91 – Spirited Away:
Ah, anime. Quite possibly one of the finest art forms ever invented. As much as I would love to rattle off a list of facts and figures about the history of anime, I’ll have to admit I’m not as much of connoisseur as other things. For example, Disney animated films were practically another resident in my home growing up. But my knowledge of anime is restricted to a handful of films and TV shows. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the hell out of it as an art form however. In contrast to the West, where animation is for children first, anime is seen as just another filmmaking medium in Japan. Some are aimed at kids, while just as many are aimed at adults. It’s simply a different cultural standard. One particular genius of the genre is Hayao Miyazaki. After a lifetime working in anime, he intended to retire in style with the film Princess Mononoke. What was meant to be his swan song ended up as a huge success – both in Japan and America. To the delight of many, he followed that film up with Japan’s answer to Alice In Wonderland – Spirited Away.
I said above that I’m not as well-experienced in anime as I am with other stuff. My first introduction to the medium was a beloved TV series called Sailor Moon – about a ditzy school girl who finds herself fighting the forces of evil. It was a huge success and helped bring about an anime boom in the 1990s. Other beloved shows such as Pokemon, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh were dubbed into English too. The earlier English dubs – particular Sailor Moon’s – need a certain amount of nostalgia goggles to enjoy. Japanese is an incredibly hard language to translate into English – just look at the disastrous translation of Final Fantasy VII – but translators started getting better and better the more they worked at it. The English dub of Spirited Away was done by Disney, sort of making this the first Disney film on my list. Just so we’re clear, I’ll be reviewing this film off its English adaptation. But if we come to a big difference in the story, I’ll be sure to note what the Japanese originally said/did.
We’re introduced to a family of three – a mother (Lauren Holly), father (Michael Chilklis) and their daughter Chihiro (Daveigh Chase). They’re on the way to a new house, and Chihiro is predictably not happy about it. At least she’s able to surround herself with plenty of goodbye presents in the back seat. Although they can physically see the new house, dad takes a shortcut to get there. He takes them past shrines that look like little houses, and to a derelict building done up to look like an old temple. Despite their daughter’s uneasy feeling, they go inside to investigate. Dad concludes that it must be an abandoned theme park. But when they smell food, they suspect it’s not that abandoned. Even though there’s still nobody in sight, the parents sample some of the delicious food left out.
Chihiro still has a bad feeling about the place, and refuses to eat any of the food. But she still walks around to examine the rest of the area. She finds what looks like a bathhouse with a train leaving from below. She also finally meets the first other person in the place: a furtive young boy called Haku. In the English dub, he’s voiced by Jason Marsden – a now veteran voice actor who provided the voices of several beloved cartoon characters.
He warns Chihiro to get out of the park before night falls. She tries to run as the lights are being lit. But when she finds her parents, they’ve now been turned into pigs! As she tries to flee, she starts to see various spirits and phantoms coming out of hiding. And when she tries to leave, she finds that the way she came has now been submerged under an ocean that came out of nowhere. Before we get to the next part of the story, I want to say something about our lead character. In his review of the film, The Nostalgia Critic made a good point about Chihiro as a character. She is a little panicky and whiny in places, but she reacts very realistically to what’s happening to her. It’s very much like Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park. They fucking freak out when a dinosaur tries to kill them – because that’s what a real kid would do. However, they – and Chihiro – don’t spend their movies screaming helplessly every few minutes. They get scared, but they learn from it. They process the trauma and move on. And that’s one of the reasons that we can identify with Chihiro. We empathise with her, but we also root for her when she tries to solve her problems. It’s a defence I usually throw up towards the Disney version of Snow White; she’s scared initially but tries to make the best of her situation and help herself.
Chihiro starts to see that she appears to be fading away, but Haku gives her some food to prevent her from disappearing. It turns out that she has found herself trapped in the spirit world – and this specific place is something like a luxury resort for various spirits. As the only human here, she’s being hunted by a dangerous entity. But she can apparently remain invisible as long as she holds her breath while they cross the bridge to the bathhouse. She just about makes it until a frog spirit startles her – but Haku sneaks her away. He instructs her to go down to the boiler room, where she’ll find Kamaji. She must ask for a job in the bathhouse, or else she’ll be turned into an animal by the witch Yubaba. When Chihiro notices that she never gave him her name, Haku claims he’s known her since they were children.
The girl doesn’t do a very good job of trying to keep herself hidden – as a step breaks under her and she screams the whole way down the rest of the staircase. But she eventually finds Kamaji, who is an arachnid spirit. I am extremely pleased that this film chose to make a spider entity benevolent – given my crippling arachnophobia. With eight limps and an army of soot creatures to carry coal for him, he must have the easiest job in the world. So naturally he doesn’t have any need for another worker. But Chihiro does help out when one of the soot creatures gets crushed under their own coal lump. Afterwards the rest of the soot creatures pretend to get crushed under their coal too. Now that’s just taking advantage of someone else’s generosity. They are joined by Lin – a weasel spirit voiced by Susan Egan. I assure you that if you think you’ve heard that voice before, you’re not mistaken…
Kamaji covers for Chihiro, saying she’s his granddaughter, and has Lin take her upstairs. When they get there, they get tailed by a radish spirit – which is the spirit world equivalent of having someone letting off farts every five seconds. Lin has to stay on the main floor to distract everyone, while Chihiro gets sent up higher. With the radish spirit of course. We’re now in the most lavishly decorated and designed part of the bathhouse, so it must be the boss’s quarters. And it’s time to meet Yubaba.
Voiced by Suzanne Pleshette, she’s the head witch of the bathhouse. She’s not receptive to the job idea, as this is no place for a human. It’s then revealed that Yubaba was the one who turned her parents into pigs – as punishment for eating the spirits’ food. She’s considering turning Chihiro into a pig too. Before she can make good on this offer, she’s interrupted by her newly woken baby…
With an infant that size, you have to be thankful for the invention of C-sections. So in a film heavily inspired by Alice In Wonderland, Yubaba appears to be Spirited Away’s version of the Duchess. Both are cranky old ladies with rather huge heads, short tempers and oversized babies. Yubaba is finally persuaded to give Chihiro a job in exchange for signing her name away. Quite literally; she takes the name off the page and tells the girl she’s called Sen now. This apparently represents a take that to capitalism, or rather the obsession with value. ‘Chihiro’ means ‘a thousand fathoms’, while the new name Sen means literally ‘a thousand’. So Yubaba is really taking away what makes her unique and giving her a number. The whole film examines the effect that capitalism has had on traditional Japanese culture and values, particularly due to the influence of the Western world. Notably Yubaba wears a European style dress in contrast to everyone else’s traditional Japanese outfits in the bathhouse.
Haku arrives in the office, pretending not to know his friend, and takes her downstairs. He apparently works for Yubaba too. He also warns Sen not to act as if she knows him. The girl gets saddled with Lin, who initially seems to be annoyed. But as soon as everyone’s gone, she suddenly acts friendly. She shows Sen to their room and gives her the uniform to wear. In the early hours of the next morning, when Yubaba has left the bathhouse, Haku sneaks into Sen’s room and tells her to meet him at the bridge. She sneaks out through the boiler room and passes a rather elaborately designed extra…
When she looks back, he’s gone, but Haku is there. He shows her the pen where her parents are kept, still pigs. He also gives her back her old clothes and a goodbye card from her friends. It’s now that we learn she had forgotten her old name already. And that is how Yubaba controls the workers in the bathhouse. Haku says he can’t even remember his own name. He then leaves, assuring he’ll be back to help her soon. As she watches him go, he turns into a dragon and flies off.
After a brief sequence of Yubaba’s bird form flying through the rain, night falls and that means it’s time for work to be done in the bathhouse. This entire sequence here illustrates the theory that the whole film is a metaphor for rites of passage into adulthood. Chihiro (or Sen) becoming a worker in the bathhouse has been suggested as an analogue to a child/teen entering the workforce for the first time. Yubaba takes her old name, signalling that she now has to forget her old identity and accept a new one as part of ‘the team’. Chihiro/Sen is out of her depth at the beginning but soon catches on and contributes pretty well, representing the child on their first job. The bathhouse staff sleeping during the day and working at night represents the different set of hours a child has to get used to when they start work. The likes of Lin and Kamaji represent the helpful veterans in the business that take newbies under their wing and help them adjust. Yubaba is of course the intimidating boss – whose priorities are the customers first and the employees second. Note that the bathhouse never changes, nor does Sen’s situation. It’s just her attitude that changes – and helps her adjust to the situation. Her parents being out of the way likely symbolises the child having to learn to get by without their help. And slowly throughout the film, Sen no longer has to rely on other people’s help, and does things on her own – showing that this happens to every child and is only a rite of passage that leads to good opportunities.
Sen sees the creature from the bridge and leaves the door open for him, so he can get inside. This proves helpful to her when the foreman refuses to give her a token to clean a big bathtub; the creature sneaks it out and gives it to her himself. Once she’s filled the tub with water, she looks quite pleased that she’s finally accomplished something by herself. The creature appears in the room with her, offering her more bath tokens – presumably thinking that’s the way to make friends with her. But we have more important things to worry about, as a Stink Spirit has approached the bathhouse. If you want to know why this is so worrying…
Anyway Yubaba still decides to let the great mass of sludge into the bathhouse since he has money – and she tasks the new girl with being the one to give him a bath. As expected for a creature so disgusting, one herbal formula isn’t enough. So the mass of bath tokens Sen was given come in handy. As the creature gets a good wash, Yubaba realises that he’s not just a Stink Spirit – and sends all the staff down there to help remove what looks like a thorn in his side. The thorn turns out to be a bicycle’s handlebars, along with a mass of other junk. Once pulled out, the spirit shows his true form.
It’s a river spirit, turned disgusting from years of pollution. Hayao Miyazaki is himself a dedicated environmentalist and claims this bit was inspired by one time he was part of a river clean-up crew – and they actually did find a bike in the river. This goes back to the theme of capitalism and the effect it has on traditional values. All the junk found in the spirit is made up of appliances and modern conveniences – and the pollution causes him to lose his natural form. He rewards the others for cleaning him and gives Sen a gift of some medicine, while also dropping loads of gold for everyone else. This anti-capitalism message gets underlined when Sen wakes up to find that the entire bathhouse is frantically feeding a guest who’s giving out gold by the handful. Since they don’t seem to have lives outside the bathhouse, it doesn’t look as if they’d have much use for the gold. But they still want it.
Sen spots Haku in dragon form flying around outside. He appears to have some strange birds of prey attacking him. But once she lets him in, she discovers they’re made of paper. There’s a joke I could probably make about the dangers of paper cuts but I’ll just take the high road. But meanwhile downstairs, the entire bathhouse is trying to appease the strange black creature. When he sees Sen, he offers her more gold than anyone else – which I assume is meant to be a take that to people who try to buy affection. After she refuses, he decides to eat people in frustration. Sen gets upstairs to Yubaba’s office, where she believes Haku has gone. She hides in the baby’s room, which doesn’t help matters when said baby wants her to stay and play. I should note that the baby Boh is also quite articulate and capable of speaking. And I feel compelled to make you all a tad uncomfortable by showing you a picture of what the baby looks like in real life…
That’s Tara Strong, one of the most talented and versatile voice actresses working today. She’s known for a whole variety of characters – Baby Dil in Rugrats, Bubbles in The Powerpuff Girls, Timmy Turner in The Fairly Odd Parents, Raven in Teen Titans, Twilight Sparkle in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic – but this is one of her earlier roles. The baby makes a big commotion, but the scene gets interrupted by someone else arriving. It’s Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba – who’s also voiced by Suzanne Pleshette. For this reason, there are fan theories that they’re actually the same person with a split personality. Zeniba turns the baby into a mouse, and turns Yubaba’s three disembodied head pets into a Boh lookalike. She reveals that Haku is dying because he tried to steal her magic seal. She can’t tell us much more as Haku and Sen end up falling down the hole in the floor. While falling, Sen has some kind of flashback to being underwater.
After a minor adventure through some rooms in the bathhouse that undoubtedly sparked plenty of fan fiction, Sen and Haku end up in the boiler room – with Boh in mouse form tagging along for the ride. Sen decides to try and cure whatever’s wrong with Haku by feeding him the thing that the river spirit gave her. If this seems a little too convenient, there’s a detail about Haku that’ll be revealed later to clear it up. Anyway Haku coughs up both Zeniba’s gold seal and some kind of black slug. Sen stamps on the slug to kill it, while Haku is restored to his human form. Kamaji explains where Haku came from – or at least how he came to be in the bathhouse; he showed up one day with no memory of who he was and took a job with Yubaba. He’s been hoping to regain his memories ever since.
Sen wants to help Haku by taking the gold seal back to Zeniba, hoping that she’ll know what to do. Luckily for her, Kamaji has some train tickets. Unluckily, Lin shows up to tell Sen that she’s in big trouble. The creature she let in is called No-Face and he’s already swallowed three people. When Sen goes back upstairs to see him, he’s now grown even larger. Sen gives him the rest of the river spirit’s medicine but it doesn’t quite agree with him. He chases her around the bathhouse, and takes the time to vomit all over Yubaba. The vomiting continues and he regurgitates the three people he ate. Lin helps Sen get to the train station but has to go back to the bathhouse. The purified No-Face tags along though. The train they board is actually intended to be one for departing spirits. So all the shadowy background extras are actually spirits that have just died and are departing this world. As expected with a train ride in an animated film, we get some very pretty visuals of the scenery.
Meanwhile back at the bathhouse, Haku has woken up. He goes to Yubaba and drops the bomb that the baby has been replaced. She is less than pleased that he’s with Zeniba, and Haku offers her a deal: she’ll get the baby back if she tears up Sen’s contract and restores her parents. Yubaba agrees but says she will give the girl one final test, and she’s forced to stay there if she fails. Elsewhere, the train stops and Sen’s group of companions start walking. It seems as though Boh now prefers walking to being carried around. When they meet Zeniba, it turns out she’s much friendlier than her sister. She reveals that Sen inadvertently broke Yubaba’s spell over Haku when she squashed that black slug. But the spell she herself put on him…well only love can break that one.
Zeniba also claims that the spell on Boh has already worn off and he’s free to change back if he wants. She’s not able to turn Sen’s parents back; she’ll have to do that on her own. But if she feels she’s met Haku before, she probably has. Zeniba has her sit in the corner, while she and the others do some sewing. She also insists that Sen call her ‘granny’ from now on. This contrast between Yubaba and Zeniba seems to be another analogue to the Duchess from Alice In Wonderland. The first time Alice meets her, she’s horrible. But the second time, she’s inexplicably friendly and kind. So that’s probably where the theories that the twin sisters are the same person come from. Zeniba presents Sen with a hairband that has power because it was woven by her friends. This is timed nicely with Haku arriving in dragon form outside the house. No-Face stays behind with Zeniba, while the others board the dragon and go for a ride. It’s not spelled out in the film, but the reason No-Face stays behind is to start over. He entered the bathhouse as a blank slate but was quickly corrupted by all the greed inside. Once Sen gave him the river spirit’s medicine, he was reset. So he stays with Zeniba so he can be raised the right way. This could be interpreted as a way of holding onto traditional Japanese values in a world very heavily influenced by the West. The world may be different, but as long as the children are raised with the right influences they can have the best of both.
While they’re flying, Sen suddenly remembers where she knows Haku from. When she was younger, she fell into the river – but was carried safely to shore. It was the Kohaku River, and she thinks Haku is the spirit of it. But the river was filled in and replaced with an apartment block, so that’s why he couldn’t remember himself. There’s yet another anti-pollution lesson. We get a beautiful scene between the two reconciling and flying through the air. They arrive back at the bathhouse just in time for morning. Yubaba is overjoyed to see Boh back – and he turns into a baby again. She’s shocked that he’s standing all by himself – the implication being that she smothered him too much and thus stunted his maturation. Boh stands up to her and says she better not make Sen cry. Sen also forgets that she’s not Zeniba and keeps calling her ‘granny’.
Yubaba has one final test for her: identifying her parents in a pig pen. She only has one try. But she notices that none of the pigs are the parents – and she’s right! As a result, Sen is now Chihiro again and her parents are back on the human side of the river. Haku won’t be able to follow her, but he’s going to stop being Yubaba’s slave. They bid goodbye to each other, Chihiro promising not to look back until she’s at safety. She hooks up with her parents, now restored and with no memories of the past three days. They also get quite a surprise when they see their car rusted and covered with leaves. It’s implied that Chihiro doesn’t remember her experiences either. But here is the one major difference in the English dub: as the car drives away, and her parents ask how she feels about the move, she now replies “I think I can handle it”. According to Hayao Miyazaki, she doesn’t remember the events. But the English dub (which was approved by him) implies that she still has the character development she got from the whole thing. So she won’t remember the bathhouse but she’ll arrive at her new home matured and ready for it.
Spirited Away managed to be an even bigger hit than Princess Mononoke, grossing around $289 million worldwide. It’s one of those anime films that everyone knows about in some way. Channel 4 even ranked it as number 68 on their list of ‘100 Greatest Family Films’ – the only anime to make the list. It’s also the only traditionally animated film to win the Best Animated Film award at the Oscars (the award having been established when CGI films had become commonplace). It’s a film that’s just lovely to watch – with some stunning animation, fun characters and some wonderfully bizarre sequences. There are all these little individual arcs going on for the characters, in addition to Chihiro trying to get her parents back. Lin and Kamaji developing a fondness and protectiveness for the girl, Haku trying to discover his fast, Boh maturing after years of being coddled and No-Face’s quest for friends. Note that although I said I would point out when the English dub differed from the Japanese, I never had to until the end. There was special care taken with this dub, and it is widely thought to be just as good as the original. When you think of the issues with the dubs of Sailor Moon, it’s definitely something to appreciate. It’s one of those films that seems to have endured over time and will be held up as a classic soon enough.
The grades now belong to me:
*Story? An Alice In Wonderland type adventure that is beautifully weird. It’s not that plot heavy but it’s still a good story. Very layered and deep. B
*Characters? Chihiro was developed to be a little different from the ‘bratty child learns to grow up from an adventure’ format. Miyazaki wished for a protagonist who instead discovered something that was already inside her. The supporting characters are all memorable in their own way, and that’s really what you want. A+
*Performances? The English dub is a quality one. Daveigh Chase turns in a fantastic performance as Chihiro/Sen – with the right amount of spirit and depth to make her a lovable heroine. Suzanne Pleshette is likewise brilliantly chilling as Yubaba and warmly sweet as Zeniba. Jason Marsden came close to stealing the show as Haku. The rest of the cast are all spot on too. A+
*Visuals? This is Hayao Miyazaki we’re talking about. One of the greatest animation directors of all time. Jaw-dropping sets and character designs galore. A+
*Special Effects? There’s some great use of CGI blended with traditional hand-drawn animation, especially during the scenes on the train and whenever Haku is flying. A
*Anything Else? The story has a leisurely pace. It’s a little longer than the typical 90-minute animated film, but that only enhances the thing. Some soft and pleasant music to listen to as well. B
Moving from the spirit world to the more mundane space world, my next film is Alien: Resurrection.