And her parents were worried
that she might not make friends.
If you read the entirety of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and then took a lot of mescaline, you might hallucinate something a lot like Spirited Away, the new movie from Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki's films have often ranged wide for their inspiration, but here he seems to have raided the folklore of nearly every culture in the northern hemisphere and compressed what he found into a Japanese mold. The result is a movie that is weird, beautiful, and totally unique.
Ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents are driving to their new home in a strange town when Dad decides to take a shortcut through the woods. The unpaved road ends at a wall with an opening for a tunnel. Mom and Dad decide to see what lies through it, despite Chihiro's protests. On the other side they find a beautiful landscape and an empty (but excellently maintained) village made entirely of restaurants. Dad maintains that it is an abandoned theme park, and when they find an unattended eatery stocked with heaps of food, Mom and Dad begin eating with abandon.
"We needed a job after Totoro wrapped filming."
Anyone who has ever read stories dealing with fairies or lands of magic knows that this is a mistake. One might as well be in a horror movie and say "I'll be right back" before crawling down a dark hole. In fairy tales you should never go down the unknown path, and you should never accept free food or gifts of any kind. And never, ever tell anyone your real name. Got the rules down? Good. Next time you get that tingly feeling in the back of your neck and the colors in the forest look a little too vibrant, you'll be prepared for the do's and don'ts.
After a brief exploration of the village, Chihiro returns to find that her parents have made pigs of themselves. Literally. Running in terror from her now-porcine parentals, Chihiro finds the sun fading fast and the town streets stalked by shadowy ghosts. Unable to find a way out, she comes upon Haku, a young man who has some degree of magical power in this strange realm. Haku instructs her to run to the bowels of the biggest building in the village and find someone named Kamajii, then ask him for a job.
When Yubaba said heads would
roll, she meant it.
The large building is a bathhouse, and Kamajii runs the furnace that keeps the water warm. Coal is dumped into the furnace by cute little soot sprites, close cousins of the dust bunnies from My Neighbor Totoro. When Chihiro carries a piece of coal for one of the overburdened sprites she endears herself to Kamajii, and he tells her to go to the top of the bathhouse and meet with Yubaba, the witch who rules the village. On the way up, Chihiro discovers who the bathhouse's clients are: the eight million gods who live on Japan.
Yubaba, like all the inhabitants of the realm, is not human. While she has all the right parts, her head is about ten times too big. If you're familiar with Captain America comics, think M.O.D.O.K. She uses her magical powers mostly to make money, and by stealing pieces of her employees' names (creating new ones in the process) she keeps them enslaved. She gives Chihiro the new handle of Sen (a play on words that doesn't really translate into English) and sets her to work.
Chihiro hastily retracted her
comments about the
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Chihiro's tale becomes one of perseverance, courage, and simple kindness. She must not only survive the rigors of working in the bathhouse, but also find a way to return her parents to normal before they are ulp eaten. Doing that may well require solving the puzzle behind Haku's presence in the village. Is he Yubaba's servant or her secret enemy? And what about the mysteriously familiar dragon who can be seen occasionally, flying over the bathhouse walls?
Hayao Miyazaki's last film, Princess Mononoke, seems straightforward and almost heavyhanded when compared to Spirited Away. The environmental messages in particular are subtler in this picture, and perhaps they are more effective for it. Mononoke presented us with the physical embodiment of a forest and its overt destruction at the hands of humanity, but Spirited Away allows the gods of nature to relate directly to people even to the extent of feeling affection for a young human girl. If the goal is to teach youngsters respect for the elements of nature, what better way to do it than to give those elements faces and personalities? Chihiro's encounter with a river god early in her bathhouse career is the first obvious example of this, but it later becomes apparent that people and the natural world around them have lifelong relationships as important as those between humans.
"But I'm not interested in
tickets to Mummenschanz!"
It's pretty clear that Miyazaki, a traditionalist man living in the thick of Pokemon culture, has something to say about parenting, too. Yubaba's child Bou is a big baby and we mean just that, a big baby. (About eight feet tall, and he lives in what looks like the nursery from Akira!) Yubaba is no shrimp, but we're thinking Bou's delivery happened via a massive C-section. The message behind this character seems obvious, and it could have been played as a single joke, but Miyazaki allows Bou to develop as a character by taking him through some rather dramatic changes. Chihiro's adventure is the better for it.
Bou is hardly the only example of the film's exploration of the relationships between children, their parents, and the world. At the beginning of the picture, Chihiro is distanced from her parents by the fact that they don't seem to take her seriously even when she is the only person talking sense. In interviews, Miyazaki has said there was a real-life inspiration for the character who was similarly disaffected. At the bathhouse our young heroine is set apart from her colleagues by the fact that she is human and they aren't. (Apparently, humans smell bad to those who live in the spirit world.) Chihiro's entire journey is a discovery of who she is and how that person relates to the larger world. She must rely on herself to find the way home.
It would be a long and
arduous search, but they would
not rest until they had found and
killed the idiot boy and his
ridiculous pink dragon.
We have made it sound as if Miyazaki has made a film full of messages, and while that is true, the picture is never didactic or boring. All of the morals are communicated with extreme delicacy, and a simple shrug from a mouse in this film holds as much meaning as a five-minute speech from a character in a movie made for adults. It will delight children, amuse the grownups who watch it with them, and confirm the feeling that Miyazaki is one of today's greatest film directors.
Beyond the story, Spirited Away is visually intense. While the animation may never be quite as fluid as the much more expensive Disney films of today, The animators create a complete world in both the characters and the meticulous backgrounds. It's rare to see a fantasy world so compellingly real or detailed. The characters are as varied as we've seen in any film, from the almost feline dragon to the Chihiro's down-to-earth parents and back to the bouncing disembodied heads who live in Yubaba's lair. And although Studio Ghibli eschewed computer animation for years, Spirited Away follows the example set by Princess Mononoke in making judicious use of seamless, superb computer animation that complements the hand-drawn elements instead of overwhelming them.
There was much grumbling by some J.R.R. Tolkien fans when Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring focused mainly on the adventure elements of the book. Many of the story's quieter, more endearing moments were jettisoned for the sake of running time, and though some of them will be restored in the "special edition" DVD, the first film failed to capture the flavor of Tolkien's work entirely because it could not include the minute but important bits of character development. Miyazaki's film, on the other hand, has the advantage of fewer characters and less interference from dollar-driven studio executives, so it achieves an exquisite balance between epic action and touching emotional moments. Spirited Away is a masterpiece.