A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 176 – Spirited Away

Spirited Away – August 23rd, 2010

This movie came out the same year I graduated from college and I admit, I never saw it. I often avoid animated films in the theater (I’ve made a few exceptions recently, for the sake of Andy and friends) and eh. I just never got around to it. I wouldn’t say it got hyped to me. I heard great things about it but no one was labeling it as a religious experience or anything. I just didn’t make time to put it in. For one, it’s got subtitles. I’m not fond of dubbed movies but I’m not fluent in any language but English, so subtitles are how I roll. So it’s not like I could be doing anything else while watching it. And for two, even dubbed I knew it would be something I wanted to focus on. And it just never happened.

I admit, I’m not really in a writing mood tonight, which is a shame I know, because this movie was lovely and certainly worth writing about. It is very solidly a coming of age story, wrapped up in folktale trappings and beautifully animated. It’s got symbolism and meaning and subtext jam packed into every inch. I’m sure there are film studies, folklore and comparative lit students still writing term papers on this movie even nine years after its release. It’s that sort of movie. And don’t for one minute think I’m saying that as a negative. It’s a movie that has a lot of love and care in its making and it shows. Which is why I feel poorly about not really being up for a big in-depth review tonight.

Part of my reticence, I know, is that I’m simply not familiar with Japanese folklore. Bits and pieces gleaned from here and there, some other anime, some manga, friends and aquaintences in college, yes. But I just don’t feel like I have nearly enough background knowledge to really talk intelligently about some of the things in this movie. Sure, on the surface I can talk about the coming of age stuff and some rather obvious themes of greed and selflessness, modernity and tradition, but I know I’m missing things when it comes to the specifics. Not to mention anything that requires knowledge of the Japanese language. I feel bad about that.

So I’ll be sticking to the larger themes in the story. Good thing they’re well done and enjoyable. We meet Chihiro and her parents on their way to their new home in a new town. Chihiro’s unhappy about the move and generally acting sullen and annoyed. When the family gets lost and ends up in a mysterious place, Chihiro’s parents break the first rule about visiting a magical land and eat. That’s a common trope in all sorts of mythologies. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on it by now, talking about food as a means of binding someone to a place and the sociological implications. I am not that someone. I just like seeing it pop up. Anyhow, Chihiro’s parents get trapped in this magical land and she stays behind to help free them, managing to befriend a mysterious boy and get herself signed on as a helper in a bath house where the clients are all gods and spirits. The bath house is run by a cranky old witch Yubaba, and she and the rest of the staff think Chihiro’s terribly out of place, what with being human and all. And so Chihiro is faced with daunting tasks and manual labor while she tries to figure out how to save her parents. Who have turned into pigs. Gee, where have I seen that before?

I feel like it would be silly to recount each and every detail of Chihiro’s quest. And it is a quest. We’re not talking the sort of quest where you go and find a magical sword and use it to kill a monster, here. We’re talking a quieter sort of quest. One you might not know you’re on until you’ve accomplished your goal and realize just how far you had to go to do it. But the point of the quest here isn’t so much the goal as the journey. In some ways, there’s a Wizard of Oz or Labyrinth feel to it all. There’s even a bit near the end where two characters are informed that a spell binding them has long since been gone and they could change back any time. Very similar to the “You could go home whenever you wanted!” or “You have no power over me!” themes. And those movies aren’t so much about the goal either. They’re about the journey too. They’re about the obstacles and tasks and puzzles. They’re about learning about yourself and that you can accomplish things on your own if you have to, but asking for help isn’t a bad thing either. And this movie does a wonderful job taking that idea, that theme, and presenting it in a magical way.

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the animation and visuals in this movie. They’re what makes the story truly come alive. Yubaba is a fantastic crone, looking somewhat like a cross between old-lady-Sophie and the Witch of the Waste from Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. She’s all exaggerated features and oversized face. The proportions on the people in the magical world are all off in bizarre ways, looking normal in some respects, and then utterly not. The spirits and gods are a mix of strange and wonderful and there were moments when I wanted to pause just to see everyone in the bath house. This is where I wish I knew more about Japanese folklore. I feel like I might be missing things. Little nods and references. Is six-armed Kamaji a reference to something or someone? What about the big guy who gets in the elevator with Chihiro, with the things that look like daikon radishes? Is that it or is there something more? Is the river spirit something traditional or unique to the movie? And what about No-Face? I just don’t know. But I enjoyed it regardless.

I probably could write more. There’s a lot to the movie and a lot to explore. But if I tried, I’d likely make a mess of it. And besides, even without all the thinky bits it’s still a lovely movie and fun to watch. You can pick it apart, but you really don’t have to in order to enjoy it. There’s drama and a love story and humor and danger and what more could one ask from an animated adventure tale?

August 23, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , ,

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