Somehow over the years I have missed all things Miyazaki. I blame this on my children, who were never interested in anime or Japanese film. However, my new home on the West Coast has a powerful Japanese presence. Ramen seems to be a favorite restaurant style, the Japanese gardens are a major tourist draw, and a large anime store is furnished with a Totoro stuffy as tall as I am. Now a local friend has taken me firmly in hand. We’re going through everything she feels I need to see, and I come to this without knowing a great deal about one of great animation artists of our time.
Both Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro ( which I’ll get to next week) draw heavily upon Japanese folk mythology. This doesn’t prevent the characters from living in the modern world, riding in cars or trains, and being essentially 20th century people. Both movies have girls as protagonists, who fall out of their mundane existence into a magical or mythological space where they have adventures.
Spirited Away is especially complex with this. The ten-year-old girl Chihiro progresses steadily from the known into the unknown, as her parents take her in a car to their new house and then become prisoners of a witch who runs a bathhouse. Chihiro agrees to work for the witch in an effort to rescue her parents. Over the course of the movie she learns to acquire allies, learn how to manipulate the magical environment, and finally triumph over the witch. The entire bathhouse interlude fades like a dream as Chihiro returns with her parents to the mundane world. This is not a western structure of narrative, and Miyazaki is manipulating complex themes and symbols that people have been analyzing for a couple decades now.
But even without this deeper analysis, the story has enormous appeal. Chihiro’s journey into bravery and competence is gripping. The very unfamiliarity of Japanese folklore means that her perils are really frightening. The rescue of her parents truly seems to be impossible. At the end when she triumphs over the wicked witch and everything is restored to what it was before, we know that Chihiro is not the same. She has made friends, learned things, and is ready to move on into a wider world beyond the end of the movie. This is a movie deservedly acclaimed, one that you can dig into and derive new meaning from over and over. Clearly I must see it again.