Thoughts On: Spirited Away - Sink Into Who You Are

16/01/2018

Spirited Away - Sink Into Who You Are

Thoughts On: Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001)


A young girl is lost to a realm of spirits and is left to figure her way out.


Spirited Away has to be Studio Ghibli's most iconic film. Intriguingly, it is also one of their most complex. Following in the footsteps of Princess Mononoke somewhat, this has numerous layers - many of which I'm not sure I know how to peel back yet. With a plethora of intriguing characters who also strike you as symbols, Spirited Away seems to be using its rather juddered and unannounced narrative structure as a thin veil that hides an abundance of subtextual points. As said, I'm not sure how to peel back this veil and assess each and every character relation just yet. And nor will we attempt to do this today. With our first look at Spirited Away (when we will return to it is unofficial), we will attempt to assess some of the key motifs of the narrative, those being memory, time, responsibility and growth.

All of these motifs or themes are very present in My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, and such makes complete sense as we are seeing Miyazaki construct yet another coming-of-age film with Spirited Away. All three of the mentioned films are about using adversity of some kind - losing parents through coincidence, sickness or tradition - to go on an adventure where young female protagonists have to bear the burden of increasing responsibility by looking after other people or working for them. We actually see this to be a central narrative paradigm present, in some shape or form, in almost every single Ghibli film; this is most obvious in Porco Rosso, Grave Of The Fireflies, Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke.

The Ghibli philosophy of coming-of-age is, in my opinion, a very strong one. This is because growing up is shown to be based on losing and then finding oneself through hard work. If we contrast this philosophy to the Hollywood coming-of-age tales, we see rebellion and a confrontation between generations that is far more severe and revolutionary than anything shown in Ghibli films. Taking a minute to think of Rebel Without A Cause, Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights or American Graffiti, we see that the American philosophy of coming of age has much to do with realising that adults are very childish. With these films, we see the act of coming of age as a downwards pull; children pull parents down to their level. In Ghibli films, we see quite the opposite; children often pull themselves up to the level of adults. This is strikingly true in Porco Rosso and Kiki's Delkivery Service. However, it must be noted that, with Spirited Away and Grave Of The Fireflies, parents are presented as very fallible. However, never are parents rebelled against as we see in the mentioned Hollywood coming-of-age films. This, I'm sure, is reflective of the differences between Japanese and American culture in regards to generations, growth and learning.

The handling of coming-of-age in Spirited Away is quite unique in contrast to that presented by Kiki's Delivery Service or My Neighbour Totoro. Kiki's Delivery Service, as we have explored, is about selling your soul, about becoming a genuine individual and splitting yourself up amongst a community. Growing up, here, is shown to be about a form of sacrifice and an act of trust. In My Neighbour Totoro, which we are yet to explore in depth, we see growing up explored through the threat of loss and the realisation of what is precious. Growing up is then shown to be about the confrontation of fear and the consolidation of self under the pressure of destruction. In Spirited Away, there is the loss of parents, just as there is the selling of ones soul, but, more so, there is an emphasis on remembrance. There is then a slight contradiction about Spirited Away as growing up is shown to have a relationship with the realisation that you are still a child with parents.

Much of Spirited Away is then centred on an invisible bond between Chihiro, her childhood and her parents. As Chihiro then evolves across this narrative, transforming from a klutz, to a genuine help, to a hero of sorts, we see her grow away from childhood and her parents so that she may return to them with greater strength.

If we think of the opening to Snyder's 300, we see the tale of a young Leonidas having to venture out into the cold wilderness to kill a wolf before he can return to be the king. This is a symbolic ritual present in many stories that is predicated on growing as a circular journey away and then back towards the motherland and the kingdom of youth. So, whilst Leonidas has to kill a wolf in the wilderness before he can become king, Chihiro has to save a dragon in a fantasy land before she can be a developed teenage daughter. Thus, we see the circle of adventure that leads away from home and then turns back to it drawn quite plainly. In contrast to this, however, returning home in American coming-of-age films is usually a symbol of failure and so success is often signified by the complete, symbolic death of the parents. Think then of Rebel Without A Cause, Boogie Nights, American Graffiti or Saturday Night Fever where escape is everything. With seeming commentary on these very films, we have recently gotten Lady Bird, which suggests, as we are now, that the journey back home is part of life - something that we could argue American films often fail to recognise. On the other hand, it could be argued that the death of parents is an inevitability, and so their symbolic movement into the abstract is key - which is what American coming-of-age films capture. It must be noted, however, that the position parents play in the abstract of films like Saturday Night Fever and Rebel Without A Cause is one of caution: children do not want to be their parents. Thus, we come back to the likes of Spirited Away, which sees children return to their literal parents who, though they may die and move into the abstract one day, won't just be cautionary lessons, instead, guiding stars. And as you may pick up on, whilst many live-action American films feature quite the opposite of this, Disney, with films such as The Lion King, Pinocchio and Dumbo, are also all about this return to home and the following of a guiding star.

If we focus on Spirited Away specifically here, we have a narrative that plays out, seemingly, completely in the abstract spirit realm. We are not then seeing a literal adventure out into the wilderness and a return to home, as we do in The Lion King, instead, a journey of the spirit through spirits. As mentioned at the top of this essay, so much could be said about all of the specific spirits in this film and what they may represent in regards to Japanese mythology and folklore, but we shall save such an intricate examination for another time.

With the abstract journey of the spirit through the spirit realm in this film, there is a clear internal journey taken, one in which Chihiro has to grow from the inside out. This seems to be why love features in this story; love is an internalised marker of growth. If we look beyond Spirited Away to other films from other cultures, we will see love expressed not just romantically, but sexually. Comparing the journey seen in Call Me By Your Name or Blue Is The Warmest Colour to that of Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service, we then see two kinds of stories that utilise love as an internal growth mechanism. Whilst on one hand physical and literal experience is shown to be important, on the other, the conscious, spiritual and existential awakening to love is shown to matter more than - and to be quite separate from - the consecration of such an awakening. The being rather than the doing is then emphasised by Ghibli. And interestingly, love in Spirited Away also has an arc that comes full circle as Chihiro falls in love with an act of compassion experienced in her childhood; she falls in love with the spirit of the river that she almost drowned in. And such an idea is incredibly expressive.

With this journey towards loving what was almost a tragedy, we see that Chihiro reconciles with her immaturity, with her frailty and with her youth to become a better, stronger, wiser person - all by falling in love with Haku. What we are clearly seeing here is the embrace of chaos and the remembrance of security. Life, in Spirited Away, seems to be an elemental force of water. Water threatens to drown you, but it is also where you come from, what you are made of and what keeps you alive. What keeps you from drowning in this ocean are paddles of memory that will steer you back to stability; a boat that remains afloat on the waters and in the wind. This seems to be why it is so important for Chihiro to remember her name, to remember Haku's real name and to remember who her parents are: she has learnt to survive without a boat, and this has made her a stronger swimmer and more able of braving the tides of life, but she cannot swim forever - she needs to find that boat of family and security again.

Finding this boat requires, somewhat ironically, an immersion into waters. By sinking into chaos and into ourselves, we find the memories that give us the ability to paddle back home. Chihiro figures this out, in large part, by seeing other people fight off drowning by pulling others beneath them. This is what the malevolent spirits and corrupt figures do with the employment or the payment of people they want to use. Chihiro never employs people and she rarely accepts payment, nor does she pay for things. Instead, she finds and secures friends, she is thankful and she is generous. This sees her shed weight as she tries to swim and also sees her build a stable raft of a community about her as she searches for the paddles of truth and memory that will get her back to her parents and the real world beyond the realm of the spirits.

The key ideas within Spirited Away then seem to be that we must venture out into the world only so we can become a better person and successful sink into who we are by remembering where we came from and who we owe that to. So, with that said, I'll leave the intricate analysis of the characters and beats of this narrative to you. What are your thoughts on Spirited Away and all we have talked about today?


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