil, but this is a quiet, humble, yet unyielding good. No loud flashy fireworks of goodness here - no macho posturing, no explosions, no wreaking vengeance. And also no sugary sweet goodness, no sticky syrup of niceness, no "and knowing is half the battle" trite packaging of morality. Just Good doing its quiet job and causing its usual ripple effect of positive changes and renewed hope. The only fireworks are of the invisible kind - the kind not seen by the eye but by the mind and heart.

...Come to think of it, I guess one big reason I wanted the film to last longer was to see more of the "fruit" of the heroine's labors - the change in atmosphere, the new light in people's eyes, the hope of reconciliation and understanding, the continuation of new friendships, and the newly-catalyzed growth and maturing of interesting characters. One can't help but think that, should more people take up the heroine's selfless, caring attitude, the entire realm they inhabit might someday become a cleaner, brighter, more pleasant place.

But Does It Work in the Real World?

("It's something so culturally alien to mainstream American entertainment, it comes across as revelatory: a heroine who ascends into the world on steps of renunciation." Chris Lanier, Animation World Magazine, 10/01/02)

Will adults get it? Some of the articles suggested that adults may have more problems understanding this film than the children. Certainly American audiences may fall away against the impressive facade of Japanese cultural imagery and symbolism. But even if only half the children who view this film "get it" - well, let me just say I have one more tiny little bit of hope for the future of society - both Easten and Western.


E. Izawa, 2002.

P.S. (For Fall 2002) If you have a chance to see this film in the US theaters and can afford to do so, I hope you will go see it. If nothing else, it may encourage Disney to make accessible more Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films to the American public.

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