June 6, 2013

Miyazaki on his film SPIRITED AWAY


I’d like to talk about another example of a myth being used to an important purpose. The example is the movie SPIRITED AWAY. When I first saw SPIRITED AWAY I didn’t like it. It was flat to me and incoherent. But then I read its creator’s comments on it and I had to look again. His comments strike me as very wise, and in describing the theme of the movie he gave me a key with which to interpret the strange mythical goings on in the movie. All of a sudden it all made sense. It still isn’t my favorite movie but Miyazaki’s words are some of favorites to share with people when the topic under discussion is myth.

I found this quote in various places around the web. The first place I saw it though was in a book called THE ART OF SPIRITED AWAY.


“I would say that this film is an adventure story even though there is no brandishing of weapons or battles involving supernatural powers. However, this story is not a showdown between right and wrong. It is a story in which the heroine will be thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together, and there, she will experience the world. She will learn about friendship and devotion, and will survive by making full use of her brain. She sees herself through the crisis, avoids danger and gets herself back to the ordinary world somehow. She manages not because she has destroyed the ‘evil,’ but because she has acquired the ability to survive.

“The main theme of ‘Spirited Away’ is to describe, in the form of a fantasy, some of the things in this world which have become vague, and the indistinct world which tends toward erosion and ruin. In everyday life, where we are surrounded, protected and kept out of danger’s way, it is difficult to feel that we are working to survive in this world. Children can only enlarge their fragile egos. Chihiro’s skinny legs and her sulky face are their symbols. However, once the reality becomes clear and once she encounters a crisis, she will surely be aware of the life she actually possesses and of a capacity for flexibility and patience, and for decisive judgment and action. Most people just panic and collapse while shouting ‘it can’t be true.’ Those people will be erased or eaten up in the situation in which Chihiro finds herself. The fact that she is strong enough not to be eaten up is what makes her a heroine. She is not a heroine because she is beautiful or possesses a unique mind. This is the key characteristic of this work and therefore it is a good story for young girls.

“Words are power. In the world Chihiro has wandered into, words have great importance and immutability. At ‘Yuya’ where Yubaba rules, if Chihiro were to say, ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘I want to go home,’ she would be eliminated by the sorceress. She would be made to wander about with nowhere to go, until she vanishes or is made into a hen to lay eggs until she is eaten. On the contrary, if Chihiro says ‘I will work here,’ even a sorceress can’t ignore her. In these days, words are thought to be light and unimportant like bubbles, and no more than the reflection of a vacuous reality. It is still true that words can be powerful. The fact is, however, that powerless words are proliferating unnecessarily. To take a name away from a person is an attempt to keep them under perfect control. Sen (Chihiro’s name in the strange bathhouse world) shuddered when she realized that she was beginning to forget her own name. And besides, every time she goes to see her parents at the pigpen, she becomes used to seeing her parents as pigs. In the world where Yubaba rules, people must always live among dangers which might swallow them up.

“In a dangerous world, Chihiro begins to come alive. The sulky and languid character will come to have a stunning and attractive facial expression by the end of the film. The nature of the world hasn’t been changed in the least. I am arguing in this film that words are our will, ourselves and our power. This is also the reason why I created a fantasy set in Japan. Though it is a fairy tale, I didn’t want to make it like a Western type of story, which allows many possibilities for escape, and is likely to be taken as a cliché. However, I would prefer to say that it is rather a direct descendent of ‘Suzume no Oyado’ (‘The Sparrows’ Inn’ – a trap in which sparrows lure people by food and pleasant surroundings), or ‘Nezumi no Goten’ (‘The Mouse’s Castle’), which appear in Japanese folk tales.

“I created a world where Yubaba lives in pseudo-Western style to make it seem as if it is something that has been seen somewhere else, and to make it uncertain whether it is a dream or reality. Also, Japanese traditional design is a rich source for the imagination. We are often not aware of the richness and the uniqueness of our cultural heritage – from stories, traditions, rites, designs, and tales of the gods. Surrounded by high technology and its flimsy devices, children are more and more losing their roots. We must inform them of the richness of our traditions. I think the world of film can have a striking influence by fulfilling the traditional functions, as a piece of a vividly colored mosaic, to a story which can be applied today. That means, at the same time, we can gain a new understanding of what it means to be residents of this island colony.

“In this borderless age, a man who doesn’t have a place to put down his roots will be looked down upon. A place is the past and also a history. A man without a history, or a people that forgot its past will have no choice but to disappear like a shimmer of light, or to lay eggs endlessly as a hen until consumed. The aim of this film is to provide moviegoers, and especially young girls, something through which they can encounter what it is they truly want.”


Comments (3)

  1. June 7, 2013
    Freeman Ng said...

    I’ve always loved the movie except for its ending, which I think falls short precisely because it fails to carry through the themes discussed by Miyazaki above as strongly as it could have. It ought to have been a moment when all the ways in which Chihiro has grown come together to enable her to rescue her parents, but instead, the scene plays too…flatly, to repeat your well chosen pejorative. And the shame is that so little would have been required to make it work so much better. Just a little more underscoring of her initial doubt, a little more struggle against the assumed boundaries of the test, and at least a little discernible movement from that doubt to an understanding that she has to trust her own strength.

  2. June 7, 2013
    admin said...

    Yes, I think you are exactly right. I’d love to read what you loved about the rest of the movie.

  3. June 9, 2013
    Freeman Ng said...

    Up until the ending, just about everything, macro and micro. The arc of Chihiro’s character development and the parallel deepening of that other world (from a place of apparently random magic and black-and-white characters to something more emotionally if not completely logically coherent and morally complex) work wonderfully for me, though I can understand how if you don’t buy into it, everything just seems randomly magical all the way through.

    Some of my favorite details (as they come to my fuzzy memory, so I hope I’m getting them right):

    The scene in which she eats the bread and recovers her appetite, her grief, and her name. The name part is actually my least favorite aspect of it, as the connection just between her appetite and her tears is already so profoundly magical in itself.

    The train ride, which I’ve heard described as “the most beautiful train trip ever committed to celluloid.” It’s a remarkable “still point” about which the movie turns.

    That giant baby. I don’t remember this one exactly, but something about what it turned out to be, or what turned out to be it, just delighted me to no end in the same way as…

    The disposition of No-Face. It starts out seeming like it’s going to end up being a simplistic allegory, but at the end when the grandmother takes it in, it suddenly becomes so much more (or less?) than that. It becomes part of the increasingly complexity and emotional coherence of that world.

    This, Totoro, and Nausicaa are by far my three favorite Miyazaki movies, even though the main way in which each is good is completely different (I feel) from the other two.

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