Growing up with Spirited Away’s excellence… and still being scared

Spirited Away, Scared 2

[I’ve been busy napping this week so have a sleepy, lazy, feel piece.]

I watched Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away again. I suppose that makes three times: once in some awful elementary after-school program, once in high school, and once now. Spirited Away sits at the top of my list of best anime movies and I recognize its complete, dreamy excellence. But growing up, I have never enjoyed it and, as an adult, I still can’t.

I think I’m already starting to feel the spell of that sleepy, lazy feel piece, so I don’t have a serious introduction this week… just a question. Isn’t that weird?

When I first watched Spirited Away in elementary school, it absolutely terrified me. I kept my scaredy eyes shut through at least half of the movie. Starting with the gluttonous parents transforming into pigs, the entire hectic parade of uncanny spirits kept me up at night for weeks (beware the giant daikon man, lurking in the closet and the flock of papercuts slipping in through the windows!). Even the innocent comic relief mouse-and-fly duo frightened me, to say nothing of the more explicitly scary characters like Yubaba and No Face. Maybe I was a bit of a stupid, oversensitive kid, but I remember resenting my brave younger brother for calling me scaredy cat and wondering how anyone could enjoy such a creepy movie (maybe he was wiser than me then!).

By my second viewing in high school, I don’t think I enjoyed the movie so much as I pretended to. Somewhere, I had heard that Spirited Away was somehow important. It had won some awards, or had some special literary purpose, or was some critical classic. Something. I had also read that it had deep themes about capitalism. I argued with my brother again, who insisted that no such subtext existed and I should just enjoy the movie (still wiser than me!). Even then though, I didn’t seriously engage with the movie. I simply parroted others’ arguments about the themes without clearly understanding them. I was still stupid; I had just disguised it under a layer of pretension. Maybe more importantly, I still feared the movie, this time for the adolescent uncool-by-association quality of anime. No one would call me scaredy for hiding from the spirits, but someone might call me weeaboo. In image-conscious high school, avoiding that term was important.

On my most recent viewing, I suppose I finally felt old enough to actually appreciate Spirited Away for its critical excellence (what an odd thing to say about a children’s movie!). On a basic level of maturity, the spirits no longer scared me and the adolescent insults no longer deterred me. Ah, and I had no brother to argue with this time!  To the contrary, a friend had invited me for my commentary: he knew that I knew anime and might have some interesting trivia to share. Intellectually, I reassured myself, I could be a good guide. I’d heard enough about Miyazaki’s Marxist past to see the clear anti-capitalist themes, I’d read enough Japanese literature and history to see the prostitution allegory, and I’ve lived in Japan long enough to have a better sense of the bathhouses and festivals and Shinto deities that the movie depicts.

In an ironic way though, that act of “appreciating” all of the movie’s critically acclaimed merits made the thing harder to enjoy. I don’t know if I watched Spirited Away so much as I assessed it through every line and movement and still for themes and meaning, inspiration, implication, and intent. I had an academic argument and mountains of evidence for the anti-capitalist message, but for all of my intellectualizing, I couldn’t immerse myself in the world and characters and narrative. I couldn’t just enjoy the movie on its simplest terms as a child would: a coming-of-age story about Chihiro becoming Sen and working to recover her name.

Instead, I ended up with a list of mental notes, as if I were compiling a court case, Miyazaki v Capitalism:

  • Exhibit 1: It’s okay baby, daddy has ~four wheel drive~
  • Exhibit 2: It’s okay baby, daddy has ~credit cards~
  • Exhibit 4: It’s not okay baby, daddy is fat, squealing capitalist swine
  • Exhibit 5: Industrial imagery, the majestic bathhouse looks more like a factory than a natural onsen
  • Exhibit 8: The balls of soot only exist to work, paid in candy for their OSHA-violation labor hauling coal in a furnace room
  • Exhibit 11: Petty bribery with the crispy newt… lizard… thing
  • Exhibit 17: Yubaba hordes gold and expensive Chinese porcelain in an elegant Westernized penthouse
  • Exhibit 35: Chihiro begs for work and Yubaba binds her to a contract that steals her name and personhood.
  • Exhibit 93:  Employees grub for tips in gonzo-capitalistic competition with each other, but Yubaba claims all of the gold for herself
  • Exhibit 258: The gold disintegrates into dust
  • Exhibit 999: Yubaba throws Haku in the trash when he gets hurt/sick and she no longer needs his labor
  • Exhibit 0: The sad Kafkaesque suits and workmen in the spirit world, on a one-way commuter train to nowhere (“Numahara,” the rural station with the lone ghost girl, has a name so generic it might as well be nowhere, like a town called “Springfield”)

If I dug through the movie’s script and watched it one more time with a notepad, I could come up with three dozen more “exhibits” to fill a final paper for a Japanese Studies course. But oh, isn’t that the problem? I made the movie an intellectual exercise! I had finished Spirited Away for a third time but still couldn’t say that I had liked it. After my third viewing, I still feel stupid, wishing for my brother’s wisdom to momentarily enjoy the movie without fear or pretension. Stop thinking and watch!

I might even settle for the fear, if only to actually feel the dangerous spirit setting again like I had as a child. Even though I never hated the movie more than when it scared me, I envy my elementary self for even having that emotional response. I wish I could close my eyes again during No Face’s grotesque, engorged rampage instead of rolling them and checking my mental exhibit list for the image of an angry customer vomiting out all of his conspicuous consumption like black tar after a young girl won’t take his money and service him in a setting that resembles an old-fashioned bathhouse-brothel. There’s some great allegorical value there, but while thinking and thinking and thinking, I’m neither “just watching” nor “feeling” the movie.

Spirited Away is excellent. That fact that I can analyze it for such deep, consistent intellectual themes demonstrates as much. It has gorgeous animation, especially for a movie from 2001, and I still sometimes put on the wonderful soundtrack when I study. Best of all, it has such wide appeal: Chihiro’s authentic coming-of-age adventure will keep children engaged and all of its deeper ideas will keep parents interested unlike so many other children’s films. It’s the perfect example of anime’s versatility as a medium and potential as an art form.

But for all of that, I just can’t like it. Analysis can only take me so far. I have thoughts and thoughts to spare when I watch Spirited Away but no feelings. That isn’t the movie’s fault. It’s mine.

I think I’m already starting to feel the spell of that sleepy, lazy feel piece, so I don’t have a serious conclusion this week… just a question. Isn’t that weird?


6 thoughts on “Growing up with Spirited Away’s excellence… and still being scared

  1. I just watched it for the first time recently. The animation blew me away. The characters were nuanced and ran the spectrum from comical to tragic. There were so many beautiful moments…

    So why didn’t I like it, either?

    I think the intricately crafted plots of movies like Coco have influenced me…

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! Nice to know I wasn’t alone in my reaction!


    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I suppose I missed the magic when I was a child because it scared me so much. Now that I’m older, I react to it like I might to serious literature: I can admire it for its craft but I don’t necessarily relate to it personally. Put in a different way, Spirited Away is so well crafted that I can only see the craft. Once that little bit of dye from the immense positive critical response colored my mind in high school, I haven’t been able to see anything else. If you keep an eye out for it, the anti-capitalist subtext will hit like a brick. It kind of hurts.

      Overintellectualizing, and overthinking…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “Put in a different way, Spirited Away is so well crafted that I can only see the craft.”

      Wow. From the perspective of someone trying to write novels, this single sentence has given me a lot to think about! Craft’s important, sure! But if it overwhelms the experience…

      Mind blown…

      Liked by 1 person

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