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Saturday, 15 April 2017

Movie Review: Spirited Away

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, or Sen and Chihiro's Spiriting Away

The first Japanese animation I’d ever remember watching was Spirited Away, when I was in primary school. I was a kid then, easily entertained by animation movies, and I did not put much thought into a movie that I simply thought had amazing graphics and a fascinating story line as compared to local productions. It wasn’t until when I watched it again when I was much older that I realized there were so much more to the movie than just amazing graphics. 

The story revolves around an unusually sullen little girl, Chihiro. She is very different from the usual cheerful chirpy girls we see in animated movies. Impatient and stuck in the backseat when her father got lost on the way to view a house, they discovered an abandoned tunnel. Reluctantly, Chihiro followed her parents into the tunnel and the seemingly empty amusement park that was hidden behind it. The row of shophouses was empty, but they found a food shop whose fragrances steam into the cool air. Her parents happily tucked in the delicious food at the shop. Chihiro stubbornly refused to eat with her parents and pleaded her parents to leave, which fell upon their deaf ears. Wandering around, she met with a boy who warned her to leave before nightfall, but it was too late. She ran back and found out her parents had become pigs. Disgustingly huge, hungry pigs. I could still recall being shocked as a kid seeing the transformation. I also remember blaming her parents for being selfish, leaving their daughter alone to fend for herself while they gorge themselves!

A shocked Chihiro tried to go back from where she came from, but there was a huge river separating the tunnel and amusement park. Lost, she sat down at the bank of the river and began to cry. The boy that warned her earlier approached her and comforted her while giving her tips on how to survive in the world she was now in. Survival tips 101: find a job! Following Haku, the boy, back to where he worked in a bathhouse who catered to kami, the gods and spirits of Japanese folklore, where she found herself surrounded by mystical creatures. She was the only human in the bathhouse. She managed to secure a job in the bathhouse after meeting with the horribly malicious old lady Yubaba who owned the bathhouse. Yubaba gave her a new name-Sen. Thus began Sen’s new adventure as she befriended new friends, shirked by fellow colleagues and bossed around by Yubaba. Trying hard not to forget her real name, she worked diligently in the bathhouse hoping to restore her human form and save her parents one day. 

What I loved about this movie is that it is very unconventional. In typical Western animations, Chihiro would spend the rest of the time trying to escape from the bathhouse, leading to a big confrontation with the evil villain Yubaba while singing several nauseatingly bubbly musicals. Instead, the animation is about her growth from a stubborn, petulant and rude little girl into a confident, loving and responsible young lady. Besides that, the main cast in this anime is a girl, which is pretty unusual. I mean, how often do you find an animated movie with a little girl as the main character? The only one I can remember is Monsters Inc., and even in that one the little girl is considered as a supporting cast as she did not appeared in some of the sequels and prequels. Portraying a girl as the main character, I believe, brings out a new and different perspective. As a girl, Chihiro expressed determination to survive in the bathhouse and save her parents, even though she was bullied by Yubaba and her name was taken away from her. However, at times she also felt scared and lonely, which was reasonable, since she was just a little girl. In many scenes, she was seen curled up like a baby and it makes my heart ache for her although I knew that this was what she needed to grow up. 

Through her journey, she learnt how to be responsible when working at the bathhouse. Her sincerity compelled her to serve the worst customer the bathhouse ever had, a stinky huge creature who spewed mud and slime. Everybody ran away from the creature as they do not want to serve the creature. Yubaba then commanded Sen to serve the creature as she thought that maybe Sen will refuse and lose her job. But a brave Sen was determined to show Yubaba that she can take on the responsibility, and she got repaid in the end as the creature turned out to be a River God and it gave her a magical mud ball of sorts. She was planning to save her parents with that mud ball but she generously used it to save Haku when he was dying and a greedy Faceless Guy who was lonely so he ate non-stop. Her generosity stunned me, I thought she was saving the magical mud ball for her parents, but she gave it up to save strangers. 

The rich Japanese culture was also depicted in the movie. In the beginning scene, many cultural Japanese elements are shown, such as a stones that resemble small houses when Chihiro’s father drove into the wrong lane.  Chihiro asked her mother what those “little houses” are, and her mother told her that those are shrines and that ome people believe spirits live in them. Chihiro’s venture into the spirit world herself is portraying Kamikakushi in Shinto belief, where Japanese believe that they can venture into the spiritual world and learn from there. The producer, Hayao Miyazaki had drawn thousands of frames for this movie, and his love for the Japanese culture and his vision for everybody to appreciate it was ambitious, but he did it with his wonderfully moving masterpiece.

I would say that there are no weaknesses in this movie, if I were to forcibly come out with one, it would be the multiple waves of creativity and metaphors that hit me. The 3 heads that were minions of Yubaba? Well somebody tell me what they represent please! I could scarcely figure out what one scene was trying to convey and it was already moving on to the next scene. Or some I don’t even understand at all. I admit I’m a person who likes romance movies as it doesn’t require me to think and analyse much, so watching Spirited Away was a new thing for me. It may take a dozen rewatches for some to catch the visual details poured into each frame, the way  Yubaba wrapping herself into a black blanket and turned into a crow, flying away every morning with her crow assistant and returning at night before the bathhouse started operating and many more. However, the creativity and metaphors was not lost as there are plenty of peaceful and calming scenes for me to review and reflect what I had seen earlier. In one scene when Sen was travelling to see Yubaba’s twin to apologize on behalf of Haku, she took a one-way train which travels in the ocean. The ocean stretched in front of Sen as she watched the scenery which unfolded peacefully. Shadows came and disembark the train, and for a few minutes it was silent.

I watched the original Japanese version with Chinese subtitles and the English dubbed version, which was released by Disney 2 years after the original version debuted.  After watching both, I realized that there were minor differences between both versions. While the ending of the Japanese original film ended with Chihiro going back through the tunnel with her parents with the same frightened look from the very beginning of the film, the English version included a brief conversation between Chihiro and her father. He asked Chihiro about her thoughts on moving to a new town, new school and having a new life to which Chihiro responded with “I think I can handle it”. While this conversation inferred that Chihiro left with her memories of the bathhouse on her mind, it is quite different from the Japanese version as the Japanese version left the viewers wondering whether or not Chihiro remembered the time she spent in the spirit world and how will it affect her. Would she be the same confident and responsible girl she had grown into or would she deviate back to the same stubborn and cynical person she was at the beginning of the movie? 

As I mentioned earlier, the Japanese have a belief of people spending time in the spirit world known as Kamikakushi in the Shinto belief. I guess the English translators don’t understand the Japanese’s perspective and culture, so they gave Spirited Away an ending that the Western viewers will understand as the Westerners do not have this belief. In my opinion, they should maintain the original perspective and not change it, as it elevates the whole story as an experience, not as memories and deviate away from its original purpose. Like the line "memories are never forgotten, they are just difficult to recall" mentioned in the Japanese version, Chihiro may not remember anything about her experience, but her body and mind subconsciously would. By changing the ending, the Japanese deep rooted culture is lost, and that is a threat to the future of their culture.  

Spirited Away’s producer, Hiyao Miyazaki had produced many award-winning animations like Howl’s Moving Castle which portrays war and destruction, and Totoro, which is about friends and neighbours, it is not a surprise that his productions are admittedly the only Japanese animations that I watched. That’s right, I am that picky. But Spirited Away is definitely my favourite among all. It was an amazing experience watching this animation. One that I would definitely not forget. 

Chihiro on the train when she is travelling to meet Yubaba’s twin to apologize on behalf of Haku.
(Screenshot from the movie)

Chihiro runs off after gaining freedom as the creatures from the bathhouse cheers her on. 
(Screenshot from the movie)

Till then xx