Spirited Away, the Japanese animated fantasy directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is one of my favourite films, if not my actual favourite. Certainly top 5. So… I assumed it would be fairly easy to sit down at my computer and pinpoint quite what I love about it. It has proved surprisingly hard to unravel.
A few people have recently mentioned to me in passing that they’ve given Miyazaki films a try, and got frustrated and given up. I think can see why. I consider myself Miyazaki fan, but then I have to remember: I love his style, his attention to detail, I love My Neighbour Totoro, I love Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I’m… interested his other work, but I didn’t go crazy for Howl’s Moving Castle, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or even Princess Mononoko. There is a huge amount of inventiveness, originality and beauty in all of them, but I don’t necessarily warm to all of them as stories.
But it feels to me like somehow everything came together for Spirited Away. (And this isn’t a particularly controversial view: last year film critics at the New York Timesvoted it the second best film of the 21st century so far). It is the story of a young girl in a sulk in the back of a car, moving house to a different part of the country and leaving all her friends behind on the way to their new home…
Actually, here’s a trailer, which sums it up much better:
(I never watch foreign-language films with dubbing, only with subtitles, because for me dubbing never ever ever works ever, but that’s just my prejudice – so I have no idea what the English-language dubbing version is like.)
So, to the point. Why the fuss? I actually needed to read a few reviews of this film and watch a few video essays to really help me put it into words. And I ended up with a disconnected list of little things that Miyazaki often does that particularly work well in this film, and one big thing that he doesn’t do so much, but that I’ve been thinking about a great deal since noticing it.
Let’s start with the little things.
Spirited Away does all of those things that cinema is uniquely good it, and does them pretty much as well as I’ve ever seen them done. That combination of light and sound, images and music, realism and artifice. The way that the (human) characters react is so natural and spontaneous that it almost looks improvised – except of course, being an animated film, each frame has been painstakingly constructed. Which slightly reminds me of a criticism that Michael Morpurgo once made about Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of his play War Horse. In the stage version, the horse is a life-sized puppet operated by two people, and Morpurgo’s view (and mine) was that those puppeteers were geniuses. Their interpretation of how a horse moves, behaves and expresses emotion was so detailed and nuanced that their horse puppet could put you in a kind of spell as you watched it. Whereas the film featured a real horse, obviously — a puppet would have been weird. So it’s not Spielberg’s fault. But it’s this curious thing: there’s a loss of a sense of magic when you have the real thing instead of the animated interpretation. In the same way, with Spirited Away I think that the fact that the whole thing is animated means that it’s much easier to get swept up in the crazy magical fantasy that’s happening, because (a) there’s enough attention to the reality of movement and light and physical objects to make you suspend your disbelief and (b) you don’t have the distraction of watching ‘real’ photographic footage and seeing some crazy shit and wondering how they did it and was it CGI or real models? And the ‘cinematography’ of Spirited Away is just camera-like — you practically have lens flare.
There’s also very little dialogue. It is a story told through the senses: through visual movement, through sound, through the suggestion of smells and tastes and physical textures. It is a truly sensuous film, and that’s what makes it so easy to get lost in, even when talking frogs are being levitated in mid-air or bouncing heads are following the heroine down a corridor.
Let’s talk about the monsters, shall we. Miyazaki monsters are unique, and a crucial driving narrative force in his films. They are often terrifying (read the YouTube comments for the trailer above, and you’ll discover a whole generation who were traumatised as young children by the ‘No Face’ character). They are elemental, powerful, like forces of nature. They are almost never straightforwardly evil. They are almost never straightforwardly good. Like all his characters, they are a mix of complex emotions and motivations. In fact, the whole film works on this subtle balance between well-observed realism and insane imagination: a wicked witch who turns the heroine’s parents into pigs, but dotes on a baby that is twice the size that she is. Miyazaki’s films always seem to be swinging between brutality and tenderness.
And they frequently have a strange dreamlike logic to them. They’re very odd. To put it mildly. Weird stuff happens that is never explained. And not just “a man who looks like Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters but who has many arms like a spider and who presides over an small army of coal-mining creatures made out of soot”. But the overall plot itself. It wanders in strange directions, and although the story comes to a conclusion at the end it doesn’t seem interested in answering the questions it raised at the beginning.
But in a strange way, that style of storytelling always made sense to me, because it feels like it is a film made for children (the heroine is 10 years old, after all)… but by someone who actually understands children. And what I specifically mean by that is that young children are quite used to navigating a world that they don’t fully understand. Even the things in real life that are explained to them don’t fully make sense. So they are used to adapting quickly to new and very strange environments without waiting for rational explanations. That’s why, to me, despite the realism and the brutality, this film feels like it is genuinely and wonderfully childlike, because rational explanations are not the point. The point is more about sensation and discovery and learning on a more emotional level.
This ‘child in a mad world’ story reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and perhaps both stories could perhaps be said to be about the fundamental question of childhood: how to navigate through a world that makes no sense. A world that clearly is full of rules and logic, but that is only half-explained to you at best.
However, whilst speaking directly to children, this lack of interest in tight plotting and satisfying explanations might be something that alienates many adult viewers. As might the pacing. Spirited Away, like all of Miyazaki films, has many quiet moments, in which we see characters just thinking — staring into space, or watching the wind through the trees. They also have high energy moments too of course: pretty much every Miyazaki film has an epic chase in it somewhere. But he is not at all afraid to let nothing much happen for a while, particularly when a character, and also by extension the audience, needs time to process what just happened.
Spirited Away almost seems like an animated story version of Romantic poetry: fascinated by nature in both its beauty and its terror, and by childhood innocence, and sensation, yet also suspicious of any rationality that has a clear and simple explanation for everything.
So, that will do for the little reasons why I think this film is so good. (Although a few of them were taken from this great video essay, and there’s more where they came from.)
The big reason I’m such a fan, which surprised me when I realised it, is related to the fact that the stories that I love most are not the ones I thought they were. I have assumed for a while that my favourite stories are the subtle character studies that offer intimate glimpses into the nature of humanity. The novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s or the film In The Mood For Love. Or perhaps works of epic imagination and skill, like the novels of Wolf Hall or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
But if I’m honest, you know, it’s fucking Star Wars. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s Robin of Sherwood. And I realised, when thinking about Spirited Away, that it was that ‘fantasy’ aspect about that film that I enjoyed most. That ‘happy place’ type of story.
And then it occurred to me: all of these stories are about Utopias.
Which seems like a strange way of putting it. But I think that the reason why stories like these, and the Harry Potter stories (which I was a little too old for) and the Lord of the Rings stories (which I was a little too young for when I first tried to read them) are so adored is because at their heart they’re about an idealised world.
And to me the most interesting thing about these idealised worlds… is that they all have terrible terrible problems. But problems that are also incredibly appealing, because they allow us to develop and learn.
The Harry Potter stories are a good clear example. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a utopia. Despite being incredibly dangerous to pupils. Despite being riven with ancient rivalries and hostilities. It is a place where friendships can be formed, extraordinary skills can be learnt, and — above all — a sense of purpose in life can be found.
The bathhouse to millions of gods, which is where the action of Spirited Away takes place, is another such utopia. It is a place of amazing sights and sounds and tastes and smells. It is a place of cruel (yet not irredeemable) authority figures, and brusque but warm-hearted workers. It is a place of magic, and fear, and wonder, and that strange nostalgia for a time and place that you never experienced.
I think that’s why we’re drawn to ‘fantasy’ stories as children, and as adults. Stories about dystopias we call ‘dystopian fiction’. Stories about utopias, genuine utopias, we call ‘fantasies’.
And the reason why this idea has left my head spinning since coming to this conclusion is because it slightly up-ends my whole way of thinking about what a utopia is.
A genuine utopia is never perfect. It’s never problem-free. Because without challenges, without stimulation, without something to motivate us it becomes… a world devoid of meaning.
And I find that can actually be a comforting thought when disappointed about how your life is still full of problems. It’s supposed to be. Even our utopias are full of problems. Solving problems is what we humans do. If we didn’t have them, we’d have to invent them. In fact, many of us do.
And so initially I couldn’t figure out why I was so drawn to these children’s stories which don’t even really seem to have a point to them, beyond ‘stop the villain’, ‘rescue your friends’, ‘escape from the monster’.
But the ‘point’ of these stories is not the plot. It is the place. They are all types of Wonderland. Environments created specifically as sort of theme-parks for our imaginations, where we can test out our desires. And although the basic lessons of these stories may all tend to be the same — friendship is great, romance is great, injustice is bad, explosions are cool — the endings, and ‘lessons’ we might draw from them, are the least interesting bit. What’s more important is allowing the audience or reader to feel the experience of great friendship, great explosions, and so on. (It is a truth universally acknowledged, incidentally, that with great injustice comes great explosions.)
And this is what I feel Hayao Miyazaki managed to pull together in Spirited Away. It’s not so much about the story as about the setting. The story is simply an introduction to that setting. And that setting is a land of wonder.
By James Bell
Trad singer, songwriter and romantic fundamentalist.