Spirited Away (part of Turner Classic Movie's Miyazaki retro)

Every Thursday night for the month of January, Turner classic movies is having a Hayao Miyazaki retrospective. This features much of his early works and his more recent ones, and includes the films of colleague and artistic equal (if not superior) Isao Takahata.

Last Thursday was Spirited Away. My impression--that Sen's adventures could easily be read as the adventures of any overseas worker or immigrant in a new country--gets stronger and stronger with each viewing. My thoughts on the subject:

Spirited Away

Some additional impressions (SPOILERS):

Geography and layout:

It's surprisingly consistent: the tunnel under the abandoned building that Chihiro and her family enters leads to a field with a dried riverbed, leads to an alleyway full of restaurants, leads to a bridge, leads to Yubaba's bath house. To the left of the alleyway is a warehouse for the sake, a large room for cutting fish and seafood, a huge freezer for storing them, an equally large room for butchering meat, a pigsty, a garden.

Three kinds of elevators service the bathhouse: the first, a service elevator with no walls similar to that used in mines; the second, decently appointed, services the lower floors; the third, looking very exclusive and luxurious, runs to only two floors--what looks like "second heaven" (not familiar with Japanese kanji, but the characters in Mandarin (which share many written characters) read "two" and "sky"), and "heaven" (the Mandarin character for "sky").

Incidentally, while the girl taking Chihiro to Yubaba says in the subtitled version "sorry it's broken," the subbed version is more accurate: the Radish god points up, miming his desire to ride the elevator upwards and the girl replies that the elevator won't go any higher; at the side of the shaft, you can see the Mandarin character for "down." They move to another elevator, the side of which reads "up."

Some lovely symmetries:

When Chihiro walks through the tunnel at the start of the film, the mother complains that she's holding on to her arm too tight; Chihiro, presumably, is afraid she'll get lost. When they go though the tunnel at the film's end, the mother makes the same complaint; this time, presumably, Chihiro is afraid she might lose her parents.

The River God's gift:

The medicine the River God gives Chihiro is apparently an emetic; when given to Haku, he coughs up not just the gold seal he stole, but the spell Yubaba puts on him to control him. Later, when No-Face is given the same medicine, he coughs up everything he's swallowed up, including four of the bathhouse's staff. Apparently the medicine is meant to make you get rid of everything that's bad for you.

Interesting too, that No-Face is voiceless at first, but when he swallows the frog he assumes the frog's voice (this could be a casting decision made during the film's English dubbing) and sprouts a pair of frogs legs.

Milo Miles once wrote that the image of Sen holding down Haku's dragon mouth while the medicine takes effect is a potent sexual image, an interesting interpretation. Equally interesting, I thought, was what happened after Sen steps on the spell or worm that Haku coughs up: the soot spirits and the mouse (formerly Yubaba's gigantic child) gather around the spot where the worm was squashed, and the mouse re-enacts Sen's killing the spirit. I don't know if Miyazaki's ever read Clemens' The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but a similar episode is described there--someone is shot in the streets, a gangly man in a felt top hat re-enacts the killing, and everyone congratulates him for doing it just right.


Might as well note here that Miyazaki is not just a master of characterization, but a master at characterizing various incidental or side characters: the soot spirits come off as a funny crowd of agitators, ready to strike for their rights or anyone else's (including Chihiro's); the giant child appears only after more than half the film has passed, but he's as memorable as Sen herself (and a side comment on the main storyline, of youth growing up to responsibility and a sense of self-worth).

The train ride:

Miyazaki calls the train ride the climax of the film, and I can see why: it's in effect Chihiro's (now called Sen) most decisive, most selfless act--she's risking her life to go to a powerful sorceress to beg for her friend's life (throwing in the gold seal in the process).

During the ride there's a fleeting shot of a train station being left behind, and of a shadowy girl standing there--why is she there (if she had just gotten off, she'd be stepping offthe station). Was she waiting for her father? Was she disappointed he wasn't on the train that just left? Seems like a quick homage to Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (where the two girls also waited for their father to arrive from work), and a haunting image all its own.

There's another shot during that ride (surely the sequence is one of the most quietly emotional and most strangely beautiful things Miyazaki has ever done) where the camera simply lingers on Sen's face. She's looking forward, probably with apprehension, to facing Zeniba, who, for all she knows, is even worse and more powerful than Yubaba. At film's end, when the car pulls away, the same shot is repeated, only this time Chihiro is looking back at the tunnel and at what she'd left behind--her memories of functioning on her own, and growing into herself and meeting her first love.

A psychologically astute moment:

Then there's the moment when Sen is given a rice cake to eat by Haku, after seeing her parents (interesting to note that her final test hinges on her ability to recognize who her parents are, no matter what form they take, which in a way affirms her affection and bond with them--a notable contrast to the film's beginning, where it seems she blames them for uprooting her from her friends and school). It's her second time to eat something in that world (interesting that you have to partake of something in that world to materially exist in it), and her first time to really relax, and she cries, all the shock and fear of the last twenty or so hours coming out in tears and bawls. It just seems like such a psychologically astute thing for Miyazaki to throw in--of course this girl was going to cry, but she wouldn't let herself do so until she felt safe enough.

The word of a child:

Chihiro is told early on to insist that Yubaba give her work, no matter what is said to her, and it's a potent scene, Yubaba's huge head and taloned fingers pointing witheringly at her while rendering judgement on her meager abilities. I read Miyazaki saying that this goes to show the power of saying something out loud--I suppose it brings something out in the open that can't be ignored. But I think the film makes it more nuanced than that--a child can say what she wants, and repeat it until granted, but this doesn't make her heroic, or even admirable; too many spoiled brats use the same tactic. To say something, or insist on something one believes is right, or is a right, in the face of all adult insistence that it's wrong, that's brave. She's out to save her parents, she has no powers, and no real knowledge of the world she finds herself in; her only weapon is what little information Haku has given her and her own word, little enough as it is. She has to have faith that it is enough to sustain her.

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