Spirited Away (2001)

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Food: This is one of my go-to favorites when I hit the theater. It is easy to smuggle in, and it is always good: Crif Dogs. Located on St. Marks in the East Village, they serve a variety of gourmet hot dogs, and if you dine-in, canned beer. Complete with a few arcade games, and a secret bar (through the telephone booth), this place is top-notch. This time, I took two chihuahua dogs to go. Chihuahua dogs are hot dogs, wrapped in bacon, with sour cream and avocado (I also add ketchup) and they are incredible.

Film: ‘Spirited Away’ is a favorite of one of my very close friends, and I have been waiting to watch it for a long time, so when the Studio Ghibli fest hit Village East Cinema, I marked it on my calendar right away. Upon it’s release, this film grossed 30.4 billion yen, making it the highest grossing film in Japanese history (notably even beating “Titanic”) and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (after it’s distribution in the US in 2003).

Hayao Miyazaki wrote this picture for 10 year old girls, and with any piece of art, the specificity and nuance of a character is what allows something to resonate with any audience. After spending some time at a cabin with family friends, Miyazaki took notice of the young girls and their apathetic and discontented nature. When speaking of his inspiration, he noted that all magazines directed to their demographic were all about crushes and romances. He stated, “I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted, and so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.” Further, he felt it was important for the lead character to not possess any extraordinary traits or gifts, but to be ordinary. “Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it,” he explained. It gives me insurmountable gratitude that Miyazaki took note of an under acknowledged group, and decided to empower them to be heroes of their own story. Especially during a time when all of the stories designed to reach young girls prescribed them to the narrative that they were damsels to be saved by love; by some prince – which has been boring for a long time.

“Spirited Away” is an imaginative story that covers many themes in subtle ways. With this story, he talks about greed, gluttony, pollution, classicism, loneliness, sacrifice, adventure, determination and love. The detail in his animation is unparalleled. He does not just draw a car, he draws a first-generation Audi A4 Sedan complete with the trademark “Quattro” four-wheel drive system. As a server walks by with a plate of food, the food jiggles with the motion. When our character slips her tennis shoes on without tying them, she must take a moment to tap her toes on the ground to make sure the heel slides in as well. The backdrop is full of characters walking to and fro, or standing and watching. Instead of filling the space with blank faces or stand-stills, each character is moving and swaying or behaving in their own right. These extra steps are often foregone in other animated films, but that is what brings Miyazaki’s work to life. There is so much depth and realness to each and every second.

He also includes what in Japanese is called ‘ma’ which means silence, or unfilled space. It is the breathing space in between the busyness. Miyazaki claims, “the people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over. They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions – that you never let go of those. What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to the joy and astonishment and empathy, you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.” Most people in their daily lives are afraid of silence. They fill it with meaningless chatter. Miyazaki reminds us that there is no need. Drawing audiences to follow the story through the emotional journey of a character proves to be much more powerful and evocative. As a character stops to sigh and enjoy the view, we do too. We have a chance to reflect and enjoy the scenery before the story carries on.

“Spirited Away” starts out with a young girl who has just been uprooted from her life and forced to move away from her friends, as she wallows in the back seat of her parents car. Her gripes are mostly disregarded by her parents and she grows more lonely and miserable, clutching to the flowers given to her by her old friends. Her father takes a wrong turn and they end up in a wooded area faced with a sandstone tunnel and a peculiar sculpture.  Chihiro is afraid and uncomfortable, but does not want to be left alone, so she reluctantly follows her parents as they adventure inside the dark space. On the other side, they discover a small  deserted town, and she watches in dismay as her parents dig into the buffet left out at one of the restaurants. Leaving them behind, she wanders the lantern-lit streets until she bumps into a boy around her age named Haku, who directs her to run away. When she goes to find her parents, they have since mutated into giant, slobbering pigs, and she fleas in horror. Chihiro finds Haku and learns from him what she must do to restore her parents back to themselves, and escape this bizarre new world.

Braving her way down the walls of this castle-like floating bathhouse, she meets many unique characters along the way. Miyazaki playfully names each character for their role – first coming across, Kamaji (meaning old boiler man) who has eight limbs and rules over a small army of black fuzzy creatures with two eyes. With his help, she goes to meet Yubaba (meaning bathhouse witch), a wrinkly, bejeweled old woman who rules over all the creatures inside. Chihiro signs herself over to work for this woman, giving up her name, and taking the name Sen, instead, until she is able to complete her duties and get her parents back. Chihiro, stripped of the comforts of her previous life, sets aside her stubborn and moony attitude and shows great determination, gaining our sympathy as this adventure begins.

Each new room is full of a variety of animal-like creatures with new tasks to complete, unfolding like a inexplicable dream. Miyazaki hides lessons and anecdotes in each undertaking. We see the horrible effects of water pollution when Chihiro must bathe a large, amorphous Jabba-the-Hut looking ball of slime, who has accumulated loads of rotting garbage throughout his insides. We witness the disastrous consequences of gluttony when a No Face sneaks his way into the bath house and begins to consume freely. The bathhouse runs on greed and it falls to disarray when that greed is exploited.

Comprised of glowing landscapes, compelling music, remarkable storytelling and imaginative characters, with “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki delivers another beautifully original masterpiece that feels inspiring at any age.

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