Being enclosed, protected, and kept away from dangers, children cannot help but enlarge their fragile egos in their daily lives, where they feel their lives as something dim.” – Hayao Miyazaki
It’s more than a little strange to notice that Miyazaki’s latest foray into environmental and social collapse has made its lush and imaginative way to the United States by way of Walt Disney Studios, an uber-corporation sometimes inexplicably bent on rendering rich and colorful cultures into vanilla palettes (Pocahontas, Aladdin, Tarzan, and on). After all, this is the same famed animator who filled his memorable war between the natural and industrial worlds, Princess Mononoke, with generous amounts of violence. Indeed, it was hard to watch the unsettling gore resulting from the doomed battle march of giant pigs and wolves, clan rivalries, severed heads, and demonic possession without blinking twice at the fact that it was, above all, a blindingly gorgeous film in a medium mostly associated with kids. Princess Mononoke herself was a small girl, albeit a deadly demi-queen of the Great Forest. Which is another way of saying Princess Mononoke was to The Little Mermaid as The Shining was to Pinocchio.
But Disney is no dummy, which is why when you see ads for Spirited Away, you will also hear that it is the “highest-grossing film of all time” in Japan, or that it won a slew of awards in Germany, San Francisco, and Hong Kong before you hear anything else. No problem – money makes the world go round, right?
In this sense, it’s almost comforting to see Miyazaki’s name precede the film’s own title in its U.S. release, a nod to his exponentially growing cultural capital. Because the man is a legend for his sprawling spiritual imagination, which more than anything provides Spirited Away with its thematic engine. It is Miyazaki’s continual exploration of the tension between indispensable environments (domestic, natural, inorganic, fantastic, social, political, and onward) that gives all of his films the unsettling yet intimate feel of a familiar dream (or nightmare) unraveling before your eyes.
But while Princess Mononoke was an overt rumination on the conflict between steamrolling technological progress and natural – but not benevolent – ecosystems, Spirited Away keeps its social critique beneath the radar. It’s far more interested in letting the familiar Alice in Wonderland narrative take precedence over its coming-of-age interrogations of labor, love, and maturity. Miyazaki has stated that he designed the film mostly for ten-year-old girls, which is about the age (give or take a few, especially in America) that they stop playing with their Barbie dolls and pick up their Britney Spears and NSYNC discs.
And so, when Spirited Away begins in the back of a luxury sedan carrying the whiny Chihiro and her parents to their new house on top of one of Miyazaki’s painstakingly detailed, hand-painted landscapes, the narrative ironically enough feels like home. It’s also no surprise that her father and mother decide to stop and explore what looks like an ancient abandoned building but is really a deserted theme park; nor are Chihiro’s warnings unusual – in fairy tales (and lame horror movies), adults are always doing stupid things like sticking their noses where they shouldn’t be. But when mom and dad dig with carnivalesque gluttony into a suspicious feast laid out in an empty café, Miyazaki’s fingerprints begin to show more clearly.
As much as he loves expansive, peaceful settings that stir only slightly in light breezes, he seems to derive just as much pleasure from immense messes, matter and waste piled atop each other in splendiferous excess. Scale is the key, and Miyazaki always thinks big. So while Disney fans might turn white watching Chihiro’s parents turn literally into pigs rolling around in the countless carcasses left behind in the wake of their ceaseless appetites, Miyazaki fans will most likely nod sagely. They’ll also revel in Chihiro’s little-girl-lost dilemma, anxious to see what kind of fantastical characters and creatures the master storyteller will populate his new world with.
He doesn’t disappoint. Spirited Away literalizes its title by presenting a roll-call of anthropomorphized figures familiar (humans, frogs, ducks, soot, dragons, witches and more) and strange (a boiler room boss with six arms, giant babies, rolling heads, stink monsters, destructive paper birds, the list goes on), to the point that, as in dreams and nightmares, there is too much to take in at one sitting. Prefaced as it is with a warning shove from a human boy named Haku, Chihiro’s initial descent into Miyazaki’s after-dark ghost town is a bracing sequence, and scared more than a few kids I spotted in the audience. You can feel the tension in the room grow, as Chihiro runs frightened and lost among threatening, shadowed spirits as the fantasy world leaps into life. And although the human presence of Haku dampens some of Chihiro’s initial shock, Miyazaki is no Lewis Carroll: he’s putting his little girl through a minor hell, possibly for her earlier emotional separation from the parents she’ll now have to risk her life to save.
This notion is reinforced by the various dualities that occur in the film once Chihiro, with Haku’s aid, begins to socially navigate her way through this Brave New World. Her mother and father are replaced by Yu-Baaba, a garish, greedy matron of the giant bathhouse Spirited Away calls its setting. Chihiro’s own name is replaced (by Yu-Baaba herself) with another, Sen, a derivation of the first kanji in her name that translates into “one thousand.” Her earlier life of luxury is now a life of pure labor, as Yu-Baaba puts her to work on the worst jobs the bathhouse has to offer. And the spoiled Chihiro receives a monstrous doppelganger, Yu-Baaba’s giant baby who does nothing but sleep and cry within its own palatial bedroom. Stripped of her name, family and creature comforts, Chihiro/Sen is forced to negotiate the hard life that so many of today’s children grow up unable to understand or even recognize. Disney’s saccharine plot lines aside, “Under the Sea” this ain’t.
And although Spirited Away is a more conventional coming-of-age tale than the transparently political Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki still gets his digs in. A disgusting stink monster that nauseates the entire bathhouse and is ordered into Sen’s care by Yu-Baaba ends up being Okutaresama, a river god polluted entirely by human garbage. Haku, although he is Sen’s first deep love, is nevertheless a river spirit himself, not a human at all. Koanashi, a hooded, benevolent spirit that follows Sen everywhere, is perverted into a gluttonous, murderous monster through his incessant consumption and deification of gold. Miyazaki’s continuous (and sometimes refreshingly trenchant) critique of consumption and commodification is in fine form here.
All of which cycles us back to the fact that Miyazaki’s decision to have Disney – who knows more than a thing or two about consumption and commodification – release Spirited Away stateside is an enigmatic one, but a good one nonetheless. In fact, what better animator to save Disney from, recalling the quote at the beginning of this review, its continual process of protecting children from the horrors and complexities of Everyday Life? Tim Burton has had more than his fill of the Mouse House, and Bill Plympton or Henry Selick are too hot to handle. Plus, Miyazaki’s imagination is far too fertile for anyone to mount a convincing case against Studio Ghibli’s decision to roll with Mickey.
Because America is better off with Miyazaki playing in the malls and the multiplexes than Monsters, Inc.. And not because the latter was a bad film, either (it was good but predictable); rather, fantasies should not be only comfortable, generic attempts at dazzling the eyes. They should also destabilize conventions, introduce horrific dangers, discomfit children and their parents, and even sometimes be sloppy, bloody messes. There should be as much David Lynch as Walt Disney in animated kids’ features these days where international wars play like video games across CNN and the Fox News Network.
In other words, you gotta have the yang with the yin. Miyazaki’s films always have both, and Spirited Away is one of his finest.
This review originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Journal and Popmatters.