I have watched Spirited Away more times than I can count, and each time I notice new details. I’m not sure how I never noticed before today the way Haku steps out of his shoes as he steps up into the bath house of the spirits while another of Yubaba’s servants scoops them up for him. The witch Yubaba’s bath house is a place of greed and corruption, but customs, manners and rules matter — as our heroine Chihiro learns during her sojourn in the spirit world.
No film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre haunts me like Spirited Away. One reason is the evocation of a seemingly impenetrable, incalculable world with rhythms and rituals that seem all the more opaque and unnerving because they are routine and transparent to those that are of that world.
It begins with night falling on Chihiro in the first act, stranding her in the spirit world and separating her from her parents until the denouement. Chihiro’s family have taken a wrong turn — some mysterious magic has drawn them by turns to what her father takes for an abandoned theme park, where they nevertheless find, in a deserted street of empty restaurants, heaping platters of food — and then suddenly on the bridge before the bath house is Haku, alarmed by Chihiro’s presence. If he is alarmed, there is every reason for alarm, even if we don’t know why.
All at once the sun is setting and the shadows lengthen with uncanny speed, and when the paper lanterns above the street of what had seemed a ghost town begin to glow, clearly it is too late. The ghost town is waking up … and the ghosts are coming out.
The transformation that befalls Chihiro’s parents, frightening as it is to her, has precedents in classical mythology, literature and even anime. Then, though, comes a moment unlike any other I have ever encountered in fiction. A riverboat steams up to the banks of a river that wasn’t there while the sun shone — and all the cabin doors open at once. The first time I saw the film I thought: Nothing explicable can come out of those doors. And I was right.
The whole nightfall sequence reminds me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which threatens to turn the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. “
That is what haunts me, to begin with, about Spirited Away: that dreamlike sense of events so charged with ineffable significance that everything hovers on the brink of unguessable revelations of terror or wonder. It is most overwhelming in that nightfall sequence, but it recurs throughout the film: when Chihiro first arrives at Yubaba’s apartments; at the cleansing of the supposed stink spirit; when Chihiro remembers a key piece of information about Haku.
Spirited Away was the first Miyazaki I ever saw in its entirety, and I wasn’t ready for it. On the one hand, I was blown away by its imaginative power and visual richness. It is one of the most gorgeous animated films I have ever seen — and so varied in its moods and imagery: the hellish glare and dancing shadows and sparks of the boiler room with its spider-like attendant Kamaji; Yubaba’s fabulously rococo apartments with her immense Satsuma-ware vases, deep carpets and velvet upholstery; the arresting sight of the spirit-world train skimming the surface of a shallow sea; and of course the endless riot of creatures and faces.
On the other hand, I was daunted what seemed to me a chilly, disturbing world of randomly shifting realities, with characters who vacillate between benign and dangerous, seemingly without explanation. It was a world, I felt, untouched by grace.
I was wrong. There’s nothing random or contradictory about the characters, and while the grace at work in Chihiro’s adventures is subtle, it’s all the more powerful for that.
If any Miyazaki protagonist needs grace, it’s Chihiro. The film begins with an unflattering portrait of a contemporary urban Japanese family en route to their new house in the suburbs. Chihiro, unhappy about the move, is whiny, petulant and lethargic. (Unlike nearly all anime heroines, Chihiro is intentionally not cute or perky; even when her attitude improves, she never threatens to become a stereotyped genki girl, a cheerfully enthusiastic bundle of energy.)
Somehow they wind up on a wooded dirt road, and Chihiro gazes curiously at a heap of birdhouse-sized stone structures that her mother must tell her are shrines (hokura). Chihiro has no cultural connection to her country’s spiritual traditions — nor, really, do her parents. They’re crassly materialistic: Chihiro’s father’s faith is in his Audi’s four-wheel drive and in his wallet. The frontier of the spirit world he can only banally perceive as a failed monument to capitalism. And in the end he thinks only with his stomach.
Though spiritually and culturally rootless, Chihiro’s youthful sensitivity and imagination serve her better, and she instinctively avoids the fate that befalls her parents. Instinct alone, though, will not be enough to navigate the bewildering gauntlet she now faces.
Happily, in the first place, there is Haku, whom we learn has a mysterious connection to Chihiro (perhaps this connection is partly responsible for the magic that pulls Chihiro and her family into the spirit world). Haku protects and guides Chihiro, telling her what to eat, when to breathe, and how to survive in the spirit world — namely, to be willing to work hard, and to keep asking for work.
“Hard work” isn’t just a pretty idea. The bath house, where nature spirits or deities (kami) venerated in Shinto come to be refreshed, is no place for a human. Chihiro struggles to keep up with her nonhuman coworkers, and nearly everyone is hostile at first, or at least wary of letting down their guard and showing sympathy.
In time, though, persistence, good manners, and victories small and great win Chihiro growing support — first from the spiderlike boiler-man Kamaji, then from the wary young female Lin, and ultimately, in her great triumph with the stink spirit, from nearly everyone in the bath house.
Empathy and kindness also win Chihiro the devotion of the enigmatic, mercurial outsider No-Face, and he too repays her in kind — though for those who lack those qualities of empathy and kindness the consequences are disastrous.
No-Face embodies the film’s larger theme of identity crisis. Haku has forgotten his real name and identity, and periodically undergoes a dramatic, potentially dangerous transformation. Chihiro — whose name Yubaba truncates as “Sen” — nearly forgets her own name and becomes someone else. (The film’s Japanese title speaks of “Chihiro and Sen” as if they were two different people.) Yubaba’s identity is fragmented, split between herself and her more benevolent twin sister Zeniba (though neither is wholly good or bad).
Lurking behind this theme of identity crisis is an elegy for traditional Japanese identity and the erosion of modern Japan’s ties to its cultural and spiritual roots and even its landscape. For Miyazaki, Japanese culture, like Chihiro’s family, has been compromised by materialism, lethargy, and consumer culture. In an astonishingly poetic twist on Miyazaki’s characteristic environmentalist concerns, there are two river spirits, and though neither river is seen, one is startlingly revealed to have become grossly polluted, while the other has been drained and paved over to make way for apartment buildings.
Without in any way idealizing the bath house, Spirited Away gives Chihiro a chance to connect to her nation’s roots. She exchanges her modern Western wear for traditional Japanese garb, and communes with kami, spirits of the natural world. This is a world in which knowing the right ritual gesture or formula can be useful.
As elsewhere, Miyazaki borrows inspiration from Japan’s Shinto heritage (for example, the floating masks from the opening riverboat scene were inspired by paper masks used in ceremonies at the Kasuga shrine in Nara), though the specifics are generally from his own imagination.
Spirited Away is as much a work of pagan imagination as the works of Homer and Sophocles — and if Miyazaki isn’t actually an animist, it’s an open question whether Homer and Sophocles actually believed in the deities of the Greek pantheon. In any case, Christian audiences have long marveled at the artistry of Homer and Sophocles, and there is much to marvel at in Miyazaki as well.
The taproot of Miyazaki’s creative impulse here is less a specific religious vision than a quest to re-enchant the world — a crusade that runs through all of Miyazaki’s work. It’s the same reason, at least in part, that C.S. Lewis put river-gods and tree spirits into Narnia. Of course Lewis explicitly subordinated his pagan deities to the sovereignty of Aslan — but at least part of the point of this exercise, for Lewis, was to sanctify the imaginative enjoyment of river-gods and tree spirits, wherever we are lucky enough to encounter them.
The denouement is ambiguous: What if anything does Chihiro gain from her experiences? Although the English dub softens the blow, it appears that Chihiro, like her parents, has lost her memories of her sojourn in the spirit world (an interpretation Miyazaki has confirmed).
But then, Chihiro forgot Haku once before, and later remembered him. “Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can’t remember it,” Zeniba reassures Chihiro as she struggles to recall how she knows Haku (and Miyazaki has also indicated that Chihiro hasn’t necessarily lost her memories forever). And, after all, Haku has promised Chihiro that they will meet again.
Her hair band, too, remains as a token of the friends she has left behind, but that will always in some way be with her. Perhaps this is a good way to express the power of Spirited Away: It feels like the movie is trying to remind us of something we once knew, and have forgotten.
Note on age appropriateness: Some scenes in Spirited Away might be too intense for sensitive youngsters.