I’ve been so busy exploring Japanese cinema that I’d never seen before that I’ve only rarely dabbled in reviewing films that I had already watched. Last year a Ghost in the Shell retrospective at my local cinema gave me the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite films of all time. This year, I caught a screening of Spirited Away (2001) that allowed me to reassess a film that I never fell in love with the first time around. For whatever reason, when I first watched it back in the early 2000s – probably not long after it was released, perhaps with an English dub – it never stuck. Seeing it again on the big screen, with the original Japanese audio, and with nearly two decades of investment in Japanese culture was an entirely different experience.
It’s hard for me to put my finger on what didn’t connect the first time around. Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi, only 13 at the time), a young girl who accidentally enters into another world and has to find work in an enormous bathhouse for spirits and other strange creatures. It’s an odd mix of magical realism and dream logic as the spirit world is explored and expanded on, from the various humanoid and anthropomorphic beings that work in the bathhouse, to the many bizarre patrons, and the otherworldy environment. It’s a unique world, one obviously influenced by but not beholden to Japanese mythology and folklore; there are no fox spirits here, but strange little soot sprites, rivers that transform into dragons, ambulatory severed heads, and an enormous daikon radish being animated like a weighty sumo wrestler. Watching it again now, I was strongly reminded of the weirder entries in The Legend of Zelda, like Twilight Princess and Majora’s Mask. As in Zelda, and as in Sapkowski’s The Witcher stories, there is the sense that this is a world with rules even if you as an outsider never have those rules fully explained. Things may seem random and arbitrary, but the occupants of the world react as if everything is to be expected; it is only Chihiro – the audience’s proxy – who has no idea what is going on.
The bathhouse itself is probably my favourite ‘character’ (at least, after the sumo radish and the adorable soot sprites…). It’s a sprawling mix of traditional Japanese architecture and slightly more modern fittings – industrial pipes running along the outside of the building, bare light bulbs hanging in rooms with paper doors. It’s a wonderful representation of what big chunks of Japan still look like. The architecture is supposedly inspired by some real world locations, including buildings at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. Several onsen (Japanese hot spring resorts) appear to compete for the claim to fame that they inspired the bathhouse – Wikipedia mentions the Dōgo Onsen, which actually doesn’t resemble the building in Spirited Away that much, while a cursory search crops up several other examples including Sekizenkan Ryokan in Gunma. At least that resort has the iconic red bridge, though again, it appears that several other onsen and ryokan feature a similar bridge. Interestingly, the top floors of the bathhouse, where the cruel Yubaba lives, are not Japanese at all but modelled after European mansions. The gilded walls and tiled flooring gave me a real Resident Evil vibe, and I wonder if the GameCube remake (released in 2002) drew any inspiration from it when updating the original game’s mansion design.
Walking out of the cinema, it occurred to me that the whole film can be read as a Bubble allegory, something I learned that Ghibli has since alluded to anyway. The film starts with Chihiro in the car with her parents as they’re about to move into a new house in a new town. After taking a wrong turn, they find the tunnel that will ultimately transport them into the spirit world. As they explore the tunnel and walk out of the other side, her father sees the architecture and remarks that it must be one of the many abandoned theme parks built during the economic Bubble period – when Japan’s land value skyrocketed and both companies and individuals had extraordinary amounts of money to hurl around – and then abandoned when the Bubble burst. Chihiro becomes trapped in the spirit world after her parents chow down on food intended for the otherworldly guests, not human consumption, and that represents the greed of the Bubble era and the lack of thought about the consequences, as they are transformed into literal pigs. The analogy continues, though, when looking at how the rest of the film unfolds. Trapped, Chihiro starts to fade away, and is warned by Haku, introduced as a worker at the bathhouse, that she needs to work herself or completely disappear. This seems to extend the metaphor through to the way the Japanese economy has stagnated after the collapse of the Bubble, trapping people in nose-to-the-grindstone jobs.
While this second viewing has wildly changed my opinion on the film, I still don’t like the way the narrative abruptly shifts in the second half. Suddenly, Chihiro is motivated by what appears to be romantic love, instead of the surrogate family she has pieced together from other workers at the bathhouse like Kamaji (voiced by Bunta Sugawara!), Lin, and even the transformed Bo and Yubaba’s bird. Of course, curses being broken by love are of course common in folklore and fairytales, but it feels unearned.
Perhaps I was simply in the wrong mood for it back then, or I was at the wrong age; watching Spirited Away now, I was completely drawn in by the atmosphere and the strange spirit world and its denizens, and didn’t mind the slightly dreamlike progression of the story or even that late narrative shift. What a welcome surprise.
Spirited Away / 千と千尋の神隠し
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Japanese Release Date: 20th July 2001
Version Watched: 125 min (UK Theatrical Re-Release)