The daily grind in dreamland: Spirited Away (2001)

Matt Zoller Seitz was the first film critic I read regularly. Each Wednesday, I’d grab a copy of the latest Dallas Observer from the branch library, and walk home from school reading what he had to say. Sometimes, he infuriated me—he harped on the awfulness of Forrest Gump for several weeks in a row; I loved it, and it made me cry. (Gimme a break—I was in high school.) Sometimes, he made me laugh out loud, as he did when he compared the political naiveté of Clear and Present Danger’s Jack Ryan (a do-gooder CIA operative) to a worker at a Chicago slaughterhouse who suddenly realizes that, oh my god!, they kill cows here. Sometimes, he enlightened me—his long, thoughtful review of the Pauline Kael omnibus For Keeps introduced me to her writing.

By reading him, I learned that art criticism was a valuable literary form, and that reading divergent thoughts on a work of art is a good way of honing your own. I’ve followed his career from the Observer to New York Press, and eagerly anticipate the DVD release of his first film. So, I was pleased to see that he was thrilled about the blog-a-thon, and that he would write about Spirited Away.

On April 27, Matt’s wife Jennifer Dawson died suddenly, for reasons that are still unclear. (She was 35, in good health, didn’t do drugs, and didn’t smoke.) I can’t imagine what it’s like to suffer such a loss, so abruptly and without warning. Please keep Matt and his family in your thoughts and prayers.

I couldn’t figure out a way to send my condolences—I don’t know him—other than this: this essay is dedicated to him.

Spirited Away starts off anchored in the real world. Chihiro, an 11-year-old girl, is moving to a new town with her parents. Dad’s job takes him out into the boondocks—Miyazaki deftly gets across that these are big-city slickers with just a few words, and Chihiro’s scowl as she looks out the car window—and no one is thrilled.

Chihiro sulks. Her movement is intentionally sluggish, striking a pose that combines boredom and anxiety in a way that only pre-adolescent girls can do. Her limbs are lanky and awkward, and her face droops with bitterness. As she rolls around the back seat, crumpling up the bouquet she was given as a going-away present, we realize that Miyazaki’s portrayal of her is so precise, so grounded in microscopically close observation, that we can forget this is animation instead of live-action. She’s not a spoiled brat—Spirited Away’s rendering of her is too delicate for that—but just a kid afraid of change.

They drive through a modern Japanese countryside but find themselves on a brushback road. Dad, eager to find a shortcut to the new home, drives them to what looks like a gaudy, abandoned theme park. “They built these all over Japan in the 1990s,” he said with smug pride at his own wealth of knowledge. “And then the economy fell apart.” In less than ten minutes, Miyazaki has established the milieu, and the family’s place within it, in quick, efficient strokes. The family wanders through the theme park’s empty exhibits—“That’s funny,” says Mom, “they’re all restaurants”—until they come to a stand overloaded with succulent fishes and meats. (My stomach grumbles every time I watch the scene.) Mom and Dad give in to temptation and dig in, figuring that they can pay up as soon as the waiter arrives.

Aromatic, cooked, tasty food, but no one’s around to eat it or prepare it? Warning bells go off in Chihiro’s head, and ours, too. Tired of her parents’ gluttony, she wanders off until she comes to a bridge, across which there’s a huge, multi-storied bathhouse. She looks over the building, and then leans over the rail to see the sea and a train, until a boy—the first person other than the family that we’ve seen—practically yells at her to leave before the sun goes down.

It’s striking that we’re so absorbed in the physical details of this world at ground level that we don’t notice the gradual change in the light. Night strikes us as suddenly as it strikes Chihiro. The boy says he’ll stall them—who the “them” refers to isn’t immediately clear—while the family escapes. He puts his fingers to his lips and blows. What comes out isn’t a whistle, but shimmering petals of glass that twirl in the air.

Chihiro rushes to her parents, only to find that they’ve been turned into pigs. Even worse, black humanoid blobs—shadowy, with white eyes—begin to fade into consciousness out of thin air, or seep up from the ground. They’re everywhere, and Chihiro’s as scared shitless as we are. In a moment of raw fear, she puts her forearm up to her eyes to block out what she’s seeing, and is chilled to discover that she sees right through it—she’s starting to disappear.

Just like that, we’ve left reality and entered the dream world.

Spirited Away is in fact a waking dream. Like dreams and nightmares, the movie makes complete sense as it unfolds but it’s like the steam rising from herbal bath waters—an important metaphor given the movie’s locale. The aroma and feelings conjured up by the steam linger long after the steam itself has dissipated. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times, and each time it’s richer, and harder to describe.

The bathhouse caters to gods and spirits, eight million of which have come there for pleasure. It’s a sly idea, and one in keeping with our understanding of Western gods. Of course the gods need nice baths. Of course, they’d want to be plied with good food. Of course they’d want the amenities of a luxury hotel and spa. The Egyptian, Greek, and Northern European gods, not to mention the folklore legends that made it to America, were nothing if not petty. They weren’t perfect beings—just powerful ones. It wasn’t until we were introduced to the concept of monotheism, of a single all-powerful god, that we expected God to be above earthly delights.

Spirited Away only leaves the bathhouse grounds for the opening and closing 15 minutes of the film. The animators are so finely attuned to details of all kinds—décor, gestures, machinery, water, sounds—that Miyazaki creates a lived-in environment that’s (mostly) indoors. He uses gods to create a microcosm of a very human world.

Take how the bathhouse treats Chihiro. She’s the only human in the joint, even among those who looks it. She smells like a human and is treated like one—i.e., with disdain or outright disgust—for the first few days she’s there. It’s the clear prejudice with which insiders treat all outsiders (hell, let’s go ahead and call them immigrants) at first. It’s good for her that she speaks the language, because everything else is foreign to her. She’s assigned more than her fair share of chores, given the scut-work that no one else wants, and few will openly defend her. Even after she cleans a river spirit of all the pollution and litter in him, she’s viewed with suspicion.

That’s not the half of it. It’s clear that the frog-like humanoids who work in the bathhouse despise the human-like workers, and vice versa. There are cliques that Chihiro must learn to negotiate around. Just as some gods are more important than others, there’s a pecking order in place among the workers. Some jobs carry greater social weight than others, and some bosses are tyrants just because they can be. Bureaucracy reigns supreme. Suddenly, as strange as it looks, this place feels like Planet Earth.

As she lives in the bathhouse, she grows to know its nooks and crannies. Pretty soon, it feels as real as her old home. Miyazaki’s genius in Spirited Away is that he makes the extraordinary seem quotidian. Within 30 minutes, you’re no longer noticing the strangeness of the creatures, but rather that they too punch in to work with time cards, that they too sneak smoke breaks, that they too need that first dose of coffee (okay, tea) in the morning.

Morning. Funny that I wrote that—it shows how much Miyazaki turns the world around, normalizing what seems initially weird. Spirited Away is, after all, primarily a night movie. The bathhouse only opens once the sun sets, which means that everyone in it—including the 11-year-old schoolgirl Chihiro—works the night shift. This reordering of the day becomes routine.

The movie is visually stunning and features awesome displays of flying, flash, and dazzle. But it’s ultimately a movie about the everyday life that’s underneath all this. Chihiro, as she gets used to the spirit world’s rhythms, becomes more assured, more confident, more morally secure. Her inner sweetness—hidden when out of her element, when moving—comes out and enriches those with whom she befriends. Every good work she does pays her back in dividends, in ways that we can’t see coming. She discover quiet joys and silent humor. (As scary as Spirited Away can be, it’s also very funny.) Her observation of small details helps her when tackling a stink god and a no-faced monster that threatens the entire bathhouse.

She becomes so familiarized to this world that, when she leaves it towards the end, the regular world seems scary to her and to us. The humans who ride the train with Chihiro wear human clothes, but look like the same black, silhouette, shadow blobs that she saw when she first entered the spirit world. The abnormal became normal, and normal now looks menacing.

Miyazaki wants us to see the wondrous nature of everyday life, but also to understand that everyday life means different things to different people. In Spirited Away, we’re constantly confronted with wild and woolly things, and then coming to love them. There’s no “big-hugs-for-everyone” moment—Miyazaki’s no sentimentalist; the bathhouse will continue in its petty rivalries and bureaucracies with or without Chihiro. Through her, however, Miyazaki shows us the possibilities of tolerance and love. After all, she earns at least a grudging respect from everyone, even the money-hungry and haughty Yubaba, and she makes a few friends. But she’s there to work, not to save any souls.

The fact that she does so is just a bonus, her (and Miyazaki’s) great gift to us.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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