All the Wonders | Spirited Away (2001) Review

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki

Setting upon the ocean with her mentor Lin, our heroine Chihiro looks back to see No Face stumbling out of the great bathhouse. However much a ghost stumbles, he is dizzy after his recently ejected meal of three people. Chihiro calls out to him, “Over here!” and Lin just says, “We don’t need him.” You know, not “He ate and spat out three people,” which was only part of his earlier rampage. It’s a casual kind of absurdity, one that doesn’t tug at incredulity because it feels earned. In fact, this is a film that gets funnier as it goes on, which is the opposite of how these things usually go – you know, movies that make me cry. You want to start funny to soften up the audience, and then hit them with tragedy, but not this time. Spirited Away understands that half of any joke, same as any wisdom, is the person making it, so its breathtaking fantasy adventure is premise for revealing the depths of people – none of whom are “human.”

We open on a scene of a family driving from the city into the countryside, and in addition to the beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi, the first thing we might notice is how the car shakes and bumps along the forest path. There’s a studied weight to its physics, with Studio Ghibli having developed so much mechanical design sense on grandiose aircraft both historical and fantastic, reserved now for a consumer vehicle. We’ll see that same fixation on the processes of things when we meet the spider-like Kamaji and the operators of the bathhouse proper. Everything feels alive and lived-in, and the delicate approach to the animation is matched by the writing. When the family, Chihiro and her two parents, emerge onto an abandoned fairground, supernatural elements begin to take shape at a properly narrative pace.

Her parents discover and busy themselves with a buffet at an unmanned stall, leaving Chihiro to wander alone in this strange place. The anxiety becomes terror when a boat docks nearby to release a parade of ghosts, as at the same time, Chihiro’s parents have magically metamorphosed into pigs. This is Hayao Miyazaki playing conductor – mimicking the assured strokes of Hisaishi – laying out the story beats such that exposition, like “ghosts,” arrive packaged. I can’t emotionally respond to “ghosts,” but the honest-to-God scary pig reveal? Later, Chihiro is thrust deeper into the spirit world, where she learns that Haku, the one friendly face, is an apprentice of the evil witch Yubaba. Isolation, terror, betrayal — these are emotions we understand, turning Chihiro into an instant audience proxy. The logic of her character is our emotional response, and this continues with her first test, when a “stink spirit” enters the bathhouse despite the efforts of frog-men to keep it from crossing the bridge.

The stink spirit does as its namesake suggests, as the equally magical beings around it pinch their noses or watch as bowls of rice shrivel. Chihiro isn’t so much tasked with dealing with it as she’s in the right place at the right time. This first set piece comes in at the one-hour mark, and it’s impressive first for not being an action sequence. It’s funny and thrilling, but it isn’t about one side defeating the other. It’s also where Chihiro begins to change as a character. I sometimes wonder, in the throes of storytelling, how does a writer know when a character is ready to demonstrate their change? How do you show it? In this case, Chihiro takes an active hand because somebody has to, urgently. You in the audience would do the same, wouldn’t you? and she’s rewarded not with the gold which briefly becomes dangerous currency in the bathhouse, but with the spectacle of a spirit liberated, flying around, vibrant with happiness.

One venerable tradition of science-fiction and fantasy movies is “the cantina scene,” whether it’s the Troll Market of Hellboy II or the spider pits of King Kong. These are the scenes with the deepest frame, which show a whole lot yet also tease further wonderment. Spirited Away is like one long cantina scene. We meet the spirits one by one, and they each suggest their own culture, as the bouncing green heads, the soot, the bathhouse workers are variously preoccupied by their own jobs or curiosity. Just as we aren’t told “Ghosts are here” upon their arrival, these spirits speak without direct language, so we piece together who they are. We learn what certain objects mean, and soon how the whole bathhouse functions.

The functions become machinations, resulting in one final task for Chihiro, one she makes for herself, to return a stolen item to Yubaba’s sister Zeniba. Also a witch, it seems Zeniba cursed Haku for being the thief. “Haku helped me, now I want to help him,” Chihiro says. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a pretty dragon-wolf boy, because it’s always easier to want to help people you’re interested in, but she’s telling this to Kamija, who also proved interesting and then sympathetic. We just saw Boh and the soot balls reenact a dramatic scene in miniature, which was indescribably cute and hilarious. Despite that Boh was earlier terrorizing Chihiro in the form of a giant baby, when he and the Yubaba-headed hawk are transformed into vulnerable, tiny creatures, she takes instant mercy on them, and they become useful, unlikely allies. This is the process of understanding the world, and finding your inroad to it. The film’s emotional beats are so carefully designed that at its peaks, I think of the people and places I’d instinctively judged, and how always profound it is when that judgment is challenged by the revelation of hidden depths.

As a note, I saw this for the first time during an “event” screening in 2019, and was so overtaken by it I decided to become the Spirited Away guy, and bought the Blu-Ray for my sister and my cousin on consecutive Christmases, my cousin who has two young children. After having recently reviewed the movie, I discovered it’s a little more intense than I remembered. Had I watched it as a kid, two things would’ve happened: I would’ve had nightmares that my parents were gonna turn into pigs, and I would’ve had a huge childhood crush on Lin.

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