Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spirited Away

A little girl lies in the backseat of the family car, fidgety and irritable. It's moving day and she doesn't want a new home, or a new school. When her parents stop to explore an odd tunnel in the neighborhood she frightens easily and asks them to turn around. She is no precocious adventurer, and this is not director Hiyao Miyazaki's earlier animated opus My Neighbor Totoro in which imaginative youngsters bring magic and excitement to everyday life. No, this film is Spirited Away and Miyazaki has something more intense and even more fantastical than Totoro in mind. And to make it work, he introduces Chihiro, his 10-year-old heroine as a somewhat irritable brat, whose own father calls her a "scaredy-cat." Suspicions that the oncoming fantasy of Spirited Away will be a mere dream of Chihiro's are quickly dashed, and we get something grander instead, a world much larger and more frightening than Chihiro can handle at first, but one which she will adapt to and eventually flourish in.

If the film sounds preachy or its coming-of-age arc conventional, don't worry. Chihiro's growth is achieved subtly without overt message-mongering, but even if it wasn't, the film is so full to the brim of whimsical, magical invention that it would hardly matter. The world of the film is a huge sauna devoted to the rejuvenation of spirits, real, personified - if that's the right word - spirits that is. They include leaping, chirping big yellow birds, greedy little frogs that get zapped and frozen in the air when someone needs to make an escape, and a shy-seeming black cipher with a mask who turns into a devouring demon. Staffing the sauna are a variety of lumpen forest critters, a foreman with eight arms (whose employees are enchanted, and surprisingly lovable, dust bunnies), and a woman with a head two or three times the size of the rest of the body (she looks like a Pez dispenser pounded flat). Words fail but the images speak for themselves -- see the movie and be awed. And I didn't even mention the "Radish Monster" who doesn't look like a radish but seems to weigh about seventy tons. His huge girth and hapless expression (unblinking eyes and ever-gaping maw) make the scene in which he pins Chihiro in an elevator hilariously uncomfortable.


I could go on and on but better to see the fruits of Miyazaki's fertile imagination for yourself. Yet it is worth noting that the storyline holding and framing all these monsters, however random their appearances and actions, is not just a flimsy laundry-line, an excuse for giant radishes and chirping chicks to do their thing. There are ever-so-slight references to conditions in 2000 Japan (mention of an economic downturn which has stopped the building of theme parks and, presumably, other creative endeavors; and a definite ecological subtext, with one character who owes his wandering, confused existence to the destruction of a river).

Most interestingly, and unlike any other children's stories that come to mind, the film takes a rather constructive approach to the working world. Upon finding refuge in the sauna, Chihiro is told she must get a job, and though this storyline is initially approached with a great deal of trepidation and fear, work soon proves itself to be at the very least, tolerable, and eventually something more. Chihiro's supervisor, a grouchy young woman, turns out not to be so bad and while Chihiro must work hard scrubbing floors and learning the ropes of her service job (it's clear she's never worked, or probably even done chores, before), eventually her job provides an avenue for acclaim and self-fulfillment. It is perhaps a uniquely Japanese outlook, and one that is hard to imagine in an American cartoon. Along with the usual cleverness and chutzpah that comes with this type of story, Chihiro's ultimate survival also depends on her work ethic! Also, this aspect of the film gives us a rare animated opportunity to follow the increasingly ubiquitous service jobs, the hard work of the grunts who grease the wheels and keep things shiny for our usual type of protagonist. Most of the film's inhabitants are resolutely and unapologetically working-class, albeit with tentacles and slithery tails.

But there I go again, getting too serious. If you haven't already (and it apparently took me eight years), see Spirited Away for the marvellous creativity, the mythic overtones, the winningly spunky heroine (who ranks up there with Alice and Dorothy), the innocence of the emotion, and the underlying melancholy that suffuses and enriches the story and the images. Stay for the class analysis and environmental allusions if you like. But above all, see Spirited Away.

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