Being enclosed, protected, and kept away from dangers, children cannot help but enlarge their fragile egos in their daily lives, where they feel their lives as something dim.
— Hayao Miyazaki
It’s more than a little strange that Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film has arrived in the States via Walt Disney Studios, an uber-corporation bent on reducing rich and colorful cultures to vanilla palettes (Pocahontas, Aladdin, Tarzan). After all, this is the same animator who orchestrated a memorable war between the natural and industrial worlds, in Princess Mononoke, with a great deal of violence. Indeed, it was hard to watch that film’s gore — battle marches, clan rivalries, severed heads, and demonic possessions — without considering that it was rendered in ordinarily kid-friendly animation. Which is another way of saying Princess Mononoke was to The Little Mermaid as The Shining was to Pinocchio.
But Disney is not run by dummies, which is why, when you see ads for Spirited Away, you will note that it is the “highest-grossing film of all time” in Japan, or that it won a slew of awards in Germany, San Francisco, and Hong Kong before you hear anything else about the film. Usually, that’s a safe way to contextualize visionaries like Miyazaki, whose films rarely follow conventional Hollywood formulas, especially the ones dictating the content of children’s films.
So, in the context of corporate globalism, it’s almost comforting to see Miyazaki’s name above the film’s title in its U.S. release. The man is a legend, if only for his sprawling spiritual imagination, which drives Spirited Away. It is Miyazaki’s continual exploration of the tension between indispensable environments (domestic, natural, inorganic, fantastic, social, and political) that gives all of his films the feel of a familiar dream (or nightmare) unraveling itself before your eyes.
But while Princess Mononoke was an overt rumination on the conflict between steamrolling technological progress and natural (but not benevolent) ecosystems, Spirited Away keeps its social critique beneath the radar. It’s far more interested in letting the Alice-in-Wonderland narrative take precedence over its interrogations of labor, love, and maturity. Miyazaki has stated that he designed the film mostly for 10-year-old girls, usually the age (give or take a few, especially in America) that they stop playing with their Barbie dolls and pick up their Britney Spears and ‘NSync discs, moving from their sometimes sheltered and commodity-rich lives into the dangerous realm of love, maturity and increasing social interaction.
And so, when Spirited Away begins in the back of a luxury sedan carrying the whiny Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) and her parents to their new house on top of one of Miyazaki’s painstakingly detailed, hand-painted landscapes, it ironically feels like home. It’s also no surprise that her father and mother decide to stop and explore what looks like an ancient abandoned building but is really a deserted theme park. Nor is Chihiro’s warning against this decision unusual; in fairy tales (and lame horror movies), adults are always sticking their noses where they shouldn’t be. But when mom and dad dig into a suspicious feast laid out in an empty café, Miyazaki’s fingerprints begin to show more clearly.
As much as the animator loves expansive, peaceful settings that stir only slightly in light breezes, he seems to derive just as much pleasure from immense messes, splendiferous excesses. Miyazaki always thinks big. So while Disney fans might feel faint watching Chihiro’s parents turn literally into pigs rolling around in the countless carcasses resulting from their ceaseless appetites, Miyazaki fans will most likely nod sagely. They’ll also revel in Chihiro’s little-girl-lost dilemma, anxious to see what kind of fantastical characters and creatures will populate her suddenly changed world.
Spirited Away literalizes its title by presenting a roll call of anthropomorphized figures familiar (humans, frogs, ducks, soot, dragons, and witches) and unfamiliar (a boiler room boss with six arms, giant babies, rolling heads, stink monsters, destructive paper birds, the list goes on), to the point that there is too much to take in at one sitting. And Chihiro’s initial descent into the film’s after-dark ghost town is a bracing sequence, and scared more than a few kids I spotted in the audience. She runs frightened and lost among threatening, shadowed spirits as the fantasy world leaps into life. And although the human presence of Haku dampens some of Chihiro’s initial shock, Miyazaki is no Lewis Carroll: he’s putting his little girl through a minor hell. Where Chihiro was previously annoyed by parents who ignored her petulant moping, now she’ll have to risk her life to save them.
This notion is reinforced by the film’s various dualities, appearing as Chihiro, with Haku’s aid, begins to navigate this Brave New World. Her mother and father are replaced by Yu-Baaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a garish, greedy matron of the giant bathhouse Spirited Away calls its setting. Chihiro’s own name is replaced (by Yu-Baaba herself) with another, Sen, a derivation of the first kanji in her name that translates into “one thousand.” Her earlier life of luxury is transformed into one of labor, as Yu-Baaba puts her to work on the worst jobs the bathhouse has to offer. And the spoiled Chihiro receives a monstrous doppelganger, Yu-Baaba’s giant baby who does nothing but sleep and cry within its own palatial bedroom. Stripped of her name, family, and creature comforts, Chihiro/Sen is forced to negotiate the hard life that many children grow up unable to understand or even recognize.
Although Spirited Away is a more conventional coming-of-age tale than the transparently political Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki still gets his digs in. A disgusting stink monster that nauseates the entire bathhouse and is ordered into Sen’s care by Yu-Baaba ends up being Okutaresama, a river god polluted entirely by human garbage. Haku, although he is Sen’s first love, is nevertheless a river spirit himself, not a human at all. Koanashi, a hooded, benevolent spirit that follows Sen everywhere, is perverted into a gluttonous, murderous monster through his incessant consumption and deification of gold. Miyazaki’s implacable (and sometimes refreshingly trenchant) critique of consumption and commodification is in fine form here.
All of which cycles us back to the fact that Miyazaki decided to give Disney — who knows more than a thing or two about consumption and commodification — the green light to release Spirited Away Stateside. As enigmatic as it might seem, it’s an understandable choice. And it certainly makes sense for the company: what better animator to save the Mouse from its tendency to “protect” children from the horrors and complexities of Everyday Life than Hayao Miyazaki? Tim Burton has had more than his fill of the Mouse House, and Bill Plympton or Henry Selick are too hot too handle. Plus, Miyazaki’s imagination is far too fertile for anyone to mount a convincing case against Studio Ghibli’s decision to roll with Mickey.
Either way, America is better off with Miyazaki playing in the malls and the multiplexes than Monsters, Inc.. Not because the latter is a bad film, either (it’s a good but predictable one), but because fantasies should not be just comfortable, generic eye candy. They should also destabilize conventions, introduce dangers, discomfit children and their parents, and even, sometimes, be sloppy, bloody messes. There should be as much David Lynch as Walt Disney in animated kids’ features these days, when international wars play like videogames across CNN and the Fox News Network. You gotta have the yang with the yin. Miyazaki’s films always have both, and Spirited Away is one of his finest.