In Defense of Spirited Away

Reader Felix comes to the defense of Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 film, "The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro," which I omitted from my 50 Greatest Movies list back in August.  He makes many excellent points:

"Spirited Away is a terrific movie, visually spectacular and endlessly creative, but I don't believe it is Miyazaki's best film. It's an escapist picture at heart, one that lacks the more complex and serious themes of the director's work. A great movie, but a little light."

I can't agree with this, and it seems to be a disagreement about basic undercurrents of Miyazaki-movies. Nothing about this movie as far as I can see is escapist in any strict, negative sense of the word. Surely you can draw this logical conclusion, but it would be accidental, a mere "reservation" depending on the context of your viewing as far as I can see, but not a lasting judgement.

For one, the altering of Chihiro is certainly not the effect of an escape from her issues, but a "finding of herself". I think this is quintessential in judging the whole "positive" outlook of Miyazaki per se, or else it would be hard to distinguish him from any other "pretty" entertainment, or it becomes a pure intellectual argument of the ideology that his movies present.

Then, Chihiro is emotionally challenged throughout the movie, and it is mostly frightening and dangerous, and the ending is not "sweet" but kind of regretful, which is not a nod to the wish to escape again (as maybe could be seen in the Peter Pan "mythos"), but a major element of life - but Miyazaki would probably say (as I've seen him do) that she will come to deal with it.

Also there are aesthetic elements which I think make it unique among his movies. There is this almost overly lush bathing house, but also this Zen-like, minimalist trainride and water landscape.

The infinite imagination that some refer to, on the other hand, and that may be seen as one element of escapism, I do simply do not recognize. I don't think it is very inventive at all, if I would look only for this, I would be very bored and could point probably to an endless list of more "inventive" or "visually stunning" examples. The lush invention that I see serves merely to create a certain atmosphere of life and the overfilled environs, but not much to marvel at.

A couple more things could be said, but that should be the essence of my view.


mathias said...

This is unexpected, and I think I am rambling, but rather flattering. Thanks. My view of Citizen Kane is probably more philistine, though. For other examples of Miyazaki's recuperating, harmonizing style see the temple-like islands of calm in Mononoke and Nausicaä. I think the trainride is one of the best examples, although I'm fairly open as to the best Miyazaki-movie.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Sometimes, if I read a really good comment, I post it so everyone can take a look. It's an influence from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. Also, I have a chronic shortage of Spirited Away posts, and your insights help rectify that.

Marcee and I watched Sen and Chihiro on Saturday, so more posts are coming from me soon. It's a terrific movie on the big screen, especially when you sit in the front rows.

Leora Tozer said...

Spirited Away was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw (and purchased). While not my favorite Ghibli work, it's still pretty high on my list and I view it with a certain fondness because it led me to other Ghibli films which have since become some of my absolute favorites. The train ride is simply beautiful. I think my heart skips a beat every time I see the black figure of that little girl as the train passes, even though I know it's coming. Another Ghibli moment that strikes me the same way is in Nausicaä when the ship is crashing at the beginning. Nausicaä catches a glimpse of Rastel, the music completely stops for an instant, and then the impact occurs. It's brilliant, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Spirited Away is the greatest movie ever made. Period.

Why? Because it combines many great qualities in a single film.

1 - It is accessible. Even kids can enjoy it as this film has several layers of depth.

2 - It is simple and complex at the same time. Given its several layers of complexity packaged one inside the other.

3 - It is stunningly beautiful at the visual level.

4 - The score is also stunningly beautiful.

5 - It has a special "great journey" effect that few other films have (films like 2001 and Apocalypse Now).

6 - It is almost flawless in execution.

7 - It has first rate production values (as it is a blockbuster film) and since it was made in 2001 it is a film that has the advantage of having access to the modern technologies.

8 - The fact that it is a blockbuster film is also a reason for considering it the greatest film ever made. Since I don't think that inaccessible low budget art house films can be serious candidates to be considered the number 1 film of all time (I would consider them for the position of number 2 film of all time, though).

Overall, it is the most successful Japanese film ever made and one of the top 5 films of the 21st century according to film critics polls (it was ranked 5th in the last Sign and Sound poll among films made between 2000 and 2011), combining elements that make it great popular entertainment and a sophisticated work of art at the same time. It is as entertaining as Star Wars but it is much more artistically sophisticated, and it is as artistically accomplished as an Tarkovsky film but much more entertaining. Thus making it the greatest film ever made.

StephenM said...

" I don't think it is very inventive at all, if I would look only for this, I would be very bored and could point probably to an endless list of more "inventive" or "visually stunning" examples."

If you don't mind, could you site a few examples? Because I honestly don't know of any animated films more beautifully detailed and inventive than Spirited Away, so if there's any in the same league I will gladly check them out.

Anonymous said...

The light aspects of spirited away are one of the things that make it so enjoyable.
It has a nice flow between serious and light in heart moments.
I do think it is one of his greatest films.(:

More Ghibli Blog Posts To Discover