A Film by Myazaki Hayao
Spirited Away, or Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, as the transliteration of it's original title reads, is the latest animated feature film from Japanese writer/director Myazaki Hayao. Myazaki, who was also responsible to the very well-received Princess Mononoke, has brought an imaginative, well-told story, with brilliant animation and a strong musical score to life here - sure to delight fans of the genre and to reassure them that Disney's recent mis-steps notwithstanding, it is alive and well.
And speaking of Disney, interestingly enough, this film is distributed in the US by Disney's Buena Vista division, and The Disney Company had a production role in the making of the film. Animation is very big in Japan and always has been, and "japanaimation" as it is called, has been making strong inroads into the American market via video and DVD. For Disney to embrace the "foreign competition" shows a willingness to work across traditional rivalries that bodes well for the future of the industry.
Spirited Away is essentially a fairy tale - however it is a fairy-tale that demonstrates that the Japanese - to paraphrase Fitzgerald - are not like you and me. It has much more in common with the work of the Brothers Grimm and surrealist Jean Cocteau than with the "updated" versions of traditional stories with which most of us are familiar. In Grimm, bad things happen to good people for no reason. The power of "magic" and the unseen world is as likely to redound for "evil" as for "good" - in fact, to act according to a set of principles that don't even recognize "good' and '"evil" in the way we conventionally understand them.
Likewise in this film, which combines elements and characters from many traditional Japanese folk-tales, there is a disconcerting moral ambiguity that may be difficult for a modern Euro-centric audience. Although an effort has been made to tidy things up somewhat in the end, the absence of a neat "moral" and any "explanation" of the events of the story creates a subtle edginess that some may enjoy, but may be disturbing to others.
The film's plot is too complicated and dense with characters to brook a simple summary. It involves a bath-house and surrounding village that appear as a ghost town by day, but animate with spirits seeking rejuvenation every night. The young protagonist Chihiro and her parents stumble across it by accident. Her parents are betrayed by their own natures into a transformation that isolates Chihiro and casts her in the role of their rescuer.
There is a young boy who is actually a dragon and also a "river spirit;" twin witches with over-sized heads, one of whom presides over the bathhouse and cares for her enormous baby; a "monster" with no face and an enormous appetite; a spider-like character who tends the furnace that heats the bath-water; and a young woman who acts as one of the chambermaids.
And those are just the primary characters. Secondary performers include a talking frog; the enormous baby (who spends much of his screen-time in the form of an overweight mouse): a crow with the head of one of the witches (who becomes a sort of mosquito for a while); a "stink monster;" an army of soot-particles who are transformed into tiny coal-tenders that look like a cross between a spider and an ant; and a trio of bouncing, mumbling heads.
Many of these images are, I'm sure, as familiar to Japanese audiences as images of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny would be to us. The loss of those cultural associations, which supply a history and continuity to the characters that we can not know, is certainly one of the things that makes that makes the film seem a bit disconnected and episodic. But that strangeness is also part of the film's appeal.
The disorientation we feel at being presented with these indecipherable symbols, and the challenge of trying to extract some meaning out of the whole web of personalities and relationships is part of what generates interest for the audience - and a sense of identification with Chihiro's confusion. The unfamiliarity of the images and the values-system that underlies it takes us beyond the realm of typical animated film.
The many loose ends and inexplicable changes of character - one minute "No Face" is a calm and gentle spirit, the next an all-devouring appetite - create a world that has more in common with that of Alice In Wonderland - the surreal book, not the sanitized Disney cartoon - than with that of Bambi.
Bruno Bettelheim has argued, in his book The Uses of Enchantment, that the same elements - the irrationality, the cruelty, the losses, the frightening images - that modern re-tellers have tried to soften or remove from traditional fairy-tales are the very things that give those tales their psychological power. This power is based in their ability to embody incomprehensible facts of life within an imaginative, narrative framework, where they can be confronted and integrated without any immediate threat to personality.
These raw elements are still present in this film - at least for a Western viewer who doesn't have any comfortable cultural symbolism to fall back on. Chihiro's existential engagement with the incredible, morally-ambiguous, mutable beings with whom she comes in contact, and her nurturing and development of her own identity - symbolized in the safeguarding and the remembering of her name - in spite of everything, is an heroic journey that manages to escape the formulaic predictability of much contemporary Western fantasy.
Chihiro is smart, she is sympathetic, she is thoughtful , she is loyal and dedicated, and she is also lucky. It is this inexplicable combination of qualities - some innate, some inculcated, some developed, some circumstantial - that drives the story. There is no particular "way of being" that is being held up here as an ideal - only the process of being one's self.
Chihiro is clumsy - but her clumsiness proves to be an asset when it enables her to discover the "stink monster's" secret and earn his gratitude. She is unable to resist a surprised gasp at her first sight of the talking frog, in spite of having been carefully admonished to hold her breath - but her very human failure in her task is one of the catalysts for the whole adventure.
Seeming weaknesses and seeming strengths - like the changing natures of apparent good and evil of some of the characters - turn out to be sometimes more, sometimes less than might be expected. Chihiro emerges not to "live happily ever after," but better prepared to face the difficulties of her life with resourcefulness, confidence and courage.
Of course, the What's Up Tiger Lily? effect may come into play here as well. Woody Allen developed a successful comedy film in 1966 by dubbing English dialogue that actually had little to do with the original script, over the images of a Japanese action-adventure film. Similarly, it may be that the complexities and ambiguities that seem intentional here are merely accidental, an effect of trying - with limited success - to make the original story coherent and comprehensible to a Western audience.
Whatever the reason, the overall effect of Spirited Away is definitely disorienting and compelling. Myazaki has created a visual world of great beauty and grace. There is both a playfulness and a melancholy to the spirit world as he envisions it, a unappetizingly mundane element of commerce, greed, gluttony and power, but also a transcendent element of magic, of revitalization, of affection and loyalty and of a mutually-beneficial - if somewhat tentative and suspicious - interaction between it and the human world.
The animation is mostly wonderful. There are some effects - most notably those connected with a train ride - that are simply enchanting. The annoying Japanimation convention of having characters talk simply by moving their jaws up and down while the rest of their faces stays static was notable in a few sequences here, particularly in contrast to the excellent fluidity of most of the rest of the technique.
In fact, subtlety of facial expression is one place where the Japanese style distinctly departs from the American. Certainly the Japanese have the skill to depict delicate. alterations of expression indicative of complex emotions. That they choose not to do so is yet another demonstration of the fact that they are , in some fundamental cultural ways, not like us.
But the landscapes, the depiction of movement, water, shadow, and many other elements have a quality of super-reality - not in a photographic sense, but in an imaginative one - that has only been approached by a very few, fringe American animators, most notably Ralph Bakshi in his Cool World and Lord Of The Rings.
Animated film occupies an actual world of its own (as Bakshi suggested metaphorically in Cool World). Mostly relegated to a role as an entertainer of children, but with the potential to depict the world of the mature imagination with clarity and immediacy as well, it has yet to fulfill its full potential. Although Spirited Away remains safely - and overall, very satisfyingly - within the realm of children's fantasy, it allows us to glimpse, both technically and thematically, a bit of the future promise of animation.
That's my take on it. What's yours?