Spirited Away (2001)

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Zeniba: Now, try to remember as much as you can about your old life.

Chihiro: For some reason, I can remember Haku… from a long time ago… but I thought I never met him before!

Zeniba: Oh, that’s a wonderful place to start! Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.

We’ve all been there at some point in our lifetimes. that moment when we have to leave the place we call home and travel somewhere new. For many of us, this uprooting first happens as a child. we’re taken away from our school and our friends and thrust into a new situation where nothing is familiar and we know absolutely no one. Whatever confidence we might have said is taken away, and the fear of the unknown becomes the only thing we think about. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The idea of moving is the frame in the story of Spirited Away. Set in present day Japan, it centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who is moving from one town to another with her parents, and is not too happy about it. On the way to their new house, they get lost, go through a tunnel, and find themselves in what they think is an abandoned amusement park. They snoop around and find food cooking, and her parents begin to eat, thinking the park is still open and they can just pay when the cook gets back. Chihiro goes off to look around, finds a bath house, and watches as the sun sets. This suddenly transforms the place from abandoned to teaming with life, although not the life that Chihiro and her parents are used to. This is a place for the spirits of Japan to gather. It is a place to eat the food and visit the bath house, stay, and refresh after a hard day. She returns to tell her parents to go, only to find pigs in their place. After a few strange encounters, she makes a deal with the witch who runs the bath house, Yubaba, and gets a job at the bath house so she can keep an eye on her parents and figure out how to change them back. She gets to know the bath house’s employees, patrons, and has very strange adventures, all leading up to a test that Yubaba gives her in order to return home and turn her parents back into humans.

I will be honest. This is one strange movie. that being said, it’s also so engaging in its uniqueness that you can’t help but be drawn into this world and what this little girl is going through. Every individual looks different. Every spirit and its design is unique; some are noticeably based on real Japanese spirits, while others I couldn’t place. The animation is amazing. The characters are strange and wonderful at the same time. They are memorable not only for their personalities but their designs. This is another thing that Miyazaki does well: he is so creative that sometimes it makes my head hurt. The fact that this man can come up with so many movies that are so different is something that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ve heard that everyone has at least one story in them worth telling. Well… Miyzaki has like twenty of them. This one definitely takes the cake for the MOST original. As such, it is the most unique and most strange.

It is also the most Japanese of his movies. Princess Mononoke and Totoro are as well, but this one… i dunno, it almost feels more Japanese. Each spirit represents something, whether it be a river, vegetable, or belief. The idea of the bath house in general is very Japanese. The clothes are Japanese. The animation is very Japanese. I think maybe that’s why westerners like this movie: It gives an idea of Japanese culture and beliefs through this strange story that they may not understand, but love it because it’s unique and has characters that are so mezmerising and deep and they are immersed into this world that is so unbelievable but so engaging at the same time.

Let’s start talking about some of these great characters. Our protagonist is a young girl named Chihiro. I have to admit, I’m actually not a fan of her. At least at the beginning. I think that’s actually the point, but oh my goodness is she a whiny little brat. She needs help with everything. She whines whenever she opens her mouth. She has no confidence whatsoever. You can tell she’s smart, and she has it in her to be confident, but she for whatever reason cannot access it. Essentially that is what this movie about. It’s about a girl discovering what she’s capable of and pushing herself to the brink for those she cares about.

She is, as Miyazaki does so well, a wonderful representation of a child. She’s innocent and naive. She almost assumes the best out of everyone (the character of No Face as well as Haku are a good examples of that). She’s not drawn into such “adult” matters as believing rumors or greed. Instead, she knows that some people are trying to help her, and that is enough reason for her to trust them and love them. She sees a character standing out in the rain and assumes the best of him and leaves a door open. She’s a kid. There is no reason for her to think ill of anyone unless they do her harm.

She is also a strong female character. If anything, she shows the progression so well INTO a strong character that in some aspects, she might be the best one Miyazaki’s ever written. The transformation she goes through is amazing. She goes from a whining little brat who has issues asking anyone for help or telling anyone what she needs (instead of asking) to being a girl who can stand up to a monster that everyone else is afraid of, and going on a journey to an “evil” witch’s house to save the person she cares about. She grows and changes so much during her time in the bath house that at the end of the movie she is almost unrecognizable.

There are a lot of characters in this movie. Most have smaller parts, but many help Chihiro on her path. One of these, possibly the most important, is Haku. He is a spirit (he can shape shift from a man to a dragon – his dragon is beautiful) who forgets his real name and can’t find his way home. He explains to Chihiro that this is part of the way the witch Yubaba controls you – she takes your name. She does to Chihiro, turning her into Sen. The longer you’re at the bath house, the more you forget. He almost acts as her friend, confidant and mentor through the movie. he saves her from disappearing into nothingness when she first arrives, and he’s the one who tells her what to do to keep herself from getting in trouble with Yubaba. He looks out for her, and as a result their bond is very strong. It’s one that is remarked on having existed since before she got there (“I’ve known you since you were very young” he says to her at one point). 

At the same time, Haku is also Yubaba’s “henchman.” Sen (I’ll refer to her as that from now on considering she goes through most of the movie being called that) even at one point asks another character if there’s two Hakus. He’s charged with doing Yubaba’s dirty work, according the the other characters, and he’s someone you can’t trust.

This is kinda who I was talking about when I mentioned rumors up above. Whether they are true or not (they kinda are – Haku does end up in trouble because of a mission he was on for Yubaba), Sen doesn’t care. She knows he helped her, and she’s willing to look past all that because she knows deep down he’s a good person. If someone asked her why, could she explain? I have no idea – probably not, but she doesn’t care. She knows he’s good, and is willing to do anything for him. That’s more than a lot of us could do. Because you’re following Sen during this, you almost get the feeling from Haku that he does these things because he has to – because Yubaba essentially owns him. He doesn’t remember his name or his home. What else could he do?

The most trying part of Sen and Haku’s relationship comes when she finds him hurt, having been the recipient of a curse from Yubaba’s sister, Zaniba. He was sent there by Yubaba to steal her magic seal, and as a result she cursed him. To save him, Sen journeys out to Zaniba’s to return the seal and finds that her love of him cured Haku of his curse. It’s pure love. It’s the love of a child, and it is unbelievable to watch.

Let’s talk about our “antagonist” for a moment – the witch Yubaba. First of all, her character design is nothing like you’ve ever seen. She’s got an amazingly huge head, giant eyes, and you can see literally every wrinkle on her face. She is unbelievable. Put that awesome design aside, you have a strange, zany, almost crazy witch who runs the bath house. She cares about making her patrons happy, is upset that Sen’s parents ate the spirits’ food, and acted accordingly. She has no reason to view humans as her friends, and is incredibly smart and tricky. Like Lady Eboshi in Mononoke, I have a real problem calling her a “villain.” Yeah, she’s causing trouble for our main character because of what she did to her parents, but you can see why. We hear about what she’s doing/done to Haku, and as a character she does seem a bit “shifty,” (she leaves on strange missions and has her accomplices patrol the bath house area), but you never actually find out why she’s going out, why she’s patrolling, or even why she wanted her sister’s magic seal. You kinda get the feeling when Sen gets to Zaniba’s that it’s literally just a sibling fight. Nothing more. So while some of the characters (and certainly our main one) view her as a villain, I don’t know if calling her one is fair to her. She’s running a business, wants to protect it and the other spirits, and has an extreme weak spot when it comes to her gigantic infant child (yeah… that kid is just.. yeah.). I do think she has it in her to be evil, but in the amount of time we have with her and in her dealings with Sen, we don’t really see too much.

There’s three more sort of important characters I want to touch on. The first is Lin, who acts almost as Sen mother/friend in the bath house. She’s her partner on jobs they have to do, and is in charge with showing her the ropes. As a character she’s very abrasive, opinionated, but at the same time does feel sorry for Sen and does show a bit of compassion when she’s missing her parents and dealing with Haku. She also acts as our entrance to the bath house life, which is like a whole ecosystem in itself. We learn how things work through her, and Sen learns a lot through her.

The second character is Kamaji, the boiler man. Again, super cool character design. He’s a skinny human-like character that has four pairs of arms with three fingers each, and a giant bushy mustache and huge sunglasses. He’s the person Sen first goes to to ask for a job before he sends her to Yubaba. But he gets her back, lying and saying its his granddaughter and that she’s tough. He understands the love she feels for Haku. He’s an interesting character, even if there’s not much to him. He heats the water for the bath house. (I do have to say though that his little soot sprites that throw the coal into the fire are so freaking cute/hilarious).

My last character that I want to talk about is No Face. This guy, again, could i guess technically be called a “villain,” but again I don’t know if that would be fair to him. He’s a strange black see through spirit wearing a white mask that is first seen outside the bath house by Sen. She sees him again when its raining and leaves the door open so he can come in out of the rain. Once in the bath house, though, he sees what happens when a rich patron pays a generous tip, and decides that gold is the way to get people to like him. He produces gold out of his hands to Sen, who does not want it. However everyone else goes into a frenzy. No sooner do they appease him, though, then he starts eating people, crying out that he wants Sen. I think her actions confuse him. Everyone else is crazy over gold, and here’s this girl who won’t have anything to do with it.

Anyway, Sen manages to get No Face out of the bath house, and he calms down, even regurgitating the people he had eaten and changing back from a monster to his original design. Sen exclaims that the bath house is bad for him, and he goes with her on their adventure to Zaniba’s, eventually staying there with her.

I’m not going to lie – I still don’t know if I know exactly what No Face is or what he’s supposed to represent. I’ll give it my best shot though, at least right now. What I think is that he represents are the embodiment of certain feelings we’re all prone to having: in the beginning, he’s the innate fear of being disliked. He’s shy, doesn’t talk, hangs outside the bath house. Once he learns what gets people excited and what gets people to like him, he acts upon it. But then once he is well liked, it goes to his head and he turns into a monster. We can’t all get exactly what we want all the time – it will always get to us and turn us into monsters. It’s only when we can distance ourselves form the things that are toxic that we can get back to ourselves and then be ok with ourselves. He’s the embodiment of fears that are so personal yet so universal to us all. Sen confuses him because she doesn’t appease his greed and monstrous personality. She, like most children, see him (and all of us) only for the good. It reminds him of what was good, and meeting Zaniba reaffirms that everyone has a place, and you’re ok being yourself. You don’t have to appease everyone all the time. Nor should you want to.

I dunno. Just my thoughts. I still haven’t figured it out. But then again, I dunno if we’re supposed to.

This animation is some of Studio Ghibli’s best. The bath house is beautiful. The detail in Yubaba’s office and rooms is incredible. I mentioned the character designs already. I don’t think anyone else in the world could have come up with this stuff. Miyazaki is truly one of a kind, and his attention to detail in every little thing, even landscapes, is unbelievable.

There is one scene in this movie that always makes me cry. Not because it’s sad, or even overly happy, but simply because of the animation. It is beautiful. It happens when Sen is going back to the bath house from Zaniba’s and she’s riding on top of Haku as a dragon. She wanted during the movie to help him with his problem (his name and his home), when it comes to her. she tells him that she remembered a time when she was little and lost her shoe in a river. she went in after it and almost drowned, but the river carried her to safety. Since then the river has been paved over, but she remembered the name of it: the Kohaku river. It is at this moment that Haku remembers. his scales give way and suddenly he’s a man again and the two of them are falling through the sky. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL.

I don’t really know what else to say about this movie. It’s the movie that introduced the world to Miyazaki, and went on to beat out Pixar and Monsters, Inc at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature (an honor I still completely agree with despite loving Monsters). Suddenly, Studio Ghibli was on the radar. And it’s been awesome ever since.

I give Spirited Away (2001) a 4.8 out of 5. I’m deducting a few bits of points because I’m still not sure about some of the stuff that happens. That might be the point, but I don’t know. It bugs me that I can’t figure parts of this movie out.

Next up: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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