Every summer, Hayao Miyazaki would go on holiday to a mountain cabin with his family and some friends would come along. More specifically, these friends were five little girls. Miyazaki had previously made films for small children (My Neighbour Totoro
) and teenagers (Kiki's Delivery Service
), but he realised that he'd never made a film for ten-year-old girls and so decided to make one. That film became Spirited Away
and this little anecdote demonstrates the chasm that separates Hayao Miyazaki and the rest of the entertainment industry.
This isn't what you'd normally expect of animation for ten-year-old girls, you see. Most Western TV stations would swoon even at the prospect of Sailor Moon
. In fairness Miyazaki did his research and read shoujo manga in magazines like Nakayoshi and Ribbon, but eventually concluded that it was all tosh. These stories were all about crushes and romance. Miyazaki felt that this wasn't a reflection of what his young friends held dear in their hearts, so naturally he went away and produced the number one Japanese box office smash hit of all time, the winner of an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and indeed what's still the only anime ever to win an Oscar at all. It also won the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival (tied with Bloody Sunday). However it's also a bit impenetrable and has an initially alienating heroine who falls in love with someone who turns out not to be human but instead a river. I think. I'm still a bit baffled by that one.
begins in the modern world. This might seem surprising from Miyazaki, who's a bit of a hippy, but we're not meant to like the main characters. There are three of them and they're in a car. Dad's fat by Japanese standards and mildly irresponsible, Mum's a bit of a bitch and Chihiro is a potato-faced brat who doesn't seem to like or want to do anything. On the upside, it's done fairly subtly. We're not meant to hate these people, but equally it's no surprise when Dad does something silly and they end up in some out-of-the-way place. Mum and Dad barge into what's clearly the outskirts of Miyazaki 's fantasy world and do something rude and stupid, on the grounds that it must be okay because they've got the money to pay for it. It's not okay. Something fairy-tale happens to them and suddenly Chihiro's being pulled through the looking-glass.
What's interesting and unusual about this film is the character of Chihiro herself. It's taken me two viewings to get a grip on what Miyazaki 's doing here. Chihiro isn't cute. On the contrary, she's a little bit ugly and for a good chunk of the film she's a whiner who doesn't seem enthusiastic about anything. She slowly becomes more sympathetic as Miyazaki lets her good qualities unfold, but even so I think we were already at the 45 minute mark before I decided I liked her. The first virtue we discover in her is that she's polite. Hey, don't knock it. It's a start. After a while though she's dealing with Stink Monsters and fighting her way through belching dollops of slime that'll make your stomach turn. That's where she becomes downright impressive. Over the course of the film she's discovered good qualities in herself and is putting pretty much everything on the line to help others.
In other words, it's similar to a redemption story. It's the kind of plot structure I'm more used to seeing with anti-heroes who at the start of the film are robbing banks and killing people. In an odd way, that would have been easier to get a grip on. At least you know where you are with a gunfight. I can imagine a lot of children simply not realising that Chihiro herself is the plot of this film, rather than the usual external stuff like villains and evil plots to destroy the world. On first viewing I thought this film felt piecemeal and randomly thrown together, an impression which is only strengthened by the fact that it's basically Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro gets sucked into a magic world where the rules are incomprehensible and the plot's driven more by whim than a Hollywood three-act structure. A witch gets her to sign a contract and thus steals her name, making her forget who she is. Other characters include a six-armed spider man who works in the boiler room, a trio of bouncing disembodiedheads and a giant baby who learns independence through becoming a rat. Miyazaki 's no stranger to fantasy, but he normally keeps at least one foot on the ground through a realistic (albeit sometimes SF) background setting. Here all bets are off. His realistic background setting this time was the real world we left behind after the first five minutes of the film.
I honestly don't have a clue how this film would play with its supposed target audience. Would they perceive what the story's really about? You could probably explain it to them, but get a bit younger and I don't know if you'd even be able to do that. Children should enjoy the fantasy and the funny bits, but to all intents and purposes Miyazaki has made an art film. I admire him with all my heart, but I think he's a little mad.
There are various themes here. There's Miyazaki's usual distaste for modern commercialism and industry, as seen in the pollution from our world that's literally poisonous to the inhabitants of the gods' bathhouse. However that said, this might be Miyazaki 's most even-handed treatments of the issue to date, since the fantasy creatures are shown to be just as greedy, money-grubbing and capable of not seeing what's under their noses. Chihiro's the one who saves them because she's not interested in money. There's specific comment on Japanese society concerning generational conflicts and the question of how to preserve traditional values. Chihiro's parents think they've come to an abandoned theme park, a symbol of Japan 's economic downturns of the 1990s. Then you've also got the rites of passage of Chihiro herself, as she goes from being a bratty little child to a mature, brave heroine who's worked for a living, saved lives and known love. Note the way in which Yubaba symbolically kills the child Chihiro by stealing her true name and giving her another.
That's quite heavy and likely to go way over the children's heads. More important is the stuff they will respond to, which includes:
- (a) the soot sprites from My Neighbour Totoro, which are funny.
- (b) an Oriental dragon.
- (c) a disgusting slime monster that destroys everything and a ghost with no face which at one point decides to eat everything in sight, including bathhouse staff.
- (d) the scary bit on the stairs.
- (e) Chihiro eventually being cool and brave.
One of the biggest risks Miyazaki ran is inherent in the structure. Since Chihiro is effectively Alice , at the end of the film she's going to save her parents and step back through the looking-glass. This generally doesn't work. Beauty and the Beast, the Wizard of Oz... we're always disappointed to get back to reality, because the fantasy is so much more entertaining. Miyazaki gets away with it here though, because the focus is more on Chihiro being reunited with her family, even if their memories aren't working and they don't realise they were ever away.
The first time I saw this film, I thought it was okay. Obviously it's a magnificent technical achievement, but it's got that unconventional story structure and a deliberately uninvolving beginning. If nothing else, it's unusual just for giving its protagonist this kind of personal journey. "Character development" doesn't seem a big enough word. It's a transformation akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Look at Chihiro at the beginning of the film. "You did it! You're so stupid I was worried!"