Friday, July 12, 2013

Spirited Away (orig. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) [2001]

MPAA (PG)   Roger Ebert (4 Stars)   Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert review

Spirited Away (orig. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) [2001] (written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki [IMDb]) a classic animated film from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli played recently (in both dubbed and subtitled format) in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its 2013 Studio Ghibli Returns retrospective.  This film along with many of the others being presented in the series can be found / streamed (in dubbed English format) for FREE on   For readers here interested in East Asian history/comparative mythology, the film's worth the viewing.

The film takes place in the recent past in the context of the Japan's slow economic recovery following its 1990 crash and subsequent "lost decade."  For a number of decades prior to 1990, Japan's economy was one of the best performing/fastest growing in the world.  However as is often the case, this period of growth was followed by a crash.  Apparently (and again as often happens) the growth that Japan experienced in the latter years of this economic expansion had been an unsustainable "bubble" that needed to collapse so that the economy could return to reality.

Very well, the film begins with 10 year old Chihiro (voiced in the English version by Daveigh Chase) sitting in the back of her parents' car as they (voiced in the English version by Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly respectively) as they drive to their new home.  The economic crisis had forced them to relocate and it it's clear that Chihiro was not particularly happy with it, holding on to a goodbye-card from a friend who she was no longer going to be able to see.  In the card, her friend wrote "I'm going to miss you" and it's clear that she's miss her too.  Knowing that this was not an ideal situation for her, Chihiro's parents nevertheless tell her that moving/change/saying good-bye is "part of life" and assure her that soon enough she's going to make new friends at her new school...

As they approach their new house, still kinda nice in a hilly outlying/suburban subdivision, Chihiro's father "makes a wrong turn."  They find themselves on a dirt rather than paved road, below their new house that they can still see up higher across a meadowed slope.  The father insists that the dirt road must lead-up to it somehow since they are "so close."  So they keep on it.  But the dirt road ends in a somewhat overgrown parking lot and an imposing gate-house that both "looks old" and yet the father quickly recognizes to be "made of plaster" (recent/"fake" yet made to look old).

Though not where they want to be, nevertheless the father finds himself intrigued.  Initially, the mother's somewhat worried that the movers might arrive at their new house before they do, but the father tells her that the movers have a key anyway and could start unloading without them.  The only one who really doesn't want to enter is Chihiro herself who tells her parents, "this place gives me the creeps."   Still dad wants to go in, ma's not opposed and so their kid must follow ...

They enter the gate house, the entrance leading to a tunnel which empties out into a field (though facing in a different direction than that of their house because they no longer see it after they leave the tunnel).  At the other end of the field appears to be what the father identifies as "one of those amusement parks that they were building all over the place in the '90s but were never completed."  So it appears to be a "ghost" amusement park ;-).

Dad still wants to investigate.  So they trudge to the "amusement parky" buildings and then to their surprise ... mom and dad smell food.  Chihiro by now really wants to go home but ma and dad, look for the place where the food's being made and find a stand with all kinds of freshly made food but no one around.  So ma and dad decide to help themselves... 

Chihiro bored, decides to walk-off a bit while ma and dad take food that doesn't really belong to them.  When she returns, apparently she walked around for some time, it's already starting to get dark and she finds that her parents, still at the stand with the food had turned into pigs!  (Apparently, they spent a bit too much time "stuffing themselves at the troth..." ;-).

What to do now?  It's getting dark, they're kinda far from where they've left their car, and besides ma' and dad have "turned into swine" ;-).  Now with it getting dark, the amusement park is starting to lively with all kinds of not particularly nice looking "spirits" arriving/materializing from all over.  Needless to say Chihiro's getting scared....

One of those Spirits, that of a boy, maybe a year or two older then Chihiro comes over to talk to her.  He identifies himself as Haku (voiced in the English version by ) and tells her that she's going to have to hide from the Spirits as they generally don't like human beings and that she's going to have to go down to the amusement park's boiler room and beg for a job because unless she quickly gets a job, it will not go well with her and the Spirits who tend to "consume" those who don't work for them.  Her parents are already converted into pigs and will be eventually eaten.  A similar fate will await her ... unless she gets a job.

So Chihiro then sneaks her way down various steps and corridors until she gets down to the boiler room where she meets a spiderlike boiler operator (with 8 arms all busy pulling levers and such) named Kamajii (voiced in the English version by David Ogden Stiers).  He introduces her to another servant spirit named Lin (voiced in the English version Susan Egan) and instructs her to go see a Woman spirit "on top" named Yubaba (voiced in the English version by Susanne Plechette) who runs the whole amusement park operation.

Chihiro goes up to talk to Yubaba and gets a job, the lousiest possible one -- cleaning up after some really dirty Spirits in the (Japanese) bathhouse of the amusement park.  She also gets the job at the expense of signing away her own name. Yubaba renames her "Sen," but at least little Chihiro has a job, hence "has a purpose" in the ghostly, arguably Hellish "amusement park" and can slowly work on plotting her escape and even on saving her parents who've by then been relocated to the pig pen where the other porkers are fattened up prior to inevitable slaughter to feed the hungry and generally consuming spirits.

She also gets occasional help by a masked yet generally sympathetic spirit, that, since he does not talk and never takes off his mask she comes to call "No Face."

Having setup the story, much now ensues ...

The film has been characterized as a late-20th century Alice in Wonderland.  I'd compare it also to the Wizard of Oz [1939] [IMDb] yet expressed in traditional Japanese folklore/imagery.  It's clearly a story of a little girl being forced to "grow-up" more quickly, taking more responsibility for her life (and even for her parents' lives) than perhaps she should.

I found the film fascinating and along with other films presented in the Studio Ghibli retrospective presented at the Gene Siskel Film Center a window into a culture that I otherwise would not have known much about.

I WOULDN'T necessarily recommend the film to young kids.  However, older teens and adults interested in East Asian history/folklore/mythology would probably found the film as fascinating as I did.  And again, the film along with others in the GSFC's retrospective can be found

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