How Deep Is Spirited Away?
Over the holidays for our usual family viewing, I ran across an old favorite: Spirited Away. This is the much-celebrated 2001 Studio Ghibli anime classic by Hayao Miyazaki. The American import won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, among numerous accolades, and also stands as the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It gets routinely lauded with such comparisons as the Japanese Alice in Wonderland.
I was struck by how the film never wears old. Just like the Lewis Carrol classic or other fantasy works like Mary Poppins, even if you know the story by heart, you can sit through it again. It's so chock full of wonder, unforgettable characters, fantastic atmosphere, detailed art, together with being a whirlwind of a fantasy story that immerses you quite firmly into its own world.
Which got me to wondering, what is it about this film that sets itself apart? For one thing, Miyazaki set out to make an inspirational story for girls and deliberately made Chihiro an "every-girl," somebody the audience could identify with. She isn't just a helpless damsel getting rescued by a random knight, she's the whole action, getting through her harrowing adventure using only wits and guts.
Here's one point: Chihiro's character develops over these 125 minutes. She goes through that tunnel as a spoiled whiny girl, and comes out a young woman. In fact, all of the major characters have depth and make a personal transition by the end. Haku solves his problems with Chihiro's help, Yubaba gets taken down a notch, Zeniba gets to show her unexpectedly good side, Lin drops a little bit of her snarky attitude by the end, a stink spirit is transformed into a river spirit, No_Face starts out as a monster of greed and ends up as a weaver's apprentice, and even the rest of the cast goes from hating Chihiro to cheering for her at the end.
You know how far Alice gets in Alice in Wonderland? It was all just a dream, never mind. And Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? That was just a dream too, and the best Dorothy learns from it is there's no place like home. And how about Ariel in The Little Mermaid? She didn't learn a damned thing; she got herself in a huge mess chasing a fool prince and everybody else bailed her out. You get the picture.
For another point: The world of Spirited Away is internally consistent. Despite the apparent mad shenanigans happening everywhere, the characters within act logical from their own frame of reference. They aren't just madcap oddballs pitched at us to fill time; we get to explore the world fully to understand each character's business and why they do what they do. The spirit world appears not only nonsensical, but stark and threatening, and yet by the end we see how it all works together.
For yet another point: The characters are all three-dimensional. There are no Prince Phillips or Sorceress Maleficents here, no black-and-white heroes and villains. Even Haku, filling in the rescuing hero role for Chihiro from time to time, works for the big bad Yubaba, so his alignments are questioned.
But one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Spirited Away is that it's truly a grim and dark tale for a children's story. A little kid, terrified out of her mind, is left to her own devices as her parents are transformed, and not only is it up to her to save them, but she has to fend off several varieties of deadly peril along the way in an alien world. Furthermore, she has to do so the way an adult would; the first task she has to accomplish is to get a job. Throughout the story, she has to deal with full grown adult characters on their own terms, with no concession given to the fact that she shouldn't have to be solving any problems bigger than multiplication tables at her age. At no point do cute mice and birds break out in a silly song and dance number for a three and a half minute break. Heck, Chihiro even has to solve the problems of river spirits, witches, and a whole bathhouse, all while being denied such basic resources as even a name.
No, there's just too much going on here for a mere animated feature. Works like Spirited Away simply do not happen in this imagination-starved Western world. How sad for our culture that this film is the exception and not the rule.