For my last review in Miyazaki March (here’s all other posts for Me, all over the place ‘s Miyazaki March) we will discuss one of Hayao Miyazaki’s finest Studio Ghibli movies: Spirited Away. If you were waiting for this to happen: Finally! If not: Awesome! Because finally we arrive at Miyazaki’s arguably most awesome animation feature. But let me elaborate.
Yeah, yeah, we all know it: This 2001 released feature won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale Film Fest and later snatched an Oscar for best animated movie. It cemented Studio Ghibli’s reputation as The Animation Studio of Japan and of Hayao Miyazaki as The Animation Director. It became the highest grossing film in Japan ever and made a shitload of money internationally, while critics loved it and continue to love. The hell, I love it.
There is nothing about Spirited Away that bugs me. Everything about it feels right and in place and if I were to tell you about parts that I am critical about I would have to crack my brain, cause from the top of my head, I cannot think of One. Fucking. Thing. And seriously, how amazing is that? What a treasure of a movie must it be for me to not find anything in it that I have a problem with?
The gods who come to be guests of the bathhouse are fantastic. I love the cultural depth of it, without having ever really delved into it, but hey, gotta save some fun for later, right? I get the sense that they are gods and obviously we meet two river gods that inform us about their “function”. What is so wonderful about them is how different they all look, how ridiculous some of them look (giant chicks, anyone?) and how the movie is all like: of course these gods wanna have a good time in the bathhouse, y’all. I enjoy watching the “stink spirit” with the protruding bubbles of immense stinkery and how he turns into that slightly creepy river god. And I love love love how Chihiro just takes the gift her gives her and is grateful without having the slightest clue what these drab, brown ball might actually be.
Talking about river gods we need to talk about Haku. Oh, Haku. How you are a dragon, but also not, because you are a river god. How you could be portrayed as a love interest, but are not, because you are a loyal friend. How you could be a simple character, but are not, because you’re complex and you need to be to both survive the situation and help those who do not know how to survive it. Can this boy do any wrong? And okay, here is maybe one thing that I can whine about when talking about Spirited Away: The whole “we’ve met before, remember?” plot device felt a little contrived and I feel the story would have at least equally worked if it had been left out. But it’s nothing really. And it is totally made up for by my favorite song of the super-amazing soundtrack: The Dragon Boy. That shit is a film score, children, and you better appreciate.
Supporting characters are of course of major importance for a film to work perfectly and with Spirited Away we encounter an awesome array of memorable supports. I love the portrayal of Chihiro’s parents, I love Lin (and all the obviously yet curiously non-human staff at the bath-house (seriously though, what are they??)), the frog, love grumpy Kamaji and heart with all my might those little soot-ball beings. I think Boh, the Yubaba-like bird and the three jumping heads are hilarious characters and I especially love how Boh re-enacts the scene of Chihiro crushing the black slug coming out of Haku’s body.
Then there is Yubaba. And amazing she is. Seriously, her looks alone win her ten points. Her whole damn behaviour and how she is, after all, still a pretty decent sort of being who is trying to play loosely by the rules, trying to make a profit. While she is sort of a villain for both Chihiro and Haku, I never get the sense that there is real ill will against either of them involved and in the end, neither of them is really furious at her for what she does. Plus, there is the mystery of Zeniba. Is that really her twin sister or is it just another very different aspect of the same person? It is also interesting that Yubaba is portrayed as both large and in charge, yet motherly, cunning and business focused, yet capable of empathy and sorrow. Despite seemingly being a caricature and a simplified female villain, Yubaba is actually quite a complex character, very reminiscent of Dola of The Castle in the Sky with her tough exterior concealing a compassionate interior.
Talking about quasi-villains, there is of course No Face. It is not that we do not see a face, at first it is pretty much all we see of it. But it really is a mask, and even as such does not seem to be placed on the body where the face actually is. But that’s all just the name, what is really amazing is how No Face is both a villain that turns out to be someone in need of an understanding friend and how it remains this mysterious being throughout, its background and history never once explained, without the story suffering from it in any way. No Face can be interpreted as a lot of things. On the surface level it is a spirit that seeks for something more meaningful than earthly possessions and realizes that these cannot fulfil the longing it has for this something else. Turns out it is somebody understanding it and taking care, which in itself is after all no fluffy and mindless concept, but gets even more complicated because it is so closely tied to the character of Chihiro. No Face could just be after her, because she was nice to it, but despite that being plausible, it still begs the question in how far No Face is a reflection of the beings populating the bath-house or even of Chihiro’s feelings. Plus, No Face enables Chihiro to prove how awesome of a character she is in actually just coming around to accepting No Face as a companion because she isn’t really frightened of him.
And OH. MY. LORD. The train ride, you guys, this fucking train ride. A little like the airplane-cemetery scene in Porco Rosso the train ride is the single most amazing thing about this movie. I absolutely adore it. I love how the story goes from gross villain chasing after Chihiro to the two of them sitting right next to each other on a train that is full of people who are nothing but shadows. The whole ride is so deeply and touchingly melancholic. This devastating sense of a disconnect when looking at those shadow people realizing that these are probably just normal people. Or were normal people. Or want to be normal people. But we never know what they really are. We just now what they look like and see how their lives in the train and on the platforms looks like the lives the we are living and good gracious fuck, what does that say about us a human beings? What comment is being made, and why, if I think it is a comment, does this scene make me so profoundly sad?
Can’t handle it, folks. We should discuss this one in the comments.
Oh, isn’t it obvious how I haven’t really talked about the most important person in this movie yet? I give you: Chihiro. Yay! Of all the young girl protagonists that Miyazaki bombards us with she is my favorite, because damn. It is amazing how she is this grumpy little “don’t wanna move here” thing that seems so passive and unwilling and turns into a full-blown heroine with unlimited superpowers of acceptance, forgiveness, courage and strength. She is, in one word, admirable and it is exactly because she is never set up to be that, she just happens to react and ultimately act that way. And that is because she cares. All the beings she meets, she cares about, be it a ginormous baby, three bouncing heads, sootballs, villains or jumping lanterns. Chihiro cares about each and every one of them, doesn’t dismiss or discard them, but takes them for who and what they are and perceives an intrinsic worth and value in their existence and the mind-boggling mastery of everything amazing of this is just almost too much to bear. Chihiro is the most unlikely heroine and as such she absolutely rules and I wish I could be like that.
Whoda thunk it? With nothing to complain about, Spirited Away is simply my favorite Miyazaki movie of them all. I am hardly capable of any serious discussion because I have to verbally drool over its awesomeness and I hope you can forgive me.
If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it.
If you have, go re-watch it.