“In the middle of her family’s move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and monsters; where humans are changed into animals; and a bathhouse for these creatures.”
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki, Rated: PG, 125 minutes
Growing up, I was the kind of kid that never really found his place. I wasn’t necessarily an outcast or anything, but I was aimlessly wandering about, never knowing what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. Sure, being a kid means jumping from idea to idea, each day changing what you want to be “when you grow up”. First, I wanted to be a paleontologist (thanks to Jurassic Park). I learned all I could about every kind of dinosaur, even carrying around a little dino-encyclopedia everywhere I went. I wanted to be like Dr. Alan Grant, searching for fossils, wearing an awesome hat, and of course, hanging out with real dinosaurs. Then came a fascination with archaeology after my first adventures with Indiana Jones. I wanted to explore ancient ruins, discover artifacts, and fight Nazis all around the world. Then I found Batman. As one would expect, I decided I would become a superhero, fighting crime and saving the city from all sorts of danger. I mean, Bruce Wayne had money as his power (along with awesome gadgets) and I figured I could follow in those footsteps.
Looking back, everything I wanted to be was quite ambitious. As I grew older and became more aware that these adventures were the products of pop culture and movies, I realized that the actual professions surrounding these tales were not as larger than life as their fictitious counterparts. However, these childhood obsessions expanded even further as I got older and turned into an immense passion for film. I realized that while these stories were essentially fairy-tales, there were thousands of them out there. I immersed myself in the world of cinema, watching everything I could. Michael Meyers scared me like no one has before, his unearthly presence lingered outside my bedroom window. Rick Blaine showed me that a flawed hero (who doesn’t get the girl) is still as cool as any other champion of film. And a man pretending to be a pirate, all for the sake of true love, showed me that adventure is around every corner and that a revenge is a dish best served to a six fingered man. But watching was never enough. I wanted to delve deeper. I wanted to write about the movies I watched. Hell, I wanted, and still do want, to make one of my own. But I could never find the inspiration. The love was there, but the creativity would not flow.
Then I found Hayao Miyazaki. Then I found Spirited Away.
Who would have thought that a trip to a bathhouse would spark my imagination when I needed it most? Spirited Away opened me up to an entirely different world of film. Outside of Disney, I had very little experience in animation. I grew up with Aladdin, Simba, and Woody, not with Mononoke or Howl. Sure, there was a time when I was best friends with Totoro, but that was because he’s a fluffy big monster I wanted to nap on top of, not because of anything else. With Spirited Away, I became aware of the fact that animation was a style of storytelling that wasn’t limited to childish jokes or vibrant colors. When in the right hands, as it is with Miyazaki, animation can transport us to an entirely different world, full of people and places we could never even imagine. And, at the heart of it all can be a story that’s much more mature than what we’re used to and can not only genuinely scare a child (as I was upon first viewing), but can bring tears to the eyes of an adult.
Spirited Away tells the story of a young kid, who just like me, was unhappy with the situation she was in. She’s alone, in the back seat of a car as she’s on her way to a new home and new school. She’s scared but comes across as angry, and closed-minded to the idea of anything new. On the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents take a dirt road that leads to what appears to be an abandoned carnival of sorts. Her parents see a feast awaiting them and without hesitation they begin to gorge themselves, stating they’ll pay whoever it is after the meal. Chihiro’s scared but slowly wanders off, in an attempt to corral her parents back to the car. She comes across a bathhouse, that is home to a variety of spirits, some coming and going. There she meets a young boy named Haku who tells her she needs to return home before sunset, or she’ll never be able to go home. Chihiro gets caught up in all of the activity of the house and lets the time get away from her. Before she knows it, the sun is set and her parents have been turned into pigs. Terrified and alone, Chihiro gets help from Haku, who brings her to the bathhouse’s owner, Yubaba, an old witch with all sorts of tricks and spells up her sleeves. Yubaba agrees to give Chihiro a job in exchange for her name, which in the world of Spirited Away is even more powerful and important than your soul. Now called Sen, Chihiro works at the bathhouse until she can figure out a way to not only save her parents, but return home.
With dragons, witchcraft, river spirits, and more, Spirited Away‘s realm is that of magic and wonder. At every stretch and turn of Sen’s journey we encounter all sorts of wonderful creatures and beings that inhabit the bathhouse. It’s a wonderful place, really, and while Sen’s job is to clean (as we all know, spirits can be quite messy), it still seems like one fun spot to make a stop at on our way to the after-life. It’s vibrant, full of life, ironically, and is really an attack on all of our senses. Spirited Away may be an animated film, but it still manages to engage us completely, making us sweat as the steam rises and salivate at the sight of delicious looking food. We really feel like we’re in the bathhouse ourselves, eating a feast before we relax in a bath. We feel the heat and taste the food. We hear all the hustle and bustle. Miyazaki transports us to this very bathhouse, that’s never given a name, and we only hope to stay for awhile, even if it means giving up our names.
As Sen struggles to find a way out (when we’re wanting a way in), she becomes friends with a colorful cast of characters. Haku is much more than the boy his appearance gives off and we learn of his manipulation by Yubaba. He’s a tortured soul who’s lost his way and finds himself trapped at the hands of an old hag that wants nothing more than a handful of gold. Sen grows close to Haku, and their relationship plays a vital role come Spirited Away‘s conclusion. As in all of Miyazaki’s films, the strongest thing of all is that of young love. Sen also grows close to an old spider-armed man named Kamaji, who’s in charge of keeping the bathhouse’s boilers working, filling them with coal. He’s a simple man who hasn’t lost his sanity, but feels no need to move on. He’s comfortable in his situation and his surprise visitor in Sen proves to be quite a kick to his youth he lost so long ago. Sen’s arrival shakes things up quite a bit and while she’s certainly the most obvious character to learn something out of the experience, she changes the (after) lives of the bathhouse residents in all sorts of ways. And then there’s No-Face, a silent spirit that Sen lets inside the bathhouse, unknown to her is the fact that he’s a spirit that takes on the feelings and emotions of that around him. Drawn to her kindness, No-Face offers Sen all sorts of treasures, from bath tokens to gold, which causes quite a stir in the bathhouse. The greed of the house reflects upon No-Face and he turns into a giant monster, devouring everything and everyone around him. He’s the most tragic character in the entire film and his pitiful, lonely sighs that echo in his silence only show signs that he’s destined to wander forever. It’s only when he’s finally recognized, and then loses control, that he finally finds his place afterward.
Combining both hand drawn and computer generated images, Spirited Away has a beauty about it you don’t find in a lot of places. We see these characters move flawlessly through flower mazes, narrow tunnel ways, and across water like we haven’t seen before and they almost dance across the screen. The attention to detail is mesmerizing and as I stated, we feel like we’re in the bathhouse with these characters we grow to love. The backgrounds and objects drawn out in each scene hold more purpose than scenery and bring the entire world to life. It’s messy. It’s rusty. It’s far from perfect but it’s still worth visiting and that’s a credit to the mastery of Miyazaki. Of all the beautiful imagery, the most memorable image is that of a train gliding across the water, taking spirits to their final resting spots. It’s somber, heart-wrenching, and even creepy, but the image of the train chugging it’s way through crystal water brings peace to the idea. It lets us know that in our final moments there is something beautiful and that we don’t have anything to be afraid of, even if we know the end is two stops away.
Every venture of mine to the bathhouse results in me discovering something new about the film and about myself. It’s a film that ages with you, tailoring to whatever emotion you’re feeling at the time. It’s maturity is something that never ceases to amaze and you’ll left reeling after each viewing. It’s magical, it’s funny, it’s disheartening, and yet so inspirational. You can’t watch Spirited Away and not want to pick up a pen or a pencil and create something of your own, be it a poem, a story, or even a drawing. It’s creativity is contagious but never overwhelming. Chihiro struggled to grow up and her adventures in the bathhouse forced her to become the young woman she needed to be. In a similar fashion, Spirited Away nudges you in the right direction and lets you know that you can do something more with yourself. It lets you know that there’s more out there than what we can see out of our windows or through our computer screens. There are people worth visiting (worth saving, even) and if we decide to let it all roll over us like a wave of routine we’ll never do great things. As Chihiro walks across the bridge to the bathhouse, as well as her transformation into something so much greater, she has to hold her breath. A trivial detail indeed, but don’t think I didn’t hold my own as I embarked on this journey with her again.
Five Totoros out of Five