Rental Corner: The puzzlement of “Spirited Away”
Disclaimer: The version reviewed for this post was the English-dub and thus much will be referred to on that cut and not the original Japanese cut. Regardless of the translation differences, it doesn’t change my opinion.
While I’m not a fan, Studio Ghibli has made a unique filmography. The majority of their movies deal with the unknown fantasy realm while keeping in tune with nature as seen in My Neighbor Tororo and Princess Mononoke while others like Kiki’s Delivery Service are simple fun. Unfortunately, those mentioned three are the only ones I have seen but I do admire their compassion to keep hand-drawn animated films alive. But of all the movies to make a mark, the one I always hear that is their crown jewel is Spirited Away. For the longest time, I never really had a moving interest to see this one or even a notion to do so. But yet, everyone couldn’t stop talking about it. Heck, it even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, will all this praise and after finally getting the courage to see it for the first time, all the magic and wonder everyone was hyped up on just left me feeling underwhelmed. Needless to say, I don’t hate this movie but I felt more disappointed in the end.
The story is a basic dark fairy tale as little Chihiro is moving from her old home. We never see what this old home or town looks like as we focus on her and the parents already leaving. The father dumbfound of where to go stumbles across a set of ruins he and the mother mistake as an abandoned amusement park. As with most folklore, this takes the trope of blind parents lead to misfortune as they consume food that turns them into pigs (displayed in a rather uncomfortable scene as the eating sounds really got under my skin.)
As it turns out, Chihiro is left in the middle of a place where spirits go to relax and replenish themselves. From what kind of activity or work they do before a day of relaxing, we don’t know. All we know is that spirits at night go to this place just to kick back and relax. But here is one of the biggest concerns I have and it happens to be the setting and placement of this movie. Everyone who has talked about it praised the visuals and where the whole movie is set. So imagine my disappointment when I find out the whole story takes place within an enchanted bathhouse. You heard me right. A bathhouse were odd frogmen greet and seemly normal women (never specified if they are ghosts or creatures in disguise) are to wash the beasts after their long day. Already, I found it more perplexing as to why set the story here.
Maybe there can be something unique with a simple place like this? Is there a room or two that looks wonderful and glorious? Nope. Its just a bathhouse. Visuals like a man with spider-arms in the boiler room to a grand office that would make Mr. Burns jealous are the only highlights. Its a shame because I admit the animation looks unique with the shadings and shadows when it needs to feel menacing and bright. But I ask of all the places to set a fantasy movie, why this one? When watching the story unfold, I found nothing unique or eye-popping outside of the beastly clients that range from fat turnip creatures in a fundoshi to giant ducks. Charming indeed.
The plot, that is if you call it one, has Chihiro under the servitude of the place’s owner, Yubaba who could is very much a cross between the mythos of Baba Yaga and a bobble head of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro has to wash and work the place in order to free her parents, who I guess remain in the form of pigs for the remainder of the movie. But most of the time, our focus is placed on the strange imagery that lay within the walls and occupy the screen. Throughout the duration, I felt there was never a single breath to allow us to look about or even take a break from such bizarre scenes like a creepy giant baby or a monster that is covered in sludge. And by the time we get to the most-talked about moment when it does get quiet on a train, all I felt was very fatigued than relaxed.
How can a movie like this pack so much material and yet everyone praise it as “originality”? You could argue its a mesh of traditional fairy tales like Cinderella (girl washes the place under control) while crossing it with traditional Japanese folklore like how dragons represent a river. But most of the time, I found myself predicting and knowing what was going to happen more than letting the story unravel itself. Perhaps being well resourceful of fairy tale tropes, I was really irked to see these “simple things” being praised as genius. These are elements that have been done before but in better tales. Entrapment under a witch like Hansel and Gretel, strange puzzles and clues to solve riddles or curses like in The Snow Queen and even a bit of Beauty and the Beast tossed in as our main girl has to wash off a monster covered in (what I HOPE looks like but I know it isn’t) sludge and mud.
Most of the time, I felt bad for the character Chihiro and all the stuff she goes through. Her character is only reduced to coming across a bizarre animation set piece or shouting dialogue once in a while. Even if she starts off wise like the choice to not to eat the magic food, the rest of movie has her brain taking a back seat as she gets lost in the world of spirits. I understand a place like this is new to her but why not be smart about it? For example, there is a scene when she has to give up her identity to the bathhouse owner in order to work there. Why not give a fake name so your true self can be kept from the clutches of the witch? But no, they explain she can remember her name thanks to a farewell card she got before moving from her old home. She is told by an ally of hers to keep it so she doesn’t loose her name and identity all together. But even that doesn’t pay off in the end. We never go back to the card or even feel like her own personality that she sold off is at risk.
Instead of being amazed by this world, I felt frightened to the point I barley got any sleep after watching it (true story). But even more stranger is the underlying message of how bad prostitution is. And no, this is not something that I’m looking too deep into. I did my research to see if I missed any symbolism prior to this blog post and found it has a possible underlying message on this adult subject. The fact the little girl sacrifices her name in order to gain a new identity so she can work on serving clients. The first one she has to service is dirty from head to toe and in the end she gets really greasy and grimmy after washing the monster off. One of the monsters tries to buy her service in gold. Its all there black and white. Clear as crystal. Now you could argue these are stuble underlying elements but I’m sorry. After being reminded of Deepa Mehta’s Water and reading on an interview with director Hayao Miyazaki himself, I can confirm this is another “double meaning” movie. One to serve as a fantasy for kids and the other to make a statement that really gives me uncomfortable goosebumps.
So yeah, this sounds like I really didn’t have a good time seeing this one. And, yeah its very true. For something that has grand designs, I expected something more like a grand adventure or something bigger. The simplicity of the plot and the over abundance of weirdness really killed the enjoyment. I guess what I expected was this grand and original fairy tale when what I get is more of a patchwork of traditional elements reworked into a small story. I’m okay with that but there was nothing interesting to me with the story or these characters. The more it continued, the more I wanted the film to end. I was done with the twisted place of monsters and its buffet of strange scenes that went on like no end in sight.
To compare, there is a movie that does a similar aspect but far different called Wolf Children. In my view, that is a much better movie because the story fits the simple animation and the characters have simple motives we connect to more. We got the mother Hana who has the challenge to raise her new kids but doesn’t know how. And even if she has no exact information on how to raise half-human and half wolf kids like her’s, Hana is really smart about her choices like debating on consulting a veterinarian or a doctor when one of her kids get sick. And not to mention the kids themselves trying to find a place in the world while one wants to be with nature while the other wants to be more social and open with the world. My god, why isn’t that movie getting more attention as opposed to the crazy roller coaster I had to endure?
I feel like Spirited Away was created more for the crazy and insane visuals and I’m sure a lot of them will be implanted in my brain for a while. But sadly, this was not a case when I thought words got perfectly married with the animation. I understand many of you are rather upset at this point to hear my underwhelming and disappointing thoughts but no matter how much I wanted to enjoy this movie, I felt like I was getting nothing in return. An episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller gave more to offer than this two hour “epic” of unfocused insanity.
I am sorry. Very, very, very sorry. Deeply sorry. Sorry that I feel very indifferent to those who have a higher opinion about this movie than I do. Sorry for those who see this as a sacred cow as I walk by and question why. Sorry that I couldn’t get into a film that boasts grand images but yet has a very disappointing plot. Sorry that a good movie like this just didn’t amaze me as you did.
Spirited Away is a not a bad movie. It is just one that didn’t get my interest that much. This is a common thing that has happened once before when I had to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon during a college course on Asian Cinema. All I saw in my view were sword fights, balancing acts on trees and a underwhelming story of past fairy tale tropes clogged together to make an original story with similar beats. Let me tell you after watching that “martial arts classic,” I was furious see a movie that everyone praised gave me nothing in return aside from imagery that belonged in a Cirque Du Soleil performance. On the other hand, perhaps history has a way of repeating itself…
Posted on August 18, 2015, in Rental Corner, Uncategorized and tagged Anime, Baba Yaga, bathhouse, bizzare, Chihiro, Disney, dragons, fairy tales, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Japan, Japanese, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Strange, Studio Ghibli, surreal, Weird. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.