I feel like no matter what movie I chose as my favorite film of 2001, it was going to be a bit of a downstep after last week. We talked about what may be my favorite film of all time last week, from a year full of amazing films that I love, so there was always going to be a bit of a hangover with 2001. And, it certainly didn’t help that by and large 2001 was just a much weaker year for movies. Or, at least the kinds of movies that I love. The biggest film of the year, and the one that probably seems like the one I should have picked, was Fellowship of the Ring, a movie I do love, but which maybe is my least favorite of the trilogy. But, that’s kind of hard, I usually think of them as a singular unit. I’m also a huge fan of the Coen Brothers’ the Man Who Wasn’t There, a movie that I feel like often gets forgotten in the general love for their work. But, otherwise, not a whole lot of movies I feel too passionately about. I’ve never been a Donnie Darko guy, despite my best efforts I’ve rarely clicked with David Lynch and Mullholland Drive is no exception, and I by and large don’t like anything Wes Anderson has ever created including the Royal Tennenbaums. So, that really takes down a lot of the big beloved films of the year. But, there was one film when looking at the output of 2001 that I really and truly love. And, I’m kind of cheating, since it wasn’t technically released in America in 2001, but I’m still going to count it. And, it’s kind of an outlier. Because by and large I have never been one to enjoy the aesthetics of Japanese animation. Anime by and large has just never been something that I’ve enjoyed, often going so far to actively disdain, but the biggest exception to that opinion is the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I know that’s kind of a trite take, and I certainly don’t like all of his works, but Spirited Away remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful films I’ve ever seen. From when I first saw it split over two periods of a World Religion class I took in high school when the teacher kind of gave up near the end of the year, I’ve been fascinating with the film. And, it was a simply magical experience to revisit it to discuss today.
As with most of the film created by Japan’s venerable Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away began life from the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, a very eccentric figure who has spent his entire life crafting animated fairy tales that both feel incredibly Japanese and also are able to be easily accepted by all cultures. Up until this point Miyazaki had told many stories what focused on plucky female protagonists, but he set out specifically to tell a story designed at young pre-teen girls, who he felt were an under-served audience. So, he dove into the world of shojo manga, specific stories designed for this demographic, and began formulating the kind of stories that these girls would enjoy. And, from there, he began adding in a lot of inspiration from his own childhood, remembering settings from his rural childhood, specifically a large bathhouse. And, adding in quite a bit of Japanese and Shinto mythology, the film began to take shape as a massive folk tale, which ended up gaining the attention of Disney, who ended up helping fund the film in exchange for the ability to re-dub the film and release it in America. At that point Miyazaki’s movies had had some moderate success in America, while occasionally dealing with problematic dubs and cuts, and Disney seemed to think that the film would be a success. I’m sure they didn’t anticipate it to become the most successful film in Japanese history. The movie was a massive hit in Japan, utterly dominating the box office of the country, and becoming a world-wide phenomena. The film was a massive success, both financially and critically, earning numerous awards all around the world, becoming perhaps the most identifiable and beloved film in Myazaki’s entire repertoire. It’s certainly my favorite.
Spirited Away is the story of a young girl named Chihiro who is being forced to leave her home and move with her family to a new town. She’s incredibly against the move, and is making that extremely clear, even though her parents are trying to make the best of the situation. And, part of that includes them deciding to go check out a strange abandoned building they find while looking for their new home, deep in the woods. Chihiro isn’t so sure about it, but she follows her parents as they explore this strange building, and seem to find themselves in an abandoned theme park, which they of course decide to explore. And, in the process, her parents come across a strange booth that is full of delicious but mysterious food. Chihiru is disturbed by the food, and ends up wandering off, exploring this abandoned city which seems built around a massive bath-house. But, while looking at the bath-house she encounters a young boy named Haku who tells her she needs to get her parents and flee from this place before sundown, or else they’re be trapped. Chihiru attempts to save her parents, but finds that they’ve been transformed into giant pigs. And, in terror she attempts to get back to the car, only to find that the sun has set, and a massive ocean has appeared, blocking her way. She’s now trapped, just as a variety of strange, mythical beings start arriving by boat to fill the town. Terrified, she retreats to the bath-house to find Haku. He saves her, and informs her that she’s going to need to get a job in the bath-house, or else she will be caught and destroyed in this land. So, giving her some advice, Chihiru meets the being who runs the boiler-room under the bath-house, Kamaji, who ends up offering her a job after seeing her massive determination.
Kamaji pairs Chihiru up with a woman named Lin, and asks her to bring Chihiru to the witch who runs things, Yubaba. And, after a strange trip through the fantastical bath-house and its supernatural clients, Chuhiru is introduced to the cruel witch Yubaba. And, despite her rough exterior, Yubaba does offer Chuhiru a contract, in exchange for taking her name, a process which will soon erase her memory. So, Chihiru is made Sen, and sent out to work in the bath-house, specifically the worst tasks they can find. Everyone else in the bath-house discriminates against Sen, except for Lin and a strange spirit known as No-Face that no one else seems to acknowledge. However, things start to change when a terrible spirit that everyone assumes is a “stink spirit” arrives seeking a bath. They of course force Sen to deal with the giant muck monster, and through her own naivete she accidentally discovers the source of the spirit’s woes. And, thanks to her ingenuity she heals what turns out to be a river spirit, and as a reward is given a powerful piece of medicine. She intends to use this medicine to cure her parents, but needs to find Haku to help her and he has been missing, supposedly doing missions for Yubaba. And, while she’s waiting, strange things start to occur with No-Face. he realizes that the workers of the bath-house like gold, and he begins creating gold to tempt them, using the attention to gorge himself on food, drink, and companionship, all while demanding to see Sen.
But, Sen is busy looking for Haku, and eventually does find him, transformed into a large dragon, being attacked by an army of paper beings. She sees an injured Haku crash into Yubaba’s penthouse, and begins making her way there, in the process coming across Yubaba’s gigantic son. She escapes his clutches though, and ends up finding Haku, in the process bringing one of the paper beings with her. Which, is a problem, because he paper come from Yubaba’s hated sister, Zeniba. She transforms Yubaba’s son into a hamster, before Haku is able to scare her off. Sen helps Haku, feeding him some of he medicine, which begins healing him. But, the only way to truly save Haku is to return the object that he stole from Zeniba. So, along with Yubaba’s son, she heads off to find Zeniba. And, in the process, she encounters No-Face, who has become a debaucherour monster, which Sen is able to cure with the rest of her medicine. So, with two new companions Sen makes her way by train to Zeniba’s home. And, there Sen finds Zeniba to be quite kind. She helps Sen and informs her that her love for Haku is what truly cured him. And, just on time, Haku has arrived in his dragon form to return Sen and Yubaba’s son. They fly back to the bath-house, which is when Sen helps Haku remember his true name, freeing himself from Yubaba’s control. They return to the bath-house to find that Yubaba has rounded up a group of pigs, telling Sen that if she can identify her parents she’ll let them leave. And, after trusting her instincts, Sen finds her parents, remembers that her name is Chihiru, and gains her freedom. She then gets to leave with her parents, who have no memory of what has happened, and they continue on to find their new home.
I first saw Spirited Away when I was in highschool, at an age that I was highly skeptical about this whole anime thing. The only anime I had been exposed to were things like Pokemon or Dragonball Z, and some of the stranger things that the least pleasant people in my school were into, and I had essentially written the entire genre off. But, I was almost instantly swept up by this film, this strange and beautiful little film, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s a movie that I’m sure would mean even more to me if I had more familiarity with Japanese culture and Shintoism, but even without some presumed prerequisites, it’s a monumental film. Miyazaki’s whole career seems built around a need to challenge what an animated film can be, while almost always doing its best to translate the beautiful sureality of dreams to the screen. And, this film may be his crowning achievement. It’s frankly gorgeous, featuring some of the finest and most imaginative animation I’ve ever seen, all to bring to life this world of spirits which simultaneously feels familiar and other-worldly. It’s just a beautiful fairy tale, a fable that instantly transports you back to the age of Chihiru, ready to grow up and desperate to still find magic in the world.
Miyazaki claimed that he made this movie because he looked at the type of stories that were marketed to girls of Chihiru’s age, and found them lacking. He wanted to make a story that spoke more directly to them, and while I maybe never had the experience of being a ten year old girl, I still think that this movie does a good job of capturing that strange time in a persons life when they feel like they are no longer a child, but in actuality couldn’t be further from being an adult. Chihiru is finding herself in a world of change, both internally and externally. She’s growing up and she’s being forced to move to a new town, and this film takes all of that anxiety, fear, and excitement and makes it real, sending Chihiru to a world she doesn’t know, where nothing makes sense, and where she’s completely adrift. She has new responsibilities, new fears, and new forms of stress, all of which could be enough to break her. She’s thrown into the deep end of an insane world, and is forced to sink or swim, and make it in a world she barely understands. Yeah, in her case she’s dealing with malicious spirits, evil witches, and an all-encompassing crush on a dragon, but it’s all basically the same.
Spirited Away was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released by Toho, 2001.
Categories: Cinematic Century