Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Kirk Wise
I wish I could’ve seen Spirited Away when I was a child. For friends who did, it seems this movie is rooted deep within their memories, as if it’s something they themselves experienced. Watching it for the first time recently I found it cute, strange and fantastical but nothing more lasting than any other cute, strange and fantastical movie I might’ve seen.
In this case, however, it seems clear that I just missed the boat.
Spirited Away is something between Alice in Wonderland and Coco. It involves a child who finds herself separated from her parents and surrounded by ghosts, spirits and many, many other delirious creatures. She will work to get back home and to save her parents from being eaten (more on that in a bit), but this journey involves a few detours which further realize this strange little world and introduce us to the people who inhabit it.
The best part of this film is simply how inventive it is. The character design is otherworldly, and the whole things feels like either a child’s daydream or an adult’s acid trip. There’s a giant baby, three Stonehenge-like green heads that move together in unison, spirited pieces of paper, a giant stench-ridden much blob, an old lady with an identical twin sister who runs a bath house, a man with spider-like limbs, slave mothballs and a masked ghost who eats people, including the talking frog.
It’s completely unpredictable, and it’s dark in a way children’s films often seem to be. For an adult with a reasonable expectation that things will work out just fine (and they do), the danger never feels as apparent as it must to a child who isn’t sure whether Chihiro’s parents, who have been turned into pigs with no memory of who they once were, will be saved in the end.
This kind of darkness is in something like James and the Giant Peach (1996), which might as well be my version of Spirited Away. That’s a movie I haven’t seen in quite literally two decades but which has certain images seared into my brain. I don’t remember much of the positive aspects of the story and only the more intimidating, threatening qualities of the film. In one scene a pirate is stretched to, if I recall correctly, two or three times his size. It’s torture, is what it is.
And because it all works out I suppose it’s fine, but for a child these things linger more deeply than they do for an adult. The world of this film, no matter how wild, feels safe to me because it’s an animated children’s film, and this is how those things work. For a child, however, this is a world in which you can easily lose yourself, just like Alice.
Even thinking about the film now, I’m struck by certain images that thus must surely stick with a younger audience. One involves Chihiro sitting with a ghost on an empty train, traveling through a flatland that is perpetually covered by a foot or two of water. It’s some kind of dreamscape, both mundane and haunting.
Spirited Away takes you to such a haunting but eventually cheerful little world in which things at first meant to seem quite frightening turn out to be perfectly harmless. Characters who refuse to treat the Chihiro, a ten year old girl, with any kindness (and thus just treat her like a fellow adult passenger on a crowded subway train) come around to see her as a unique individual. So within such an unrecognizable, intimidating world the young protagonist is finally recognized as a human being.
And then she gets to go back to her own life and see her healthy parents, satisfied with a new perspective on life.
Up Next: Punishment Park (1971), Spielberg (2017), Drugstore Cowboy (1989)