Friday, August 10, 2012

Spirited Away (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, Japan, 125 minutes
Director/writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Production design: Norobu Yoshida
Art direction: Yoji Takeshige
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast/voices of (English language version): Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly, Phil Proctor

In our 21st-century world of revitalized animated features, impresario Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli have arguably risen to the top of the heap (with Pixar leaving tooth scars on their heels), and Spirited Away has apparently earned the consensus distinction as being the best of the best of all its (and/or Miyazaki's) many impressive pictures. Spirited Away is indeed a fine adventure yarn, with a winning heroine, inventiveness by the pound, and a moment of overwhelming poignancy when the true nature of one of its most important characters is revealed—a truly inspired, even cunning revelation, which is fully appreciated only by paying the picture another visit in order to better grasp the nuances and intricacies in light of it.

At which point, for me, a funny thing happened. I was left more underwhelmed than I had been prepared for. It felt hollow and a little too long on subsequent viewings. Objectively, the movie is everything it was before—looks good, moves well, surprises often, with a spunky heroine you can't help rooting for up against unsettling, tough, and mysterious foes. It's just weird enough that I like it—but just conventional enough that I didn't love it. That helped me remember my main ongoing problem with the fantasy genre (where I don't even like Lewis Carroll, the most obvious source for this): it tends to require too much memorizing. And, in turn, that reminded me of my problems with so-called YA (young adult) literature, which has enjoyed a huge vogue in the past 20 years.

Let me start with a digression. Last year, when we were doing the Facebook 50 countdown I am reproducing elsewhere, one commenter never failed to appear in the actual Facebook group as we posted to register objections to anything even the least bit fantastic—science fiction, David Lynch, most horror, and anything with animation were discussed by him in terms of the imminent collapse of civilization. While I have some sympathies with the view—I could do with a lot fewer comic book movies clogging up the multiplexes myself, thanks—I know that no aesthetic that rules out Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Videodrome, or Grave of the Fireflies is going to work for me.

That said, however, I remain deeply suspicious of the trend toward YA literature. It's not the literature itself, which, what I've read, is rarely objectionable and often quite entertaining. My concerns are more about the OAs making a fetish of it. And I want to be careful what I'm saying here as I don't begrudge or object to anyone finding entertainment or elucidation in anything they want. I love Jack Webb, the "Star Trek" franchise, and Lifetime movies, so I have my quirks too, and we are all allowed. But there's something sad to me about grown adults so immersed in adolescent culture. (Never mind that all this is coming from a middle-aged someone who operates a blog dedicated co-equally to rock 'n' roll in its various mythic proportions.)

When I have dipped into these things, such as the Harry Potter series, I often come away impressed, thinking how much I would have liked them myself as an adolescent. (My own YA favorites were Edward Eager, who is at least the equal of J.K. Rowling, Norton Juster, who probably isn't, and "Carolyn Keene," a team of anonymous back benchers who certainly are not.) But here's the thing. Even as YA literature roams at will across the genres, often dwelling in fantasy, science fiction, and even horror realms, one thing it never does is stray far from a certain stubborn optimism about the human condition. That is what it does. It is administered like nutrition the way baby food is to infants, an important element in overcoming tendencies toward, well, let's call it "failure to thrive." Infants need the physical nutrition. Adolescents need the spiritual nutrition of believing everything is worth it and that sincere effort within moral and ethical guidelines is rewarded, as it is reward enough in itself—when, as adults, we know that no such thing is true at all in this world. Dealing with that is the most interesting aspect of FA (fully adult) literature for me, and it's nowhere to be found, by design, in YA. (A rock 'n' roll analogue of YA literature, in defense of that middle-aged someone I mentioned above, would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is explicitly not dangerous, all trappings notwithstanding.)

As much as anything, that's my problem with Spirited Away. The most interesting issues it raises—such as that adults tend naturally, and horrifyingly, in the direction of becoming pigs, including our own heroine's parents—are mostly ducked. It does not duck the issues of environmentalism that it raises, which is where it comes tantalizingly close to a fully realized critical vision, but it is too coy by half, too often addressing the issues it raises too indirectly or without proper emphasis, e.g., WTF there are apartment buildings there now?! in regard to Haku's revelation. The filthy river spirit, for another example, which is mistaken for a "stink" spirit, is indeed filled to a shocking degree with disgusting industrial waste, but it is never explicitly named as a river spirit until well past that crucial scene. (This all from the English language version; it's possible things differ in the Japanese.)

Much is made of the development of our heroine, Chihiro, over the course of the movie and the adventure, but I don't see it. She looked and sounded like a slightly bored and know-it-all teen before, and she looks and sounds like that after. The context of our experience of her adventure may make her seem more mature, a kind of grayscale optical illusion. But I don't see any evidence she was that immature before, when after all she is in the middle of a traumatizing move, or is much more mature after.

And now that the official damning is over I guess I can make with the faint praise. Because the fact is I am sure I am judging it with inappropriate standards—this and so many animated features require that slight allowance for lack of psychological complexity and then they open up like fireworks. Spirited Away can be dazzling, lively, spooky, and creative. It locates itself in an otherworldly bathhouse for the spirits, which feels more like a brothel in a manufacturing facility, with a crazy menagerie that includes primitive-cartoon soot-ball creatures, a No-Face spirit in a black robe and quasi-Guy-Fawkes mask, a six-armed boiler man, a strange giant baby, disembodied heads, identical twin witches (where have I heard that one before?), trains that glide across water, and more.

Never mind that it shades off into incoherence in the second half of the adventure, it works itself up to a really sweet moment on the climax, literally soaring as it pulls that off, swelling on Joe Hisaichi's transparent use of the John Williams/Disney playbook of Big Moment Movie Music. Who am I to buck what the crowds demand? No one, that's who. In that moment, Spirited Away works just like gangbusters.


  1. Two notes: My favorite Miyazaki is Princess Mononoke (I do love Spirited Away, too, just casting a different vote for #1). And I recommend the books of Frank Portman, Dr. Frank of the Mr. T Experience, who has written two excellent YA novels, one of which I used in a college-level course.

  2. Thanks, I will look into Portman. I also thought later of Lemony Snickett, which I haven't read and which might blow my thesis.