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Spirited Away

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  • Noel Vera
    Little girl lost By Noel Vera (Note: plot of film discussed in close detail) Hayao Miyazaki s Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), about the
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1 10:21 PM
      Little girl lost

      By Noel Vera

      (Note: plot of film discussed in close detail)

      Hayao Miyazaki's " Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi" (Spirited Away,
      2001), about the adventures of an ordinary girl named Chihiro lost
      in a strange world where her parents have been turned into pigs, has
      been called everything from an anime variation on Charles
      Dodgson's "Alice" books to a fantasy treatise on parent-child
      relations in modern Japan to (as Miyazaki himself put it in an
      interview) a parable on the empowerment and maturity of ten-year-old

      It's unusual in that it's the most openly dreamlike of Miyazaki's
      films. He's depicted dreams before--Nausicaa's reverie about a
      child Ohmu, for example, or Porco Rosso's vision of dead pilots come
      to life--but never so sustained, never for almost the length of a
      film. His ultrarealistic style of animation--the characters don't
      go into exaggerated cartoon expressions, or deliver asides to the
      audience as in conventional anime (in this he more closely resembles
      Disney, as opposed to Warner Brothers or the Fleischer brothers)--
      suits the dreamlike images just fine. I've always argued that to
      achieve true strangeness you need a solid base of everyday realism
      to take off from, for contrast and comparison; "Spirited Away" is
      eloquent proof of this. The sequence where the sky darkens and
      spirits begin to appear wouldn't be as frightening if we didn't have
      Chihiro's car ride (with her in the back seat wearing a bored
      expression and her pair of comically dense parents chattering away
      in front) to establish the reality of the world that had suddenly
      just vanished. The impossible landscape--the endless shallow blue
      sea with its sunken rail line, the garden-topped plateau surrounded
      by plummeting cliffs--wouldn't be as impossible if Chihiro (her name
      by this time taken away and replaced with the nickname "Sen") didn't
      spend quiet moments at her porch looking at it. That the sunken
      rails and precipitous cliffs don't disappear like mirages the longer
      Sen stares at them--that rail and cliff seem as solid as any rail
      and cliff in the ordinary world--only adds to their mystery.

      But more than giving us contrasting images to see, Miyazaki gives us
      contrasting emotions to feel; against a wonderful and at times
      frightening background he gives us a core drama, the resolution of
      which, thanks to his storytelling and powers of characterization, we
      deeply care about. Dodgson's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"
      and "Through the Looking Glass" brimmed over with fantastical
      creatures and surreal images, but at the center of the books were
      the reactions and opinions (sometimes frightened, sometimes short-
      tempered, not always very perceptive) of the young (and true-to-
      life) Alice Pleasance Liddell. Same with "Spirited Away:" the train
      gliding over water, the repulsive mud creature, the parents turned
      dumb and bestial, none of this would have the same impact if there
      wasn't a very real little girl in the middle of it all, expressing
      wonderment and disgust and loss accordingly.

      "Spirited Away" speaks to anyone who as a child--or at any time of
      his life--found himself lost and wandering in an unfamiliar world;
      that's possibly the secret of its wide appeal, its commercial and
      critical success (boxoffice hit in Japan; a shared Golden Bear in
      Berlin; an Academy Award for Best Animated Film at the Oscars).
      It's possible, however, that the film speaks to the few Filipinos
      who have seen it (more, hopefully, if ever the DVD becomes available
      in Manila) in a special way.

      Filipino overseas contract workers ("OCWs," as they are known in
      Manila) are men and women contracted to go abroad and work for a
      period of time, usually for two or three years, with the option to
      renew their contract. Like Sen they find themselves in an
      unfamiliar land (Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Italy,
      Japan, to name a few) amongst unfamiliar people speaking an unknown
      language (Malay, Chinese, Arabic, Italian, Japanese); they often
      feel lost, disoriented, depressed, wishing they were back home with
      family and friends.

      Filipino workers often take on the menial jobs natives find too low-
      paying, or too degrading, to take: cooking, waitressing, taking care
      of children, cleaning up floors and bathrooms; driving, heavy labor,
      signing on as sailors. More, they're looked upon much the same way
      as Sen was by the bathing-house's staff near the film's beginning:
      as being small, puny, useless, possibly malodorous, definitely not
      to be trusted.

      Filipino workers have little choice but to respond much the same way
      Sen does: by bending down to their work without protest. The scene
      where the spiderlike Kamaji warns Sen not to complain or ask to be
      sent back is almost an emblematic moment: it's as if he was speaking
      to the thousands of Filipinos desperate to find work, warning them
      to seal their mouths even at the cost of starvation, possible
      physical or sexual abuse, perhaps a violent death.

      Why do they do it? Sen's motive parallels theirs. Sen works to
      avoid being sent home or turned into an animal while she finds a way
      to transform her parents back to human form. Filipino workers also
      work for the sake of their families, trying to earn enough money to
      send home.

      And somehow, they prevail. They learn the language, grow familiar
      with foreign customs, sometimes even marry and raise children. They
      lay down roots and thrive on the alien soil. Like Sen they manage
      to win the respect and affection of their fellow workers, mainly
      through hard work, willingness to endure, a cheerful and likeable
      nature even in the face of adversity. When Sen is cheered on by her
      fellow workers, again the moment seemed emblematic: Filipinos often
      inspire that kind of camaraderie, even among foreigners, given
      proximity and sufficient time.

      I remember asking myself: "Does Miyazaki know any Filipinos?" The
      question seems laughably farfetched, though you must remember that
      there are thousands of Filipinos in Japan, many of them there
      illegally, working under-the-table with the unspoken permission of
      Japanese immigration (for an excellent account of their experiences,
      read Ray Ventura's autobiographical "Underground in Japan"). Could
      he or perhaps someone in his staff be at least familiar with their
      situation, with their plight? We may never know. Perhaps the
      easiest answer would be the earlier one: that Miyazaki has made a
      movie with such simultaneously special and basic appeal that it
      touches many people in many different ways. Which, to be honest, is
      no answer at all, but will have to suffice for the meantime.

      ("Spirited Away" is available on DVD)

      (This article first appeared in Menzone, July, 2003)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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