Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a work of pagan imagination. So are the works of Homer and Sophocles.
In all these works there is much for Christian audiences to take exception with as Christians, but also much to marvel at as audiences. Though the works of Homer and Sophocles may commend themselves to us on historical and cultural grounds as well as aesthetic, any Christian reader capable of enjoying The Iliad as a story, the way it was intended to be enjoyed, can in principle understand a critical Christian moviegoer sitting in wonder at the astonishing imaginative force of the pictures Miyazaki puts on the screen.
Miyazaki is best known to American audiences as the creator of Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. To many aficianados — including director John Lasseter of the Toy Story movies, who oversaw the preparation of Spirited Away for its American theatrical release — Miyazaki is possibly the greatest animation filmmaker of all time.
Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s 2001 follow-up to Princess Mononoke, offers ample evidence for this estimation. The effortless visual virtuosity of his imagery can make even the strongest animation coming out of Disney or Pixar seem timid and uninspired by comparison. I love the quirky character design in Monsters, Inc., but the mythic power of the imagery in Spirited Away makes Monsters, Inc. look like child’s play.
It must also be said that the pagan influences in Spirited Away make the most overt pop-spirituality influences in American animation look like child’s play. New-Age flavored movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Atlantis: The Lost Empire merely dabble in Eastern-style religious motifs streamlined for Western consumer culture. Spirited Away is the real thing. It’s like putting the Jedi-knight pop mysticism of Star Wars next to the Wudan spirituality of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Yet Crouching Tiger was critical of its cultural roots in a way that Spirited Away isn’t. Like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away has an essentially animistic sensibility, seeing gods and spirits in all things.
River gods, dragons, radish spirits, flying oragami birds, rolling, muttering decapitated heads, twin witches, and spirits of all imaginable shapes and sizes roam the countryside of a mystical landscape into which a young modern-day girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase, Lilo & Stitch) stumbles when her cloddish parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new house. Those accustomed to American animation conventions should feel right at home with yet another depiction of clueless, unsympathetic parents — though it’ll probably be the last time they feel at home in this surreal film.
Like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Chihiro finds herself in a bizarre reality in which eating the wrong food or not eating the right food can have disastrous consenquences, and a domineering queen-like figure threatens to kill her.
It’s also a world in which people utter invocations such as "In the name of the wind and water within thee, unbind her" and "Evil be gone" (this with a ritual spell-breaking gesture); in which humans are viewed in a very dim light; and in which practically every character she meets seems at one point monstrous or hostile and at another point benign and helpful, sometimes with no real explanation. Everything is ambiguous and shifting and threatening; it’s all but impossible to know for sure who to trust or what to believe.
Fortunately, Chihiro’s soon aided by a mysterious guardian: a confident, capable young man named Haku (Jason Marsden), who tells her what to eat, when to breathe, and how to stay alive in the spirit world. The most important survival tactic he give her is to ask for work in the spirit world’s bath house, where the spirits come to "replenish themselves." As long as she persists in asking for work, Haku assures Chihiro, no one will harm her, though the work may be hard.
This principle shapes the story of Spirited Away in a queer way. Myths and fairy tales often contain rules that must be followed for safety’s sake: Don’t touch the walls in the enchanted castle; avert your eyes from the bathing goddess; don’t answer the knock of a stranger.
But this particular rule — keep asking for a job no matter what — introduces an odd dynamic into the story. Chihiro’s meeting with the witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), who runs the spirit bath house, turns into a kind of job interview. Likewise, the girl’s encounters with various hostile or ominous spirits take the form of negotiating confrontations with snide coworkers or waiting on difficult or unpleasant customers with bad breath or unpredictable behavior.
At first Chihiro has trouble adjusting to this workplace dynamic ("Have you ever worked a day in your life?" a coworker chides her); but eventually her success with one particularly difficult client makes her an office hero. All the while, though, Chihiro labors under an oppressive contract with the witch Yubaba, by which Yubaba has taken away her name and given her a new one. In fact, she’s actually in danger of forgetting who she really is. "That’s how Yoruba controls you," Haku warns, "by taking away your name. If you ever forget it completely, you’ll never get home."
What’s up with all this workplace stuff, especially in connection with a child protagonist? Does it simply reflect the Japanese work ethic? Is it meant to expose young viewers to adult concepts and experiences in a way they can appropriate? I don’t know.
A lot more could be said about the film’s underlying themes and subtexts, notably, for instance, its environmentalist message. The most striking thing about Spirited Away, however, is its arresting visuals.
Some of these reflect archetypal cultural referents: a silent phantom with an impassive mask-like face; a glittering, ribbon-like dragon undulating across the sky. Others seem to represent Miyazaki’s own inspiration: a train gliding across the surface of the sea to an unknown destination; scurrying little balls of enchanted soot that take on a life of their own in more ways than one; an animated lamppost that hops along on a gloved hand; and a pair of diminutive characters who materialize in the film’s final act and display such show-stealing physical comedy as to show up the whole history of obligatory animal sidekicks in the modern Disney era.
On the moral level, there are positive elements as well as negative. Although Chihiro begins the story as something of a whiner, her experiences give her a sense of perspective, and as the story goes on she displays courage, grace under pressure, courtesy, compassion, integrity, and other virtues.
Because of its non-Christian spiritual overtones, not to mention its unfamiliar story rhythm and logic, I don’t recommend Spirited Away for casual or uncritical viewing. Nor can I recommend it to Christian parents for young children whose imaginations are still being formed. For mature, discerning viewers, however, Miyazaki’s latest film offers a fascinating window into an imaginative world that is in many ways alien to a Christian frame of reference, yet in other ways remains well worth approaching on its own terms.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.