Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)

Regarded not merely as a masterpiece in the animation field but as one of the greatest films in world cinema, and a persuasively beguiling experience for budding young filmgoers, Spirited Away constitutes one of the most frustrating experiences possible — along, I suppose, with Star Wars — for someone who isn’t able to fall under its spell. Back in 2004 it was promoted to me in such language that I became convinced it was just about impossible that I would fail to be enchanted by its tale of a withdrawn, nervous girl essentially orphaned and forced to find her way through a strange and unfamiliar, perpetually threatening world to make her way back to safety. Yet while I could see the film’s appeal and its technical impressiveness, I was emotionally untouched by it. Sadly, I remained so when viewing it a second time for the IMDB Top 250 project. For me, it’s simply an overwrought and oddly stilted fantasy story that happens to possess a few scattered moments of real imagination but is mostly only competently animated, and amounts to a weak story that’s not very well told.

Hayao Miyazaki’s tremendously personal coming of age fable follows a ten year-old girl named Chihiro, later Sen, whose oafish dad — while the family is on their way to a new home — takes the car down into what appears to be an abandoned amusement park that turns out to be a mystical wonderland of weirdness involving feasts, talking frogs, massive elegant bath houses, strange old men and stranger little creatures that make cute noises, and food that’s just sitting out there for the taking — which her parents somewhat improbably feast on, which inevitably transforms them into pigs. At times, the opening half hour of Spirited Away has the gravity and menace of a piece of indispensable, universally familiar folklore, combined with the identification and surreal displacement of a Twilight Zone episode. The film gets bogged down in part because Sen isn’t a very strong character — she spends most of the film reacting to the increasingly intricate and bewildering ideas Miyazaki throws at her from afar — but more clearly because the story is overly busy and doesn’t have much sense of economy or elegance.

No sooner does one weird inhabitant of the bath house surrender to the requirements of Sen’s plight than we meet an entirely new excuse for an outlandish, vaguely spooky drawing accompanied by several mouthfuls of exposition. Most problematic is the near-complete absence of internal consistency in the narrative; we’re not opposed to toying with traditions of filmic structure here, but Spirited Away is clearly designed as a sweeping single-conflict narrative, an aspiration it’s much too hyperactive to achieve. One is reminded of those Choose Your Own Adventure books in which a given choice would cause completely unrelated random events: do you want to go down the rickety stairs, or take your chances in the kitchen? Either way, here’s a crazy blob of mud that smells bad that you now have to take care of; good luck! By about forty minutes in, the less easily hushed among us can’t detect much of anything besides a lot of stuff happening, which is fatal to any cohesion in the story. When Sen is instructed to go to this floor and perform that task, it feels like we’re just playing a video game — which unfortunately makes repeated viewings even more tortured and dull.

This is a traditional aspect of the fantasy genre, but to the wrong eyes and ears it’s lazy storytelling. Despite a preponderance of strong visuals, Miyazaki never seems content to show rather than tell — or to pull back and imply what he can trot out in sledgehammer fashion. For a film known for its haunting and etheral nature, Spirited Away certainly is a loudmouthed thing; in the early scenes, one senses an elegance and minimalism that would have made the film infinitely stronger and more mysterious, but is discarded in favor of what feels like the dramatic weight of a Saturday morning cartoon, fatally hindered by its regard for its own great depth and importance.

The visuals are harder to fault. Miyazaki’s effects animation is nearly without peer in the industry, and in the age of CG as non-miracle fallback for all problems and crises in cinema, its integration with hand-drawn beauty here is enough of a relief, as with Richard Williams’ work, that it compensates for some of the director’s clumsiness with regard to the story department. Spirited Away might have been one of the finest animated shorts ever made, which is saying a lot since the overwhelming majority of truly great animated films run less than seven minutes. Conversely, Miyazaki’s sense of composition is stunning, as are the atmospherics and sense of place he achieves here — one can be forgiven for wishing that either he tried his hand at live action, which could harness these skills incredibly, or that he had let someone else have a go at the script. Unfortunately, Spirited Away is an animated feature film written by the director — those ships have sailed.

The director and Studio Ghibli’s biggest problem — and unfortunately, a problem not unusual for the Japanese animation industry — is character animation. Bad character work is all too common in an age when every cartoon TV series is farmed out to generic animation houses with stilted, immobile model sheets and heartbreakingly uninspired, obsessively straightforward key drawings giving way to in-betweens that are put together with no director or guiding force within the same borders, let alone in attendance. The assembly line format, with so many unrelated hands in the process, has given us a depressingly flat era of television work. It’s hard not to think of this when watching the choppy, utter inexpressiveness of Sen and her parents, or the sense in which all of the interesting creatures we meet, like No-Face, are the ones that require little emotional acting of consequence at all. (The sole exception is the boiler operator Kamaji, a wonderful and unforgettable creation.) Sen’s face looks the same whether she’s baffled, terrified or merely curious, and so it is with her parents, friends and all of the other humans in the feature. The most egregious miscalculation is the design of the witch and apparent bath house supervisor Yubaba, who looks like a sloppy caricature of Zsa Zsa Gabor and whose dimensions and relationship to the world around her make no sense whatsoever. Aesthetically and in terms of movement, Ghibli has a nearly fatal reliance on technical laziness and rote acting in its character designs; this alone keeps their films from being anything like the miracles that are frequently reputed.

Spirited Away is not a dumb or facile film by any means; its appropriation of Japanese mythology and deeper yearnings about the history of its country are hard to miss even if you don’t have the means to process them completely. The bath house itself is clearly marked as a metaphorical Japan, and the economic downturn of the film’s era is even mentioned outright; the film’s closed-off atmosphere of dread and hope are palpable. As for Sen, while she has little inner life to speak of despite the time afforded her and the necessity of strong feelings for her in order for the climax to work (which it doesn’t), there’s no mistaking the film’s plan for her to save her parents as a rite of passage into her own adulthood. The more Spirited Away feels like a coded message about adolescence and growing up, the more absorbing it is; Sen’s struggles with Yubaba’s incomprehensible rules and attitude will be familiar to everyone who remembers their first job… and the sense early on that Sen feels older and more mature than her parents is a fresh and sad enough signifier that I strongly wish the film had dealt with it more.

In the end, while there’s clearly merit to Miyazaki’s excitement and enthusiasm here, my main impression is that this is little more than a deeply serious, brightly lit Alice in Wonderland without any sense of fun or mystery. Its reputation is such — and the widespread passion for it so severe and felt — that honestly, I feel rather guilty for not being more moved by it. The bare minimum duty for a film like this is to cast me under its spell and it fails so utterly to do so that I find it hard to blame myself, but perhaps I should not rule out my fantasy biases as a factor. So: consider this still inconclusive.

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