Published Feb 01, 2000Four years after the success of "Mononoke Hime" (otherwise known as "Princess Mononoke"), Japanese animation director Miyazaki has returned with a brilliant and wondrous tale about a young girl's adventure in the world of spirits. "Mononoke Hime" was a failure in the U.S. largely because the violent content and the nuances of its motif around human destruction of nature seemed rather too inappropriate to a mainstream audience bred on Disney-led standards for animation. Anime fans exist in abundance in North America, but they are still a minority and Disney still has a predominant presence as a result. Miyazaki is far from concerned about the film's success outside Japan. Instead he has crafted a tale specifically for ten-year old girls that dives deep into Japanese traditions, mythology and folklore, staying true to his belief that tradition and history are integral ingredients in cultural identity.
The story is about a rite of passage initiated by a wrong turn. Chihiro and her parents - in the process of moving to a new neighbourhood - drive quite unintentionally towards a mysterious tunnel that is hidden away beyond the woods. Her overly confident parents stride through the tunnel followed by a petrified Chihiro following involuntarily. They come upon what appears to be an old abandoned pseudo-Western theme park. It is a curious mix of traditional Japanese and Western architectural design, opulent but deserted. Her parents find a delectable feast laid out in one of the interiors and proceed to eat even though Chihiro has a nagging feeling that is something is amiss. And of course, her parents pay for their nonchalance by being turned into pigs. Not awaking from what she hopes is a dream, she is taken into the spirit world guided by a mysterious boy called Haku. Here, she must work and earn her keep and eventually return to the human world with her parents.
Miyazaki's story however, is far more intricately laden with symbols beyond the immediate premise of the story. Entrusted to the seemingly greedy ruler Yu-Baaba of the Abu-Raya bath-house, she must part with her name which Yu-Baaba takes as part of a contractual agreement. Chihiro (meaning "a thousand fathoms") becomes Sen (meaning a "thousand"). That her name has been partially taken, and forgetting her real name involves forgetting her identity, is singularly important to the tale. Nor is it folkloric belief specific to the Japanese context. Many cultures (Norse, Inuit) believe that a child without a name is a child without a soul. Chihiro/Sen's personal journey as a young girl is this process of recovering her identity through a series of tests in the spirit world, populated by gods and not-so-pleasant spirits.
As the director states, "A word has power. The act of depriving a person of one's name is not just changing how one person calls the other. It is a way to rule the other person completely." The spirit world is filled with intriguing characters who are reflections of character types that Miyazaki believes populate Japanese society. There is Yu-Baaba's selfish, giant baby simply called "Bou", the toad Kaeruotoko and the boiler room man Kamaji who is the first to notice the love that motivates Chihiro's actions. As well, there are the laughably endearing Chihiyaku and Aniyaku - who are bath house workers caught like middle managers between demanding customers and Yu-Baaba.
Perhaps the most powerful character in the film is Kaonashi, a creature which has neither a face nor speech of its own. It only unleashes negative actions when it enters the bath-house and "consumes" the ambiguous characters residing there, taking on their voices, their appetites and behaviours. The faceless phantom is an all-encompassing metaphor for the search for identity and the filling up of loneliness that underlies people's actions. With its quiet whispers and offers of treasures in exchange for companionship, it is easily one of the most powerful characters Miyazaki has sketched, but also outside the anime context.
While Jo Hisaishi's dramatic and lyrical score for the film may seem to take over at times from the subtlety of the images, it lends to the mood of the story that shows how Chihiro comes into her own. More importantly, Miyazaki does not believe in good-evil binaries and avoids propounding that a world free of evil is one in equilibrium. In fact, he would probably suggest quite the contrary, as his previous films indicate. 'Spirited Away' shows how these differing forces do co-exist and that a soul's journey involves interactions with both. As such it is a film that speaks to the soul, as much as it speaks to all the ten-year old kids he made it for.