10/18/02 [Updated April 2003]
Mayazaki's Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Spirited Away is the work of a world-class imaginative power. It sometimes has the texture of a dream, but not in the sense of mysterious floating or pretentious randomness. The film's dreaminess is, instead, a kind of rigorous mirroring or inversion of the world we live in, where the mirror is allowed to distort and transform the shape of that world in the very act of representing it. Visually, the film's beautifully rendered animation is almost entirely hand-drawn (some background panels seem to make use of limited CGI), showing that the artist's pen is still miles and miles ahead of the IMac when it comes to expressivity and the capacity for originality. However, the simplicity of Spirited Away is no novelty throwback for the scruffy guys who spend all their time flipping through vinyl records crates, and who refuse cell phones; this simple story of spirits and metamorphosis has become a runaway commercial hit in Japan. [Update from April 2003: this film won best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards in spring 2003.]
Like many of my favorite films (including The Wizard of Oz and the Iranian art-film The White Balloon), Spirited Away is intensely concerned with a child's perceptions of the world. Thus there is an attention to the sizes of things (supersized babies, gluttonous ghosts -- and gluttonous parents -- who grow uncontrollably large as they eat), and to miraculous transformations of various sorts. Chihiro, the protagonist, also has an innocence and ready adaptability to the most baffling situations. The film has a strong similarity to Alice In Wonderland, but to my eye it is less randomly grotesque than Carroll's story: you don't feel the imprint of the clever adult's smirk in the conception of a child's perspective. And perhaps most importantly, unlike Carroll's masterpiece, Spirited Away is not about the loss of innocence but rather the desire for positive and continuous engagement with a larger world that is at times terrifyingly ephemeral.
Miyazaki's spirit-world is imagined as a place that has its own logic of belonging; it is in a way a completely functioning community of chattering animal spirits, human servant spirits, and queen-witch overseers. In that the world is both beautiful and dangerous (like Baum's Oz), it manages to be both delightful and nightmarish. Best of all for politically progressive viewers, it brings in social and architectural elements of traditional Japan without fleeing from modernity. Fantasy's usual traditionalism is here surprisingly self-conscious, as when Chihiro's father, shortly before he is turned into a pig, comments as he touches a building on the gateway to the spirit world: "It's not old, it's fake. This is an amusement park; they started building them everywhere in the early 90s, but then the economy went bad." Since the viewer has no way of distinguishing the illusion of an actual amusement park that has been abandoned due to economic recession from a fantasy world on screen, this comment unmasks the illusion of cinema itself: all of this is always artificial. And the reference to economy raises a series of provocative questions: do we (or our children) grow less imaginative when we (or our parents) have less money to throw around? Also, why is it that attempts to realize dreamt narratives or dreamt spaces always fall so pitifully short, and seem fake? How is it that our dreams are at once so elusive of reality (or narrative realizability), and so grounded in our real experiences? And while it wouldn't be a mistake to talk about Spirited Away in terms of Freud's Unconscious or Lacan's Symbolic (I'm sure Slavoj Zizek is already at work on his essay on the subject), the film as a whole seems boldly un-Freudian, smarter than psychoanalysis' heavy-handed structural metaphorics. Marvelously, though the doors to the unconscious in Mayazaki's spirit world are by no means open or transparent, they do seem to be unlocked.