Living With Miyazaki, Part 8 — SPIRITED AWAY

Continuing Life Lessons from the Animation Maestro

Previous life lessons:


Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches.

We’ve reached what is arguably Miyazaki’s crowning achievement (though, that can be a little hard to gauge given that basically every film in his career is a crowning achievement of one kind or another). After retiring following the triumphant release of the epic Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki returned with something that seemed, on first description, comparatively humble.

THE MOVIE: Spirited Away

Rather than a sprawling action/adventure boasting dozens of major characters and multiple warring factions, Spirited Away is a (seemingly) straightforward Alice in Wonderland riff. Our ‘Alice’ is the entirely unexceptional preteen Chihiro, and ‘Wonderland’ is a bathhouse for gods and spirits. After her parents are cursed to turn into pigs, Chihiro finds herself working at the bathhouse where she struggles to both keep abreast of all the magical goings on and find a way to save her parents from becoming bacon.

The film was immediately hailed as a masterpiece upon release, rapidly becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history and introducing Miyazaki to a global audience in a way none of his other films, not even Mononoke, accomplished. Spirited Away won the second ever Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and if anything its reputation has only grown in the subsequent twenty years. Today, it is hailed as not only quite possibly the single greatest animated film ever made, but one of the high-water marks for all of cinema.

All this may serve as an explanation for an immediate problem to the completing of this article. Namely: I don’t know how to talk about this movie.

Over the course of this series, we’ve made it pretty clear that the films of Hayao Miyazaki cover a wide swathe of thematic ground, each movie having a lot to say about a great many things. But Spirited Away isn’t about ‘many’ things. It’s about everything. It’s somehow entirely specific to the culture of Japan and simultaneously totally universal in its exploration of coming of age, finding one’s place in an uncaring capitalistic structure, the slippery nature of identity, the push-and-pull between tradition and modernity, finding spiritual growth amidst the stresses and concerns of material minutiae, and even a reprise of the ecological nightmares that fueled Princess Mononoke.

And even still, having written all that out, it doesn’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of the film. Spirited Away is about nothing less than the question of what does it mean to be a person? What are the forces that shape our souls and define our lives? In telling the seemingly straightforward tale of a little girl lost in a magical realm, Miyazaki hits upon a parable that encapsulates the full human experience of wandering lost through our lives in a world equal parts remarkable and hostile.

It’s quite a film.

And I don’t know how to talk about it.

For all that I’ve already expressed about the meanings and themes scattered on the surface of Spirited Away, far more of the film remains forever out of reach. This is a film set deeply within dream country, where nothing is ever as neat or tidy as you might expect. Try to take firm hold of any aspect of the film and it will slither and change between your fingers.

I’ll settle for one piece of it, then.

One line in particular.

Late in the film, Chihiro and her motley band of magical friends arrive at the home of the kindly witch Zeniba, who gives the kid a much-needed respite from the chaos and uncertainty of this world of gods and monsters and other, much less friendly, witches.

Chihiro is especially struggling with lingering feelings that she has some connection with the mercurial Haku, the shapeshifting dragon who has been both a friend and a danger to Chihiro ever since her ordeal began. Chihiro can’t quite put her finger it, but she’s certain that something from her past explains their bond. The trouble, she explains to Zeniba, is that she can’t quite remember the memory in question.

“In that case, it’s easy,” Zeniba says. “Everything that happens stays inside you, even if you can’t remember it.”

The more I revisit this film, and the older I get each time I do, the more that line strikes me as the turnkey for the entire thing, inasmuch as there can ever possibly be a single summation of a movie this inherently mysterious. And I think that’s because the older I get, the more my own life and memories seep into that same dream country where the film is set, and where the film itself with all its ever-expanding corridors of unknowability lingers in my mind.

I don’t remember my childhood. Not in any sort of linear, coherent sense, anyway. When I look back on my earliest days, memories don’t play out as whole scenes with a set beginning, middle, end. Memory is an image, a feeling, sensations hardwired in and under my skin and ready to resound just as purely today as they did upon first being registered. It’s dozing off in a diner booth after a long day at the beach; it’s the squeeze of being double-buckled in the backseat of an overstuffed car. It’s falling, and the fall getting interrupted by pavement.

And there are those things that happened before memory ever got a chance to set. My most distinctive feature is a scar down the center of my forehead. Silly accident. Happened when I was two. No one’s fault. I’ll wear it forever.

Everything that happens, stays. Even if you can’t remember it.

Miyazaki films have always been rich in story, light on plot; dense in their worlds without ever wasting time on “worldbuilding” as most genre-centric fare tends to. At no point does anyone sit Chihiro down to explain to her the rules and limitations of the bathhouse of the gods where most of Spirited Away takes place. This is a world that existed before she arrived, and it will continue to exist long after Chihiro escapes back into her old life.

As if to reinforce the cosmic irrelevance of one little girl and her experiences, be they of heroism, heartbreak, horror, and everything in between, Miyazaki overspills the painted frame with unexplained (and unexplainable) details and incidents. It’s not that Chihiro doesn’t have an impact on this world — she very much does — but she’s creating ripples that she herself will never know the full consequences of. Just as she has no say in the rules and order that set her on this journey, neither does she have any knowledge in how her choices will continue to reverberate through the lives of those she’s met along the way.

And isn’t that true for all of us? For every life? We don’t choose to be brought into this world, and we don’t choose the most important things that will happen to us. Our parents love us or they don’t, do their best or they don’t. You get injured or sick as a toddler, and it influences every single part of your daily life for the next eighty years. Life is a matter of making sense out of the wreckage we inherit.

But pain and damage don’t have to be the only things we inherit. We don’t choose the world we live in, but we get to choose how we live in it, whether we face that unfairness with fear and scorn, or keep going with open hearts and a hope that good deeds will be repaid in kind. We can’t know how our actions will affect people after we’re gone, but that doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter. We can still, despite it all, make the conscious effort to put others before ourselves, to accept the love we receive and give love out in return, and meet an unkind world with more kindness than it maybe deserves.

Nothing lasts.

But everything stays.

Even if we can’t remember it.

Next time: Brendan Agnew goes for a stroll with Howl’s Moving Castle.

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