My Goodreads Quotes

Allison’s quotes

"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right--in the way that's best for us."
Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
Yes," she said, "I do believe it--almost always--except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true--and I try to believe it."— E. Nesbit

Monday, August 15, 2016

Movie Review: Spirited Away, by Hayao Miyazaki

I don't like buying movies.  It boils down to the same reason I don't like buying books before I've read them.  If I finish it and don't like it, it's either back to the used bookstore, or I'm stuck with it.

With books, the solution is simple: go to the library.  But if you're like me, your library doesn't supply movies.  If I can't find it on Netflix or Amazon, I have two choices: buy the movie, or go without.

This struggle is worse because movies usually cost more than books.  And it's worst of all with Miyazaki movies, which you can order now from Disney for the low price of $30 and your soul.

So when I heard of this must-see, delightfully fairytale-savvy movie, did I pawn my antique book collection?  Did I sell my hair?  Did I wait at the crossroads at midnight to cash into some soul money?

No.  I did without.  For years.

(Tangential note: the greatest thing about getting older is that I can make dramatic statements like that and they're actually true.  Tangent out!)

That is, until Amazon lowered the price to $20.  My resolve crumpled, and I snatched it up.  It's a great deal.  I even get to keep my soul.

Thus concludes the epic saga of my Spirited Away purchase.  Now, enjoy the review.

Ten-year-old Chihiro feels her life is over when her family moves to the countryside, far away from her friends and school.  But when her parents imbibe food meant for spirits and are transformed to pigs for their greed, Chihiro must navigate the tricky politics of the spirit world to change them back.  Selling her name in exchange for a job, Chihiro, now renamed Sen, becomes a bathhouse attendant.  Armed with only bravery, courtesy, and questionable allies, she must barter for her parents' freedom and her own.

(To avoid confusion, Chihiro and Sen are different names for the same character.)

First and foremost, I must compliment the exquisite storytelling of Spirited Away.  Mr. Miyazki uses the "pantsing" plotting method, wherein he improves much of the plot.  Although I must take his word at it, this seems almost impossible when I marvel at the extreme deliberateness of every plot element.  I can tell that Miyaki is a student of fairytales.

Although western folklore traditions are visible in the narrative-- especially when crossing the river of the dead, when Chihiro must force herself not to look back, in the style of Orpheus-- most of the imagery and symbolism comes from eastern mythology.  The movie takes place in a sort of mirror-image universe, the nighttime spirit world, supplied by the Japanese tradition of leaving food and houses for the spirits.

The excellent plotting method of Spirited Away segues well into another element of the movie: the character development.  Chihiro begins the movie very much a child whose whole way of life was ripped away.  She is popularly described as sullen and bratty.  Perhaps it is become I am young, but her behavior was much more sympathetic to me.  She has little reason to be happy.

Emotional credibility aside, this extreme provides an excellent contrast for her progress throughout the movie.  Losing her family and way of life and working in backbreaking conditions oddly suits Chihiro.  It teaches her humility.  It shows her the value of courtesy.  By the end of the movie, when she is called upon to save the bathhouse from the ominous visitor No-Face, the courage and integrity she shows are completely believable after her emotional journey.

This struggle brings me to the darkest issue of the movie: the character No-Face.

When taken only in the context of the movie, No-Face makes absolutely no sense.  His otherworldly shape resembles no other character in the movie.  In his natural state, he is incapable of dialogue.  We learn little of his motivation and even less of his origin.  In fact, the only true desire he shows is for Chihiro, now named Sen.

Perhaps to combat this lack of detail, Mr. Miyazaki commented, somewhat ambiguously, that Spirited Away has to do with-- of all things-- sex.  It took some digging and a second watching to understand what he meant, but I now feel prepared to have an opinion on it.

Historically, bathhouses were disreputable establishments that sold sex as much as a spa experience.  The first time I watched it, I did not pick up on this at all.  The second time through, I became aware of certain elements indicative of the bathhouse's purpose.

To be clear, Spirited Away is not by any stretch of the imagination a graphic movie.  But the knowledge that Miyazki intended it to have double meaning did color my second viewing and answer
Why are they here?
a few questions.  It explains, for example, why Chihiro is at least a decade younger than the other female workers in the bathhouse.  It also explains the presence of several dozen women workers who seemingly have no purpose.

And this darker element leads back to the presence of the character, No-Face.  As his name suggests, he literally has no face, only an expressionless mask that does not even correctly indicate his features.  He is the ultimate blank slate, which perhaps explains why he reacts so violently once inside the bathhouse.

No-Face goes from being a passive but essentially sweet character to a greedy, carnivorous beast upon entering the bathhouse.  Chihiro even audibly notes this change, describing him as "crazy".  No-Face is the most enigmatic character of the movie.

I think he represents a lot about the spirit of refusing to compromise, a persistent theme throughout Spirited Away.  While her parents glut themselves, Chihiro refuses to eat a single bite.  When the bathhouse workers accept even a single nugget of gold, it lowers their defenses and sets them up to be devoured by No-Face.  Only Chihiro, who will not accept it, is totally safe.
I adore this picture.

So does the atmosphere of the bathhouse effect No-Face.  He, as a blank slate, cannot enter the lustful environment of the bathhouse and remain untainted by it.  Only when he parts completely with it, and remains far away, can he return to his benevolent state.

You cannot eat half the forbidden fruit and remain whole.  You cannot accept dishonest coin without becoming dishonest yourself.  You cannot sacrifice your ideals-- ever-- without becoming something worse.

I think this ties in a lot to Chihiro's interactions with her parents, way at the beginning of the movie.  All of her growth as a character takes place without them.  They do not behave well as parents; most of their interactions with Chihiro are condescending and degrading.  They also demonstrate a lack of wisdom by eating food for spirits.  Only when they are removed from Chihiro can she grow into her full potential.  It is another example of how your environment can effect you in Spirited Away.

Before I close the curtain on the sometimes uncomfortable elements of physicality and lust in Spirited
Away, I will say that I was somewhat uncomfortable with the main romantic relationship.  Considering the age of the participants, it felt like an awful lot of hand-holding and touching.  But it was not a major element of the movie.

Spirited Away is a beautiful, complicated, and sometimes disturbing movie.  The theme of anarchy and confusion appears in the art, which is often lurid and chaotic.  That does not mean it is not also lovely in its wildness.  But sometimes it came across as overly raucous to me-- just as the story of Spirited Away, and many of Miyazaki's movies, crosses my line of comfort sometimes.

There are many compliments I could give to conclude this review.  Suffice it to say that Spirited Away inspired me to write a thousand words.

Lin:  What's going on here?
Kamaji:  Something you wouldn't recognize.  It's called love.

Don't look back.


Sarah said...

Excellent review. I haven't watched Spirited Away (or any Miyazaki other than Howl's Moving Castle), but I've heard some bits and pieces about it.
Have you watched any of the other Miyazaki films? Any chance you'll review those as well? There's some that I think sound fun but I don't know enough about to decide if I should watch them or not.

Allison Ruvidich said...

I confess: I, too, have only ever seen Howl's Moving Castle. (Which is great! Which I will possibly review!) If I ever cough up the money for the other films, you'll be the first to know how they are. ; D

Hannah said...

Well....thank you for the review....

I have just lately been considering watching this to see why this was the only anime to receive Academy Awards, but the bizarre looking characters sent me skittering. This review only makes me so glad I didn't go ahead and try anyway.....huh.....

Allison Ruvidich said...

Hey, Hannah! It's good to hear from you. I'm a little saddened by your comment. To clarify my earlier point, this is not a graphic or inappropriate movie. I would feel comfortable letting a young child watch it. Miyazaki's films frequently work on multiple levels, but the beautiful thing is, the levels never cross. Had I not read background literature on this movie, I never would have dreamed that it was about protecting children from this kind of environment. (I think I indicated that Miyazaki did not portray the bathhouse positively-- quite the opposite, in fact.) I understand if you are uncomfortable with it, and that's fine, but it is a wonderful movie, and I would be sad if I discouraged you from watching it.

Daniel Phelan said...

I remember this movie helping me get over some rough times when I was eleven. For that, I remain grateful.

As an aside, I really should comment on here more frequently....

Allison Ruvidich said...

Awww, I love this comment. : ) And yes, you should.