I really should have posted this little tribute last month, to coincide with the American release of the new Studio Ghibli film, "The Borrower Arrietty," also known as "The Secret World of Arrietty" or just "Arrietty" depending on which version you've got. Miyazaki was credited only as producer and co-writer, but his influence is all over the gorgeous visuals, and the lovely, pastoral atmosphere of the picture. I'd know his contributions anywhere. Of all the directors I've spotlighted in this blog so far, it's Miyazaki's work that I know the most thoroughly, from his contributions to early anime features like "Puss in Boots" and "Hols: Prince of the Sun," to his work in television with the first "Lupin III" series, "Anne of Green Gables," and "Future Boy Conan," and finally his own iconic films, starting with "The Castle of Cagliostro" in 1979.
Now, "Cagliostro" was an awfully good film already, a James Bond style caper with some great action setpieces, but Miyazaki kept improving his craft over the next twenty years with a run of incredibly influential, successful features that no one in animation has matched outside of early Disney and perhaps PIXAR. I struggled over which of his films to write about. My childhood favorite was "Kiki's Delivery Service," but his later, most mature features, "Princess Mononoke" and "Porco Rosso," are more challenging and daring. Then there's "Nausicaa" and "Totoro," the films he's best known for in his native Japan. But ultimately, I have to admit that the first movie I think of when it comes to Miyazaki is the one that he's received the most acclaim for, 2001's "Spirited Away."
Ten-year old Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new town, and stop over at what they think is an abandoned amusement park. In actuality, it's a resort town for the spirits, and Chihiro's parents greedily eat up food that wasn't meant for them, a transgression that gets the pair turned into pigs and traps Chihiro in the dangerous spirit world. Luckily, she gets some help from a mysterious boy named Haku, who helps her gain employment at the bathhouse run by Yubaba the witch. However, Chihiro's position is still precarious, and she has a lot to learn before she can save her parents and find her way back to the human world.
One of Miyazaki's great strengths has been his ability to create wondrous, enveloping fantasy environments, and the bathhouse for the spirits in "Spirited Away" is one of his best. It is an endlessly fascinating place, full of strange old gods and monsters from Japanese legend, every shot crammed full of gorgeous, ornate details, and all of them painstakingly hand-drawn and painted. There's an appealing incomprehensibility to the images at first, where it's difficult to say exactly what we're looking at from one minute to the next. However, the bathhouse does work by a certain complicated logic, which keeps the place from feeling like a collection of random elements thrown together. Everyone has a certain job or a role to fill, and once Chihiro figures out how things run and who she can trust, she begins to navigate the place more easily, as do we.
Chihiro is not a typical Miyazaki heroine, at least not at first. She's very much an average ten-year-old girl, not thrilled with the prospect of moving and having a good sulk when we first see her with her parents. She reacts to the strangeness of the spirit world as any girl might. She gets frightened and tries to run away at first. She stamps her feet when she's impatient. After too much excitement, she feels dizzy and faint. But once she starts to get the hang of things, she becomes as brave and resourceful as any young heroine you could wish for. In a movie full of shapeshifters and spirits, she's easily the best character of the lot, and probably one of the best, most well-rounded animated children to ever grace the screen.
Much of the fun of the film is the feeling of being swept away with Chihiro, brought to a totally alien place and culture that seems too big and too complex to ever fully understand. The spirits that inhabit the bathhouse can look like human beings or giant radish roots or overgrown ducklings, and several of them are disguised in other forms. Yubaba has a beloved baby boy the size of a sumo wrestler, and is aided by three creatures who can only be described as bouncing green heads. Despite a twisty plot, there's not much exposition for a viewer to rely on, no rules that are ever explicitly laid out for us. There are a plenty of hints and examples to help Chihiro think her way through various puzzles, but much of the time she's at the mercy of luck and circumstance. It makes her adventures all the more exciting.
Some have found similarities in the story to "Alice in Wonderland," but "Spirited Away" gives its heroine a very clear goal and real challenges to overcome, creating far more tension and suspense. However, the narrative is never straightforward, and Chihiro only manages to accomplish certain tasks in a roundabout way, often with digressions that don't really matter to the plot. And yet, it's some of these moments that are the movie's best. There is a sequence on a train that could have easily been excised from the story, and it takes some serious mental gymnastics to explain the presence of a train in this universe in the first place. Yet the sequence is so perfectly right, just where it is, giving us a few languid, meditative moments to pause and compare Chihiro's behavior near the end of her journey with the beginning, and to take stock of the odd little group of traveling companions she's collected - an accomplishment that proves extremely important.
When you compare Miyazaki's films to Western children's entertainment, they are considerably slower in pace but frequently more absorbing. One of the biggest criticisms I have of the Disney dub of "Spirited Away" is the way it adds extra explanations for things that really don't need explaining. Some of the film's mysteries simply don't have answers, and no one is expected to provide them. That's the strength of Miyazaki's work, his ability to present the strange and the fantastic in such a coherent, indelible fashion, that after a while you stop trying to figure out any kind of rationality behind them, but just accept and enjoy their enduring splendor.