Castles in the Sky: Spirited Away, by Aaron Pinkston
Is there anything worse for a young child than to move? At least in terms of minor, annoying stuff. The anxiety of a completely new environment, a new school and, of course, the pressures of making new friends. In most situations, the “new kid” is an outcast until proven otherwise — a complete reversal of our American justice system. Everything is much different for an adult, the process is more of a pest at worst, and sometimes adults can even be excited about moving into a new home. There are literally dozens of films where moving is a major or minor plot point, which explores all of these themes. There are even a few Ghibli films that have already touched on the subject. In the world of the movies, moving can even take on more sinister circumstances — you might be moving into a city of oblins or vampires or into a haunted house. In Spirited Away, perhaps the most acclaimed film from Studio Ghibli, this concept is put on its head and spun around until it vomits.
Before embarking on this Ghibli journey, I had only seen two of the studio’s films. One was The Secret World of Arrietty, which I saw in theaters earlier this year. The first, though, was when I was in college, where I often rented a variety of DVDs from (gasp!) a video store. I can’t quite remember the impetus, but this is how I first saw Spirited Away. I think my month-and-a-half long viewing of Ghibli’s output has made me forget just how dark this film is. OK, Spirited Away is totally fucked up — and this is coming from someone whose favorite film is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
This is probably the Ghibli film that is most difficult to summarize, which I think leads to some of its greatness, but I’ll try and do so anyway. The film opens with Chihiro, a young girl of probably around ten, who is in the process of moving to her new home. While driving, her father becomes lost and comes upon a strange tunnel, inaccessible by car. Smartly, Chihiro says, “Hey, let’s not go in there,” but her parents are too curious. On the other end of the tunnel, they find what seems to be an abandoned amusement park, but then why is there so much fresh, delicious food strewn about? Through a number of random, magical circumstances, Chihiro is separated from her parents in a fantasy world filled with dragons and spells and Turkish-style baths. One of the most amazing things about Spirited Away is that there are no real plot mechanics working here. In most stories like this, we would have a pretty easy-to-see through line, where the young girl has a specific mission to find a key or learn a moral — basically this is Alice in Wonderland except all sorts of morbid — but Spirited Away doesn’t quite work that way. We know that Chihiro needs to get out of this world, find her parents, reverse some magical spells, but at most points in the film we have no idea who in the hell she’s supposed to do any of this. There are so many side quests and random encounters that it’s really easy to get wrapped up in the film and forget where we’ve been and where we’re going. The result of that contributes to the anxious, worrisome tone of the film.
Spirited Away is the most morose of Ghibli’s films by a large margin. There are more “serious” films than Spirited Away, but none that feel so terrifying and suffocating. I feel this is mostly contributed to the young girl’s mission. As I stated before, we’ve seen a lot of other stories similar to how this one should work — a young girl (or boy, but strangely usually a girl) is whisked away to some magical land where she encounters monsters, both good and bad, and other such magical things. In most all of those other films, though, there is some sort of lesson at hand, where the young girl needs to learn to treat her parents better, not be such a brat, not take for granted the things she has. Spirited Away SHOULD work like that, but most of the film feels like this is all just to torment Chihiro. For comparison’s sake, there is a specific event near the beginning of the film that is very similar to the plot of another animated film, one which just came out. When Chihiro and her parents arrive at what they believe to be an abandoned amusement park, and after they stumble on all this delicious looking food, Chihiro’s parents begin to engorge themselves. As this is a fantasy world and all, they promptly turn into pigs. In Pixar’s Brave, Merida’s mother turns into a bear, but because of Merida’s spoiled and ignorant nature. She has to learn that he mom isn’t so bad and everyone has one so she should love the one she’s got. Chihiro’s parents turn into animals solely because of their nature (or perhaps due to a spell which lures them to eat this food); Chihiro was actually the responsible one, but now she’s being punished. Throughout the film, she seems to be the most responsible 10-year-old ever, doing the right thing time after time. The only “lesson” she learns by the end of the film is trivial in terms of the like fantasy films, though incredibly funny in that way.
Being a “children’s film,” there were a number of young children in the audience of this particular screening. A few didn’t last much more than 15 or 20 minutes into the film. Kids probably don’t have the capacity to feel the tense or morose tone of the film, but they will respond to the litany of monsters in the film. The first we come across is a half-man, half-spider who feels like he should be in the world of Freddy Kruger. The man’s skinny arms maneuver by stretching unnaturally across his room and his posture is hellish. Another monster who comes into the film later on is a Kabuki ghost called “No-Face” that must be some sort of Japanese nightmare — I wouldn’t doubt that there is a Japanese horror franchise with a monster something like this. What is most terrifying about No-Face is that he doesn’t seem menacing until he is extraordinarily menacing. No-Face works its way into the film’s main setting, let into the spa by Chihiro, who doesn’t find the ghost to be particularly out of sorts (and to be fair, she is in a world filled with horrific monsters). But once it is there, it begins to lure people with golden treasures and then eats them. After its first victim, a loud-mouthed frog, it uses his voice to communicate with others. These are the tactics of countless monsters and killers from horror films. Finally, there is a minor character, an over-sized baby (another match-up with Pixar), who tells Chihiro quite straight-faced “Play with me or I’ll break your arm” and “If you don’t play with me, I’ll cry and Mama will come in here and kill you.” Yeesh. And did I mention that all three of these monsters are “good guys?” Even the love interest periodically turns into a incredibly scary wolf dragon.
Studio Ghibli has never backed down from being scary, even though its films are essentially for children. For example, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind had some incredibly creepy designs of giant insects and action scenes where the characters were in incredible danger. The advances in animation technology between 1984 and 2001 is immense, though, and that plays a big part in the scary factor of this film. The creature designs are more intricate, they move more fluidly and quickly, and their horrific parts are more sharply drawn. This also seems like the first Ghibli film that uses some digital animation, which might have some effect, especially to younger viewers, as the older animated films seem older in comparison.
Spirited Away is among the most creative, imaginative films I’ve ever seen. The sheer craziness of the film’s plot and narrative construction may turn off some, especially younger viewers, but the wild acclaim the film has received is justifiable. Many of the studio’s other most-beloved films are layered with a sweetness which Spirited Away seems to demolish — some of the tried-and-true themes do come up throughout, but this is a harsh and uncompromising world, filled with characters that can never be forgotten. In part because you may be having nightmares about them.