Great art isn’t east. The great artists simply make it look easy.
Princess Mononoke is many things. A work of art. A masterpiece. One of the biggest box-office successes of Japanese cinema.
But for Hayao Miyazaki it was an absolute nightmare, a gruelling, punishing slog of back-breaking labour which may have had something to do with his insistence on practically drawing the entire damn thing himself but what do I know?
So awful was the experience that when it was over, Miyazki threw up his hands and yelled “FUCK THIS! FUCK ANIMATION! FUCK EVERYTHING ABOUT IT! FUCK ITS ENTIRE HISTORY FROM WINSOR MCCAY THROUGH TO DISNEY AND RIGHT UP TO THE PRESENT DAY NOT FORGETTING THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF NON-WESTERN GIANTS OF THE MEDIUM SUCH AS OSAMU TEZUKA! FUCK SQUASH AND STRETCH AND THE ILLUSION OF MOTION GIVEN BY RAPIDLY CHANGING STATIC IMAGES! HAYAO ALPHONSE MIYAZAKI IS DONE! I AM RETIRING! FUCK YOU ALL AND PEACE OUT!”*
And everyone said “Uh huh. Suuuuure you are.”
Because Hayao Miyazaki has been talking about retiring since digital watches were still nifty and he can’t stay away. Five years after The Wind Rises, his really-no-fooling-this-is-it-I’m-really-doing-it-you-won’t-have-Hayao-to-kick-around-any-more final film, he’s got another one due for release in 2019. The dude can’t quit.
Because every day I wake up, behold the beauty and majesty of God’s creation and say: “Needs more Miyazaki.”
Long may he continue working.
Today’s movie came after Miyakzaki had retired for like the seventh time or something, when he decided to make a new film after meeting the young daughter of one of his friends. Which shows just how committed he was to his retirement. I mean, what else could convince him to come out of retirement than an encounter with that rarest of creatures, a human child? I mean, you could go your whole life without seeing one! So Miyazaki came back and was all “Okay, okay, one more movie” and everyone was all “Whatever helps ya sleep at night, man” and he went and made Spirited Away, a nice, safe, uncontroversial pick for GREATEST ANIMATED MOVIE OF ALL TIME.
Does it live up to its reputation?
The movie begins with our heroine, Chihiro, sulking in the back seat of a car reading a goodbye note from one of her classmates. Her family are moving to a new town and Chihiro ain’t happy. Chihiro’s character design is fantastic. Miyazaki eschews the conventional wisdom in both Japanese and Western animation to give sympathetic characters (particularly young girls) eyes the size of the Arecibo observation disk. Chihiro’s eyes are quite small, but the design compensates by giver her a big ol’ expressive mouth. It works very well for a character who’s supposed to be sullen and angry a lot of the time, which also makes Chihiro one of the most realistic looking Ghibli characters, because little girls spent anything between 40 and 80% of their time being royally pissed off (the rest, they spend sleeping).
Her father tries to take a shortcut and they soon find themselves on a remote forest road. Chihiro sees what look like strange little stone huts at the side of the road and she asks her mother what they are and she replies that they’re shrines. Because if you’re in Japan, and you don’t know what something is, it’s probably a shrine.
At the end of the road they find an arch-way and Chihiro’s parents decide to go exploring. Through the archway they find a massive abandoned theme park. Now, name me one story in the entirety of human fiction where going into an abandoned theme park led to good things.
Yeah, so even on the off chance that the Joker doesn’t show up this still isn’t going to end well. Chihiro becomes increasingly anxious and tries to get her parents to leave but they come across a buffet and start gorging themselves.
So here’s something that really fascinates me. Despite being literally as far apart as it is possible for two countries to be, Ireland and Japan have the same rule about entering the spirit realm; whatever you fucking do don’t eat the fucking food.
Chihiro goes exploring and runs into a boy named Haku so tells her that she needs to get out of there NOW and to cross the river before “they” light the lamps. Terrified, Chihiro runs to get her parents only to find…
Chihiro runs screaming through the theme park which is now swarming with strange spirits. She starts to vanish but Haku finds her and gives her something to eat which keeps her from disappearing. Haku tells Chihiro that in order to rescue her parents and stay in the spirit realm she’ll have to get a job (because apparently the spirit realm is run by bloody tories). Haku sneaks Chihiro into a bathhouse through a crowd of spirits by telling her to hold her breath so that she can’t be seen. The whole movie runs on sublime dream logic like this and it works because the film expertly captures the vividness and surrealness of dreaming. One spirit, however, does notice Chihiro.
This is No-Face, one of the most iconic characters in all of animé. The only issue I have with No-Face is the name. I mean come on, his face is literally his one solid consistent feature. They should have called him “Just-Face”, or “Nuttin’-but-Face.” Once inside the bath-house, Haku tells Chihiro that she has to go to the boiler room to beg for a job from Kamaji the boiler man. Chihiro asks him how he knows her name, and he just tells her that he’s her friend and that he’s known her for a long time.
After a terrifying climb down some long wooden stairs Chihiro finds herself in the boiler room where she meets Kamaji, a giant-eight limbed man who looks oddly familiar to me.
Chihiro asks him for a job but he says that he’s got all the help he needs and shows her the Susuwatari, little walking balls of soot that Miyazaki first introduced in My Neighbour Totoro. One of the bathhouse workers, Lin, arrives with food for Kamaji and almost raises the alarm when she sees Chihiro, figuring that she must be the human girl everyone is looking for. But Kamaji covers for her, saying that she’s his granddaughter and asking Lin to bring her to Yubaba, the witch who runs the bath-house, to ask for a job.
Okay, so. Awkward discussion coming.
If you were to say that Spirited Away is a movie about a ten year old girl who gets a job in a brothel…you’re not entirely wrong. I mean, there’s no hint of anything actually sexual happening anywhere onscreen, but historically bath-houses in Japan were not just places where you went to get clean. Actually, kind of the opposite. So yeah, that’s kind of squicky and something that puts a lot of people off the movie when they find out about it. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that Western animation does this kind of historical glossing too. Remember Fievel Goes West where Tanya Mouskewitz gets a job singing in a saloon? How do you think saloons made their money?
So Lin takes Chihiro through the bathhouse which is used filled to bursting with amazing character designs and wonderful little details that distract you from the certain knowledge that there are river spirits offscreen getting handjobs. Seriously though, it’s such a perfectly realised, bizarre world.
Spirited Away has multiple antecedents, obviously, from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz, but the movie it most reminds me of is not any of the filmed versions of those stories but, weirdly, Grand Budapest Hotel. With both films you have directors at the absolute peak of their abilities, finally having the perfect mix of experience, inspiration, skill, money and clout to create an entirely new bespoke world straight from their minds with absolutely zero compromise. You feel that this is just pure, straight, uncut Miyazaki and it is a hell of a drug.
Chihiro meets Yubaba, who refuses to give her a job until Chihiro’s pleading wakes up Yubaba’s huge, monstrous baby so Yubaba gives her a job just to keep her quiet. She takes Chihiro’s name and says that from now on she has to go by the name “Sen”.
The next day, Haku finds Sen and brings her to the pig pen where her parents are kept. He also gives her the goodbye card from her classmate which has her name written on it so she won’t forget it. Haku explains that that’s how Yubaba got control of him, because he no longer knows his true name. There’s also a scene that I just love. Haku gives Sen some mushroom to eat and tells her that it will restore her strength. She eats it and bursts into tears. Now, this is an obvious allusion to the mushroom scene in Alice in Wonderland but I love the implication that it’s only when she becomes stronger that Chihiro can weep over what’s happened to her parents. Her tears aren’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that she is strong enough to truly process the emotions of what’s happened to her. Chihiro thanks Haku and heads back to the bath-house but when she looks back she sees something flying through the air and makes a pretty stunning deductive leap that:
- It’s a dragon.
- The dragon is Haku.
Back at the bathhouse, Lin and Sen are given the job of cleaning the big bath, the one that’s used only for their very filthiest guests, like Harvey Weinstein-level and above. A stink spirit, a massive oozing pile of pure rotting repulsive foulness arrives at the bath-house looking for a spa day, so naturally Yubaba sends him down to the Weinsten suite and Sen has to clean him. While washing the stink spirit Chihiro finds the handlebar of a bike lodged in his side and, with the help of the other bathhouse workers, pulls out a whole junkyard’s worth of garbage from the stink spirit. This is actually based on an experience Miyazaki had when he volunteered to help clean up a local river. Yubaba realises that the stink spirit is actually a river spirit that had become polluted. Now purified, the river spirit thanks Sen and flies out the window, leaving behind a load of gold in gratitude and a special gift of medicine for Sen.
Sen is suddenly the hero of the hour and even Yubaba gives her a hug. Later that night Aogaeru, one of the frogs who works in the bath-house, is sneaking around the big bath trying to find traces of gold when he sees No-Face looming in the shadows all sinister like. No-Face offers Aogaeru gold and then eats him, taking his shape and voice. When Sen wakes up the next morning, the bath house has gone crazy for the “new customer”, who’s spending money like an Irish property developer in 2007.
But Sen sees Haku in his dragon form being chased through the sky by a vicious swarm of paper airplanes.
Haku, badly bleeding, flies into Yubaba’s office. Sen runs to help him before he bleeds out, but that means going through the bath-house. No-Face sees her and offers her handfuls of gold but Sen rejects the gold because her portfolio is already quite conservative and she’s looking for assets that are a little more high risk/high reward.
Sen politely refuses and runs away to help Haku. When No-Face realises that he can’t buy Sen’s affection, he goes FUCKING APE SHIT, rampaging through the Bath House and eating several of the workers. In Yubaba’s office, Sen finds Haku who’s bleeding out all over the carpet and Zeniba, Yubaba’s twin sister who sent the paper birds after Haku. She tells Sen that Haku stole her “Solid God Seal”, and that she wants it back. Haku escapes with Sen down an ash shaft and they end up in Kamaji’s boiler room. Haku’s seriously messed up by now, so Sen gives him some of the medicine she got from the river spirit and he pukes up the seal and turns back to human form. Sen offers to save Haku’s life is by returning the seal to Zeniba and apologising to her on Haku’s behalf. Kamaji is dubious, but he tells her the way to Zeniba’s house.
Lin arrives in the boiler room and tells Sen that Yubaba is furious with her because she knows that she knows that she was the one to let No-Face into the bath-house. Sen explains that she thought he was a customer, not a man-eating monster and oh man, the exact same thing happened to me in my first summer job. Sen goes to the room where No-Face is holed up, now a giagantic, pulsating glob of black. No-Face offers her food and gold, and when she refuses, he begs to know what she wants. And of course, she just wants to not be in the room with the gigantic man-eating ghost monster. This scene is fantastic because it shows just how fearless Sen/Chihiro has become. She’s facing down a demon 10 times her size and she doesn’t even blink. She gives No-Face some of the river spirit’s medicine which makes No-Face start puking violently. Enraged, he chases Sen through the bath-house and Yubaba decides that, actually, no, there are some things even the extremely rich can’t get away with and she blasts No-Face with a fireball.
After puking his guts (and several minimum wage staff) up, No-Face returns to his normal form and Sen allows him to accompany her on her quest to restore the gold seal to Zeniba. Which just happens to lead to one of the most beautifully affecting and iconic scenes in all of cinema.
After a sublime train ride over spotless azure seas (I WANT TO LIVE IN MIYAZAKI’S BRAIN) they arrive at Zeniba’s house. Zeniba is charmed by Sen’s good manners because this is a Japanese cartoon and if children aren’t saving the day by doing their homework they’re saving it by being polite. Zeniba tells Sen that she can’t lift the spell on Haku or her parents, and that only love can break Yubaba’s magic. Sen says she thinks she knows Haku from somewhere and Zeniba tells her that remembering that might help her break the spell. She then gets No Face to help her weave a hairband for Sen (little known fact, unholy spirits of the underworld CRUSH IT when it comes to arts and crafts). Sen hears a noise outside and runs to the door.
Haku is all better now and Zeniba says he’s been healed by Sen’s love for him.
No-Face decides to stay with Zeniba and Haku flies Sen back to the bathhouse. But on the way, Sen remembers when she almost drowned in the Kohaku river but the water carried her safely to shore. She realises that Haku is the spirit of that river and tells him his true name. Man, I wish I lived in a country with nice polite rivers.
Now free of Yubaba’s spell, Haku takes Sen (now Chihiro again) back to the bath house where Yubaba gives her a final test before she can win freedom for herself and her parents. Yubaba presents her with twelve pigs and asks her to identify her parents. Chihiro takes a look at the pigs and says that her parents are a completely different pair of filth-caked pork rinds and they’re not here. Yubaba, furious, tears up Chihiro’s contract and she wins her freedom. Haku guides Chihiro back to the mortal realm where she finds her parents waiting for her. They return back to the car which, to their shock, looks like it’s been abandoned for weeks.
The family drive off with Chiriho gazing fondly back the way she came having learned a valuable lesson.
It’s frickin’ Miyazaki at the height of his powers, whaddya think I was going to score it?
Chihiro is a fantastic and believeable child heroine.
Yubaba is a hoot.
Supporting Characters: 20/20
An entire universe of hilarious, unique and wonderfully designed characters.
Joe Hisaishi’s score is one of the greatest demonstrations of music integrated with story that I’ve ever seen.
FINAL SCORE: 96%
NEXT UPDATE: 10TH May 2018
NEXT TIME: AAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAA!!! AH!
*Not his exact words, obviously. He said it in Japanese.