Director / Writer Hayao Miyazaki; Voice Acting Rumi Hiraki (Chihiro – Japanese), Daveigh Chase (Chihiro – English)
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
It is a privilege to see a young girl mature through the eyes of Hayao Miyazaki.
Visiting an old abandoned theme park on the way to their new home, Chihiro and her parents find a feast laid before them. Tucking greedily into the steaming spread her Mum and Dad will soon turn into pigs. Full of panic Chihiro wishes the strange world that has enveloped her to vanish but instead it is she who begins to disappear. Drawn bewildered into the other-worldly bath-house, her name, her very identity is taken from her. She is no longer Chihiro but Sen. Her journey, therefore, and the story of Spirited Away, is the creation of a new self: stronger and more determined, more responsible and more compassionate. She will not let herself fade away.
The world of the spirits represents the overwhelming and strange world of imminent adulthood. Chihiro faces challenges that few young girls face (back-breaking work, life and death battles with evil sorcery) but she will have to make choices that all young people will be faced with, choices that require an adult’s maturity and intelligence. When she is finally reunited with her parents, having passed a sphinx-like test to ensure their transformation back into human form, the prospect of a new school and a new home that had so daunted her before now seems like child’s play:
“A new home and a new school, it is a bit scary”
“I think I can handle it”
The slightly brattish, clinging Chihiro of the beginning of the film now clings to her mother out of a new love and a new respect. She doesn’t have to. She wants to. That is what her time in the Bath House gave her. Miyazaki presents these lessons about life to Chihiro and to us with uncommon eloquence and elegance. What better metaphor can there be for pollution than the “Stink God” who turns out to be a river God tangled and knotted and poisoned with discarded garbage and human waste? What better reflection of Greed and Loneliness than No(h) Face, who acts as a mirror to our basest desires in order to gain our affection?
It is these extraordinary and splendid encounters that reveal the best that she can be. She can be a person who faces up to loss and pain and struggle with great courage and moral fortitude.
All this is encapuslated in the train journey (bottom) she takes to try and save her friend Haku. To Joe Hisaishi’s tremulous music she travels through a flooded landscape awash with melancholy. Shadow people (who we assume to have passed to the other side) disembark, a shadow girl waiting in vain on the platform, gone before her time. There is such a cavernous sadness. Chihiro gazes out of the window, single-minded and determined, ready to complete her tasks, waiting to meet her future. Without a doubt this is the most stunning scene I have come across in animation and one of the greatest in all of Cinema.
The character of Spirited Away passed, most notably, into the Anime series Kamichu!. Kamichu! is about a girl at a middle-school who undergoes a special transformation, as she matter-of-factly tells her friend : “I became a God”. A whole world is opened up to her, a world, like in Spirited Away, of new responsibilities, a world full to the brim with holy oddities (VCD, Laserdisc and CD Gods discuss their usefulness and / or obsolescence).
Maybe this is where Spirited Away‘s only weakness lies : it doesn’t know where to stop, doesn’t rein in its imagination. Miyazaki’s films are characterised by a restraint. Nothing is there for the sake of it. However, in Spirited Away it is hard to fathom the purpose of three green bouncing heads or a walking lamp. It is apt that this failure to hold back is symbolised by an homage to Pixar’s iconic emblem.
Nevertheless, the screen is piled high with things to delight the eye. There is the swarm of paper assailants or the moment Haku, carrying Chihiro in dragon form, sheds pearlescent scales and floats hand in hand with his beloved, restored to the form of a boy. He helps her find herself and she helps him find himself. The kernel of the film, though, is Chihiro’s internal journey from dependent selfishness to self-sufficiency. It is what keeps us following in her tentative footsteps, garlanded in soot sprites. We feel like she needs us.
Hayao Miyazaki has said (half in jest I am sure) that the chaotic organisation and shenanigans of the odd spirits and creatures in the Bath House were based on Studio Ghibli itself. Animation director Mamoru Oshii has likened the Studio to the Kremlin. If so then maybe the character of Chihiro has survived the creative process, like the crucible of growing up, pushing herself through the grinder of the animation industry to emerge whole at the end.