What if an alien in the future stumbled upon Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirted Away? Welcome to Earthling Cinema, where we examine the last remaining artifacts of a once-proud culture and try to understand what human lives were like before their planet was destroyed. I’m your host, Garyx Wormuloid.
This week’s film:
Spirited Away (2001)
Stars: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takeshi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Co: Studio Ghibli
Written by: Ben Steiner
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Analysis by: Kevin Winzer
Starring: Mark Schroeder (https://twitter.com/mark_schroeder)
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Original Music by: David Krystal (http://www.davidkrystalmusic.com)
Opening Animation by: Danny Rapaport
Produced by: Jacob S. Salamon and Emily Dunbar
Spirited Away’s Hidden Meaning – Earthling Cinema
Greetings, and welcome to Earthling Cinema. I am your host, Garyx Wormuloid. This week’s artifact is Spirited Away, the award-winning masterpiece from legendary animator and confirmed silver fox Ha-yowza Miyazaki. The story opens on a ten-year-old human female named Chihiro and her parental units as they get lost in the woods. And if a human is lost in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it register as a sentient life form? Point is, these schmos accidentally stumble their way into a magical land filled with delicious food that’s buy-none-get-a-million-free. The parents start stuffing it down their gullets and lose their kosher status faster than you can say ew. Ugh. AH. OH G-
Chihiro does what any child would do in this situation, and abandons her porky parents to go beef up her resume. After much haranguing, a wrinkly old cronut named Yubaba hires Chihiro to work in her bathhouse, but changes her name to Sen as a show of bad faith. This dreamboat Haku warns Sen not to forget her real name like he did, or else it can cause a real headache at the DMV. A stink spirit arrives at the bathhouse around mid-afternoon, same time it usually arrives for me. Sen cleans him successfully, and to thank her, the spirit bestows upon her the greatest gift of all: a little turd infused with ipecac. Elsewhere, a guy named No-Face pays for a bunch of food with gold, which is the very foundation of a transactional ecosystem, so it doesn’t really seem like much of a problem. Why is everyone screaming?
Soon Haku gets poisoned, and oh by the way, he’s also a dragon now sometimes. Sen gives him part of that turd to crunch on, which makes him barf up a shiny little Egg MacGuffin. While she’s at it, she gives the rest of the turd to No-Face just to see how much barfing is allowed in a PG movie. Turns out it’s a metric assload.
Next, Sen visits Zeniba, Yubaba’s twin sister, to give back the MacGuffin Haku stole during the breakfast rush. Zeniba informs Sen that it was her love for Haku that broke some curse or another, which is gross because Sen is 10 and Haku’s gotta be at least 18. Back off, creep, there are plenty of other fish in the sea monster. Later, completely unprompted, Sen remembers a time she fell into the Kohaku River, which they arbitrarily decide means that Haku is short for Kohaku and he’s a river spirit. So he’s like a thousand and their relationship is even more inappropriate! Shame on you, Japan.
Yubaba gives Sen one last pop quiz where she has to identify her parents, but Sen wasn’t exactly born yesterday. I mean, technically yes, Sen was born yesterday. But Chihiro wasn’t. And now that she’s Chihiro again, it’s time to grab her re-humanized parents and blow this popsicle store.
Spirited Away is a coming of age story in the tradition of classics like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and James Franco’s The Wizard of Oz, which similarly portray a young girl transported to a strange place where she has to do a bunch of stuff. At the start of the film Chihiro is naive and inexperienced, with a dash of timid and whiny sprinkled in for good measure. It is only by solving problems and helping those in need that Chihiro gains the self-reliance and empathy needed to terrorize a giant baby.
Underneath this story of renewal and vomiting lurks a cautionary tale of greed and overconsumption, particularly as it relates to postwar Japan. After the, shall we say, messy end of World War II, Japan experienced an economic boom — no offense, none taken — that correlated with a cultural shift towards capitalism and away from traditional values. The Spirit Realm takes the form of an old amusement park styled after the Meiji period of the late 19th to early 20th century, which are two of my all-time favorite centuries. Discarded shrines adorn the hillside, symbolizing the relegation of cultural history in favor of more modern pursuits like leisure and interdimensional slipstreams.
In this economically-driven environment, overconsumption has dire consequences, much like the type you might find in a pre-nup. Chihiro’s parents snarf down food from the spirit realm despite its obviously suspicious lack of vegetables. In return, they are transformed into pigs, which were commonly used on Earth as a critical symbol of capitalist cultures that would bring about the eradication of humankind. The bathhouse furnace is also shaped like a pig, constantly gobbling resources just to give guests a slightly more temperate bubble bath. When No-Face shows up overflowing with gold, Yubaba and her workers milk that proverbial horse for every last fluid ounce. But as the staff showers No-Face in excess, he can’t help but shower them in stomach acid.
The film expresses hope that modern Japan can find a balance between economic prosperity and spiritual heritage. There is much emphasis on remembering one’s name and the identity of one’s parents. And even though I forget both of those things on a daily basis, Mom, they are important in forging a connection to one’s ancestry.
The message deepens when we consider the context of the film. Prior to making Spirited Away, director Hayao Miyazaki was considering passing the torch to the next wave of artists at Studio Ghibli, though he reconsidered when he remembered he was the f***ing man. Furthermore, at a time when many animated films were visualized using computers, Spirited Away was drawn using an elaborate system of levers and pulleys. And its story conveys the hope that future generations will flourish and progress, while at the same time respecting the history of the art form, whatever it was.
For Earthling Cinema, I’m Garyx Wormuloid. Arigato.