It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on!
To make one undisputed masterpiece in a filmmaking career is remarkable. To make two is almost unheard of. To make two in a row, well…that’s just what Hayao Miyazaki did with his simply magnificent follow-up to “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away.”
Many people can point to a movie that made them fall in love with movies, or perhaps rekindled that love. For me, that movie was “Spirited Away.” I saw it when I was about to graduate elementary school and my family was facing a move. Its themes of courage in the face of change and embracing our fears rather than running from them really spoke to me and allowed me to weather a stormy season of my life. There are several reasons I fell in love with movies (both Miyazaki and otherwise) shortly after that point, but the major one was “Spirited Away.”
The film follows a young girl named Chihiro, who is, like I was, scared to move with her family to a new house, a new school and a new life. On the way to their new house, they get lost along a country road and come across an abandoned amusement park. When day turns into night, the park becomes a bathhouse for various spirits to rest, and Chihiro’s parents, seen as intruders, are turned into pigs, while she finds herself trapped in the spirit world as she falls deeper and deeper down the figurative rabbit hole. With the help of a mysterious spirit named Haku and a bathhouse spirit named Lin, Chihiro must convince Yubaba, the old witch who runs the bathhouse, to turn her parents back and grant them passage safe back from the spirit world.
Along the way, Chihiro comes across the best and most eccentric cast of supporting characters in any Miyazaki film, including a spider-like boiler man named Kamaji and a misunderstood dark spirit named No-face, not to mention and anthropomorphic frog and a giant talking baby. This is certainly Miyazaki’s strangest and most overtly Japanese film, and that is meant in the best way possible. The film is filled with surreal images; the spirit bathhouse is a marvelous creation, populated with the oddest creatures ever put to animation. It’s Miyazaki at his most creatively uninhibited; you get the sense the Ghibli animators were willing to try anything because, in the spirit world, anything goes. It’s such a thrill to watch this movie time and again, just to see all that the animators have put into the background of almost every scene.
This is also the first of Miyazaki’s films to use digital technology to aid in coloring and effects, and it shows; the visuals here are in a different league from what came before. The colors and creatures pop off the screen (and yes, one or two of them are computer generated). And yet, the purity of the 2D animation shines through. I’ve identified one of the biggest differences between hand drawn and computer generated animation: it’s all in the eyes. I haven’t seen computer generated films quite get eyes yet; there’s something to hand-drawn eyes, particularly in the Japanese anime tradition, that has not been replicated with better technology. They’re just so big, colorful and lovingly crafted, and they’re something I’ll miss as we continue to gravitate toward CG animation.
I appreciate Miyazaki’s focus here on traditional Japanese cultural rituals, myths and spirituality. This is the kind of world where the smallest action can have tremendous consequences, requiring a blessing or a curse to alleviate the situation. There is so much rich cultural practice and heritage here, it’s not enough for one viewing. I urge you to take the time to appreciate the cultural nuances that differentiate this from an American animated film.
At the heart of this film is the greatest of all Miyazaki protagonists, Chihiro. Unlike many Miyazaki heroes, Chihiro is not a noble figure from the beginning. She is a whiny brat, afraid of the unknown and unwilling to face what she doesn’t understand. But, when her name is taken from her by the witch Yubaba, she faces an identity crisis and realizes that her old self just won’t do. As she learns to face her fears in the spirit world, she begins to see that her old problems just aren’t as scary anymore. She is the most sympathetic of Miyazaki protagonists, because her fears are relatable, as are her triumphs. We often wonder how we can find courage in our own lives, and the answer here is that we will always fear what we don’t understand. If we seek to understand our situation and the people involved in it, we may not always overcome our fear, but we can obtain the courage to act.
The primary theme of the film is Chihiro’s identity. When her name is taken away from her, she must try to hold onto herself before she allows herself to be controlled by Yubaba. We find out that is what has happened to Haku; Yubaba has taken away his real name, and he has become her servant, forgetting in the process who he once was. Even with her name taken away, Chihiro is constantly learning and growing, discovering herself anew even with her old self taken away. I may not forget my name, but I can relate to a feeling of alienation in my own skin, like I don’t recognize myself. The key is to hold onto the essence of what we are.
Let’s talk about the music for a second. Oh man, it’s good stuff. Joe Hisaishi has scored Miyazaki films since time immemorial, but I think this is his best. It’s a master-class through and through; somber yet hopeful, melancholy as filtered through the eyes of a dream. Good film composition not only heightens but also adds to every emotion the film conveys, and Hisaishi does this expertly every step of the way. I don’t know where Miyazaki films would be without Hisaishi, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be as good. Think of a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams and you’ll have an idea how essential Hisaishi’s scores really are.
There is nothing in “Spirited Away” not to recommend. It’s one of the scariest, most consistently surprising and emotionally soaring movies you will ever see. It’s the movie that solidified Miyazaki’s popularity in the U.S. (it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002), and there’s good reason for that. It was also a movie that personally changed my life. I may not be writing on this site today if it wasn’t for this film. I was worried I’d look back on it today and see it diminished without the lens of childhood. I’m so glad I was wrong. If you could catch wonder in a bottle, it might look something like “Spirited Away.” I’ve watched it dozens of times and plan to watch it dozens more, particularly during one of life’s many scary transitions. I encourage you to do the same.
Here’s Hisaishi playing the opening theme to the film live. Enjoy.