Episode 29: Spirited Away - How to Navigate a Storm


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            Have you ever said a word so many times that it has stopped sounding like a word? Like the repetition didn’t create more familiarity but rather spread it out across all those utterances so thinly that the fabric shredded and left you with nothing. Maybe that happened at a more inconvenient time like when you were cramming for an exam and suddenly the relevant vocabulary stopped even being words and the concepts started sounded more like fantasy than reality, magnifying your already terrible plight.

            I’ve found that this is a fairly common occurrence: a bug in the human code that we keep encountering. And that made me wonder if the same thing couldn’t happen with a movie or a book. Could we talk about a story so much that it ceases to have a physical quality to it or stops being what we know it to be? Can we disassemble it so many times that we can’t recognize the pieces never mind put them back together?

            I mean… I don’t doubt that it’s possible. It can happen with people, and it can happen with stories too. It was one of the main reasons why I struggled to stick with literature classes in college. And it’s something I talked more about it in my Anomalisa review. You see, at some point, stripping everything down to its nuts and bolts can make it not just unrecognizable but something outright worthy of contempt when you convince yourself that the dream itself was not real but a lie. And you find yourself just as attacked as the illusion. After all, that was your hope, and it could be a lie that you just so happened to believe. Defensiveness aside. That all makes me somewhat reluctant to cover certain topics on this show.

            And I think today’s subject is at a risk of this in the same way all timeless movies are. For something to receive that status, it has to touch a large group of people in a very particular way: a way that we feel compelled to discuss. It’s also a classic of its genre or subgenre with qualities rising creators look to with starry-eyes.

            In this way, it evolved from a film to a cultural icon, and now I worry about what comes next in this chain. Some films have endured, in a time when yelling into voids wasn’t so commonplace or possible like it is in the digital age. And while I want to believe this film will last forever, hope has never sat well in my mouth.

            All the same, I’m still making this episode. Tributes don’t always have to be destructive. I just wish I could see where that line is.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 29.

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            Today I want to talk about Spirited Away, the famous film by the equally famous Miyazaki and Studio Ghibili. It’s hailed a classic by many, including me, and it’s the go-to movie for many, including me. And it’s also the subject of many reviews and dissections, available online for the world to see. Many of which will be better than this one so I don’t know why you’re here. Happy to have you but seriously?

            And my worries aside, I don’t think it’s been talked to death just yet. In part because there is so much to say about it. Not just because the plot is long and winding, which it is. Miyazaki condensed an Odyssey and Iliad-esque adventure down to movie length and still managed to keep the pacing on point. Brilliant, yes, but made it somewhat difficult for any reviewer to concisely discuss the plot. However, I can still try.

            10-year-old Chihiro is angry right now. Her family is moving to a new neighborhood, and as with all children, this isn’t something to be cheered. Forget why you’re moving. Whatever the reason is, no child wants their entire life to be uprooted. And Chihiro’s will be. As they are driving to their new neighborhood, Chihiro is pretty convinced things can’t get any worse, but it’s like the universe took that as a challenge and dragged her into the Spirit World. Panic. Oh… oh wait, she’s still got her parents… Nope now they’re pigs.

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            Now, Spirited Away is a coming-of-age tale. Generally, that’s great. However, it does make making a spoiler free review difficult. After all, the resolution of the main conflict is at the heart of the story’s identity… And my relationship with it. So no, this is not going to be a spoiler-free review, but if that pushes you to go see it, then I’m doing you a favor.

            Anyway, I’m going to go ahead with this review as if I’m confident you’ve already seen the movie. And you should see it. So spoilers and lack of explanations ahead.

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            If or when you’ve seen in, one thing was made abundantly clear: Spirited Away is—and was seemingly designed to be—a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And it can be a lot of different things to the same viewer if they watch it at different points in their lives. Or at least, that’s been my experience. But for the sake of this review, I’m going to focus on the first time I saw this film. In so far as I can remember it.


            It was a long time ago. And that memory hasn’t held up to frequent handling and dissection. So maybe you can understand where so many of my concerns are really coming from. But regardless, I’ll do the best I can.

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            Spirited Away was one of the first movie I watched both alone and unprompted. I had just come to that age when I had some sense of agency in the media I consumed but only used that for books and the occasional television show but definitely not movies. I didn’t have the best relationship with movies. Like I’ve said before, growing up, my mother was determined that I would stay on top of pop culture. Part of that was keeping up with the various animated movies that hit theatres. Now, it wasn’t about quality. It was about what movies my classmates would be infatuated with and talking about. Hey, I was already reluctant to enter conversations; let’s not make it any worse. Being a little shallow was probably worth it. At least, to her.

            But that was her crusade. As for me, I was rather indifferent and certainly without preferences of my own. The only other thing to consider is the market, you may say. And I’m not great at understanding that entity.

            This is maybe ironic, or maybe not. But Spirited Away wasn’t immediately commercializable in my hometown when it first came out in 2001, so it wasn’t being pushed to children that hard. And with so many of my classmates uninterested, it fell by the wayside for about three to five years with my mother pushing it up. I’m not sure what the exact time frame is. However long it took for a movie to hit television but not basic cable or whatever is a step above basic cable.

                        On a more personal level, at that point in my life, Dad was still alive but weakened, and with him being so homebound, he sprung for a more deluxe television package. Even for me. He knew how to use the parental blocks, so it was no harm and no fowl. At least, we never had an incident.

            That much, I remember. But I don’t remember what channel I found this film on. And there was a lot of them that I would flip through. On second thought, was Starz Kids a thing? I remember the logo being red with a yellow curve around it if that helps any. But it probably doesn’t. And that strikes me as odd, admittedly. My inability to remember, that is, not how generic and unmemorable the logo may have been. Because that channel was one of my favorites. There was always something interesting on even if it wasn’t good. I think they had cartoons or something like that. Something I could jump into and thoroughly enjoy even if it had already started by the time I got there.

            By then, I had seen a movie called Spirit on that channel, the one about the horse, and I had really liked that movie, which means you might see an episode about it in your feed at some point.

            But back to the story, I’m notoriously bad at remembering the names for things both then and now. So when I saw Spirited Away on the channel info thing my father was also paying extra money for, I thought it was the horse movie I had come to love so much not a film from Japan. (Pause) Yeah, not my smartest move, and I quickly realized that it wasn’t, so don’t give me that look. But even when I realized that this was not what I was looking for, I stayed. There was something enchanting about the imagery. It seemed to beckon me to wait just a moment.

            In fact, I must have turned it on right when Haku appeared who was my type of fictional boy back then. That’s the sort of thing that would get me to stick around. And the art helped. Studio Ghibli makes beautiful, beautiful movies.

            And well, to cut to the chase, I found my new favorite movie. Fortunately, this channel whose name I struggle to remember frequently played it. Not sure what went behind that decision. If there was, in fact, a decision and I’m not just making it up based on the memory of this movie becoming a defining part of this era in my childhood. That is equally possible.

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             By “this era in my childhood,” I mean that time before my dad’s final health decline: when there were still plenty of changes of other kinds that didn’t have that heavy weight to dump on me that caused this weird course correction in terms of my behavior and temperament. To clarify, no child should have to deal with a parent’s death and some level of acting out is understandable, but that terrors of anticipating it and when it actually  happened kept me figuratively in line. Not sure how nor do I care. That’s not true for this era in my life.

            At this point, my paternal grandmother was moving in, my mother’s work hours were changing with a promotion she received, and I was moving to a new school just as a part of growing up. New grade new school. New year, new family member. New job, new money. None of those things were inherently bad. But they were changes, and I didn’t do well with changes.

            Neither did Chihiro. She confronts this new era of her life in a new neighborhood with a pout while dragging her feet. Then everything escalated.

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            And this is potentially an awkward point in the picture I’m trying to paint. Because it could seem like I’m saying that it was the challenges of the Spirit World that course corrected her, that her character broke when she was told her family were moving only to be put back together when she was thrown into this specific figurative fire. And that’s not what happened. A pouty child isn’t a bad child, even if some supposed parents don’t understand that.

            Because, you know, she didn’t have to go back for her parents when Haku warned her. If she was really upset with them or hateful, she could have kept running, made it across the river, and save herself a lot of trouble. They’d made their choices, after all. But she kept making hers. And I think the style of which she did it is at the core of the message Miyazaki was trying to convey.

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            Now Miyazki’s intentions when making this film have been said over and over again. The horse is likely dead, and still I’m about to beat it. Pardon the expression. But I think the ultimate lesson of Spirited Away goes behind the context it was made it and beyond the more explicit messages of the movie.

            Not a death of the author card, I promise. You see, knowledge isn’t meant to be kept sequestered off from the outside world. It’s not meant to be kept in the discoverer’s mind or in a conveniently overlooked box within the discoverer’s mind. And in some ways we know this. We know we need to share information with one another. We need to teach other people the things we’ve discovered. And we honor those who have built their lives around doing so.

            But I’m not just talking about that. What I mean is, I don’t think knowledge or lessons of any sort should stay in a bubble or in a specific context. Maybe we need subjects and maybe we need specialization. But if we don’t welcome the bleeding over from one field to another or one discipline to another, we’re limiting ourselves and what we can accomplish. We’re limiting how quickly we can grow or how much we can learn.

            Ultimately, the central theme of Spirited Away concerns capitalism and the economic boom that happened in Japan during the 1980s. Namely, how poorly it was handle in terms of personal authenticity and identity. According to Miyazaki, people were figuratively turned into pigs and never realized it, partially because acquiring mass amounts of goods promised to fill the void people sometimes stumble into. And the only way for Sen to save herself is to remember that her name is Chihiro and what it means to be Chihiro.

Sen is a being created by the bathhouse owner per the terms of her employment and is only meant to serve as a means to an end or to more capital growth rather than having intrinsic value as a young person. Much like capitalism sees individual workers as replaceable cogs in a wheel and not for the multifaceted beings that all people are.

            As a result, so much of what originally made Japan what it was had been lost. Now it was just a market place of gluttons, to put it a bit strongly for the sake of argument, and Spirited Away is not a warning of what could happen but what is and has already happened. The message is to restore or to rebuild a heritage from the scraps that can be put together.

            It’s like what Sen is doing. Sen has to reassemble her identity to leave the Spirit World, but you know what Sen never has to reassemble? Her heart.

            And this is where the divergence starts.

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            Chihiro at the beginning was a pouty child because she wasn’t coping with the uncertainty of such a seismic shift very well. It’s a temporary state, sure. Strip away the circumstances when you strip away her name, and well, she’s this tough but sensitive kid who is seemingly overly in-tuned with her surroundings and those around her. She’s back to who she was before. The name is the last bit. It’ almost the final piece. It’s recognition of an entity that has already been there.

            Not that her name isn’t important. If she fully doesn’t know who she is or how to call herself then she can’t leave what could be described as limbo either in a more literal sense or the figurative “transitioning” sense. That is up for debate. I just think it’s the last bit. The title for the vessel and not the ultimate end all and be all.

            Now what about me? Me who was going through my own shift akin to the one Chihiro thought she was facing or was facing in the beginning. Well, I didn’t know anything about Japan’s history or about the difficult relationship between morality and capitalism. I just knew that life changed sometimes, and even in the best circumstances, that can be pretty scary.

            My grandmother was coming to live with us. I loved her, but it meant I had to move to the guest room whose location made it inaccessible to my grandmother in her old age. My mother was happy about her new job, and I was happy for her. But it meant she had to work an extra hour in the morning, so she wouldn’t be able to see me off to school, and my dad would have to do it. Leaving my old school…. Well, maybe that one can go without saying.

            And I could have let my concerns swallow me up. My desire for these things or for consistency—a specific form of greed, yes—could have altered me. I could have forgotten who I was, as it were. Not stop at being bratty but let an irrational obsession with the allure of consistency erode my life, make me turn on my family and friends and throw myself headlong into my sadness. Which isn’t what most kids do, but at that point, my dad had been sick for a long time. Whatever healthy coping mechanism I had were running dry.

            The alternative was far better long term. As Chihiro did, I could remember who I was. Or am.

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            I get it. We are strangers. I might reveal certain aspects of my nature or certain snippets of my past, but you can’t know if they are true nor can you scrutinize me to discern the truth. And at the same time, self-disclosure is a part of intimacy, but not necessarily the other way around.

            But can I try to describe myself? I am calm, loving, understanding, caring… That might seem like bragging. Probably. But I know what it’s like to be scared and to need comfort while going without. I feel inclined to give others what I didn’t always have. That’s certainly true now, but it was also true then. I wanted to make the world the place I wanted to live in, and like all children, I thought it was possible because I’d never been told it wasn’t.

            Desires can be part and parcel with character in some ways. There’s a reason you want what you want. Character motivation and all that. Yeah, it’s not neat, but your internal world is just a mess as a general rule.

            But could you believe that I didn’t want negativity? That I didn’t want to be angry and spiteful. That no person does. Just like no person wants to be swallowed up by their desires for certain goods or status. But that can be a hard thing to remember when something is dangling above your face. When something shines in the right light. When someone is promising you everything you ever dreamed.

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            Spirited Away told me to hold on at a time when I didn’t know that’s what I needed to here. But not to hold on to things that are fleeting like objects, circumstances, or even people. All of that can be fleeting even if the world or other people want to lie to us about that. They can’t lie forever.

            The person you are is the one thing you can always hold onto. You just have to remember who you are. No matter where you find yourself.

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