More noise than signal

Spirited Away

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Spirited Away, one of the few children’s films whose Wikipedia article includes the phrase “emetic dumpling”.

In a similar fashion to My Neighbor TotoroSpirited Away starts with a family relocating to a new town, although the ten year old Chihiro doesn’t seem quite so happy about it as Satsuki and Mei were. Soon, how much she will miss her old classmates will be the least of her worries, after her parents take a wrong turn and end up in front of what they think is an abandoned shrine, or possibly an abandoned shrine theme park. I don’t know if it was a theme park dedicated to abandoned or non-abandonded shrines in the first instance, it doesn’t go into that level of detail, a rare failing in world-building from Miyazaki.

It’s not abandoned entirely, it seems, as they stumble across a food stand and Chihiro’s parents start eating indiscriminately. Understandably a little weirded out by this whole set-up, and not wanting to eat randomly appearing food in defiance of everything videogames has taught us, Chihiro runs off to find a bath-house and an unusually large number of spirits, which is pretty much any non-zero number of spirits, really.

Warned by a young lad named Haku to leave before she’s trapped in the spirit world, she can’t depart without her parents. Which is unfortunate, as they’ve been turned into pigs by the bath-house’s boss, the witch Yubaba. It is left unanswered if she was also responsible for Porco Rosso’s curse.

Haku, in the fullness of time is revealed to be Yubaba’s semi-willing apprentice, although he’s kept under Yubaba’s control by the same magic Chihiro’s about to be subject to. Chihiro begs for a job in the bath-house as an alternative, apparently, to being eaten, and Yubaba eventually agrees, but magically takes Chihiro’s name, renaming her Sen, which we’re told affords Yubaba a degree of control over her. Although despite this plot point being brought up a couple of times I don’t think it’s a power that’s ever actually explicitly used, now that I come to think about it.

There’s little benefit to any of us in providing much more of a recap to the events of the film, save saying that Haku and Chihiro must work together to outsmart Yubaba, her three bouncing heads and giant baby to reclaim their names, detransmogrify her parents and escape to the boring physical world, aided, abetted or opposed by various members of the bath-house staff and Yubaba’s twin Zeniba.

Now, if you’d asked me before re-visiting these Miyazaki’s body of work, I’d have said that Spirited Away was my favourite. On balance, it probably still is, but this might be the first time I’ve given it a properly critical viewing, and it’s not perfect. While on balance it’s the best looking film Miyazaki’s directed to this point, there’s a few early experiments with CG backgrounds that jar with the rest of the film’s look that may annoy the ultra-picky for all of the three seconds that’s evident for.

More critically, while this delivers a breathlessly paced narrative full of wildly inventive and wondrous set-pieces enabled by the supernatural setting, it can feel a lot like a torrent of events linked and driven by the flimsiest of framing devices. The overall drive of what needs to be done is clear, of course – we all know what the end goal is – but the steps required to get there are informed by something closer to Lynchian dream logic than any recognisable plan.

However, I’ll refer you back to our January 2016 episode for details on what we think of that Lynch guy, and none of these points have bothered me. The theme of greed corrupting people is perhaps dealt with a little too square on for me, but Miyazaki’s never been particularly subtle about his messaging, and I suppose that comes from aiming a film a ten year olds.

That means it’s aimed somewhere in between the bloodbaths of Mononoke and Nausicaa, and the lighter tone of the broadly similarly themed My Neighbor Totoro, and for me at least this gives Spirited Away a nigh-on ideal mix of wonder and danger.

It perhaps goes without saying by this point that Chihiro is a well-drawn and realised protagonist, but we should laud it anyway, a good-hearted mix of strength, vulnerability, and determination that certainly fulfils Miyazki’s goal of creating a character the target audience, and every other section of the audience for that matter, can look up to.

The supporting characters are also no less vividly created, most of whom I’ve not even mentioned because we’d be here all day, but at any point in this film there’s pretty much never less than three captivating characters on screen at the same time, which does rather make me wish that Spirited Away would get the Disney multiple spin-off treatment rather than some of the less deserving candidates it pumped out in the bad old days of their decline.

It will come, I’m sure, as no great surprise to hear that I love this film – after all, it’s not differing much from the critical reception at the time, and I don’t think that time has diminished it. There’s a few films jostling for top spot in my personal Miyazaki totem pole, but this is more often than not the one that ends up on top. Doubleplus recommended.