Fairy tales make for a great entry point for comparing different cultures, because they tend to encompass both universal humanist qualities as well as specific distinctive elements. Spirited Away starts with a mother, father and daughter driving to their new home in a new town, which has the ten-year-old little girl Chihiro understandably out of sorts. Right away it’s a scenario to which almost everyone can relate, the childhood fears of leaving behind the familiar and starting a new phase of life, compounded and complicated by parents’ seeming indifference or half-hearted assurances that it won’t be so bad. Then the family finds a strange tunnel gate at the end of a road the father mistakenly assumes is a shortcut, and walk through it to enter an abandoned amusement park, with the father explaining that in the boom years of the 80’s many such parks were built but in the ensuing Lost Decade they were all left to rot, which speaks to a very specific span of recent Japanese history. By the time it becomes apparent that the amusement park is actually an enchanted realm within the spirit world, with various mythical creatures running a bathhouse for powerful spirits under the auspices of a powerful witch, Spirited Away had plunged unapologetically into the deep end of Japanese folklore (or pseudo-folklore, mixing traditional myths with Miyazaki’s own inventions) but, again, fairy tales are fairy tales no matter what details they are dressed up in, trolls or shikigami, elves or yōkai, talking frogs or … ok I guess Spirited Away has talking frogs, too.
Chihiro’s journey in Spirited Away is primarily an internal one, since the nature of her dilemma is that she (along with her parents, transformed into pigs) is trapped in the witch Yubaba’s domain by a contract of servitude, and her quest is to win back her family’s freedom. For all the supernatural wonders and weirdness that she encounters, the point of her story is nonetheless as simple as it is important: children are basically, at heart, decent human beings, even if their day-to-day behavior sometimes makes them seem spoiled or selfish or otherwise less than ideal. When the chips are down, children can do what needs to be done, for themselves and for others. They respond to kindness with kindness, and to love with love. I know this is a subject so near and dear to my heart that I’ve become something of a broken record about it, but that’s just where my life is at this point, with my oldest in kindergarten and my youngest just hitting the earliest independence-oriented phase: I see two sides to everything that’s child-oriented, once from my perspective as a parent ultimately responsible for these little lives and their potential, and again from the perspective of the kids themselves as little self-actualizing works-in-progress. Fairy tales are instructive to children in that they communicate virtues and values, and also inform children that sometimes life is unfair, cruelty abounds from individuals to institutions to the fates themselves, and it all must be borne with bravery and perseverance. What I’m gradually realizing as I crest the halfway point of my own life is how fairy tales are instructive to adults, to parents in particular: the world will be hard on your children at times, through no fault of their own, but your children can take it. They tougher and stronger than you realize. They contain greatness, and they can be heroes in their own stories, if you let them.
It probably goes without saying that Miyazaki is regarded as an absolute master and his animated features are lush and gorgeous in every way, Spirited Away being no exception. It’s a sumptuous visual feast, with its fantasy characters rendered in a combination of cartoonish simplicity and strangeness that defies biology and physics, all of which suits the fairy tale sensibility perfectly and somehow seamlessly melds into the backgrounds’ meticulous detail and depth. I should mention that I watched the English dub version which was adapted by Disney, and after having watched many, many anime movies in which the dialogue seems like a poorly planned afterthought (unnaturally fast speech patterns out of sync with the character’s mouths and body language) I was impressed by how much care and thought was put into re-writing the speaking parts to be harmonious to the movie overall.
My only complaint about the film came down to the pacing, which I found a little too soporific. Obviously I get that the whole story has a deliberately dreamlike quality to it, and I would readily concede that it may be a culture-clash thing, with my western sensibilities not quite capable of enjoying the more leisurely, meandering narrative. Or maybe I am just a cretin. Some people can go to an art museum and wander through it enjoying the works on display until the museum closes for the night and they have to be chased out; me, I get bored a lot faster than that, whatever my initial level of appreciation. As awe-inspiring as Miyazaki’s filmmaking is, I can’t just stare at it for hours while it spins its wheels.
Nonetheless, that’s a minor ding against the movie. Given the dearth of fairy tale stories out there with female protagonists who aren’t princesses and aren’t trying to find their true love, it’s an unqualified good thing that Spirited Away exists at all. The fact that it contains pure magic, for children and for adults, makes it even better.