The bittersweet magic of “Spirited Away”
I was nine, perhaps eight. In a darkened room where a small television set glowed and sang, I trembled with the knowledge that I was the only person who had ever felt these things. That isn't entirely true, of course, but in my imagination, it had seemed just as good.
A bouquet of pink roses cradles a hand-printed card that reads, “Good luck, Chihiro. We'll meet again.” It is only a mundane valediction unless one grasps the possibilities of a Finnegans-Wake-esque conclusion to the film.
Speaking to the Midnight Eye in 2002, Hayao Miyazaki professed, “What made me decide to make this film was the realisation that there are no films made for that age group of 10-year-old girls. It was through observing the daughter of a friend that I realised there were no films out there for her, no films that directly spoke to her.”
And perhaps, in the distance, an old Japanese god bottled in a stone statue wearing the face and smile of an old Japanese man, like one of the multitude we behold in the film, thundered, “Let there be mighty pen,” and unto Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was born. It did not go quite like that, however. Unscripted and sprawling, the plot was gradually brought to life through a series of Miyazaki's exclusively hand-drawn storyboards.
Chihiro is 10 when she finds herself sullen and swaddled in a car seat to a home unknown. On the way, her father loses the way, veering them onto a dirt path that leads to a tunnel, where the wind flows in than out. Past the tunnel, they find themselves, as Chihiro's father rightly conjectures, at an amusement park, possibly abandoned, like one of many, due to the recession in the economy.
It is an interesting comment, as is the one about the construction of a river seen to be hidden under a spread of boulders, which has been put on hold. In the green fields on the side, we catch glimpses of small houses, looking entirely out of place. None of it is coincidental. In an interview at Edo Tokyo Tatemonoen (a park with Japanese houses and shops from the Meiji and Taisho era), Miyazaki said, “I think we have forgotten the life, the buildings, and the streets we used to have not so long ago...for example, a life in that house you see there (points at one of the buildings in the park) was a modest one. They ate a small amount of food, enough to fit on a small table in a tiny room. Everyone thinks our problems today are the big problems we have for the first time in the world. But I think we just aren't used to them, what with the recession and all.”
A series of unfortunate events leads to Chihiro's parents turning into pigs after gorging on various delicacies and leave Chihiro alone to fend for herself in a place where dusk brings with it the spirits of Japanese gods. Like quicksilver, her limbs begin to turn opaque and in sweeps the green-eyed, green-haired river god, Haku, who gives her a pill that prevents her erasure from the world of the living.
Then to the bathhouse we go, which is ruled by the iron fist of a sorceress named Yubaba. The bathhouse does not welcome humans and under Haku's strict guidance, Chihiro fumbles down a flight of stairs to the boiler room where old Kamaji, the herb-grinder, works. Chihiro must secure an apprenticeship or risk being turned into an animal like her parents. Secure in the knowledge that the fate of their lives rested in her hands, the first inklings of an inner spirit begin to bud.
The delight in traversing the trail of Chihiro's shadow throughout the film is not in seeing it grow but in seeing it glow. It is in seeing her accept small kindnesses from those around her without reservations or questions. It is in her unassuming question (“Aren't you...getting wet?”) to the ominous presence of a black-bodied and white-masked No-Face spirit in the rain and the kind offer to leave the door open for it.
It is easy to liken No-Face to that of the natural human spirit. There is something compelling in the beseeching sounds it utters in the absence of words, like a baby's inchoate verbosity. In its interaction with Chihiro, we observe an innate desire to understand and to be understood. Its transformation into a cannibal upon its foray into the bathhouse can be largely owed to the corruption that exists in it. Chihiro, as a child untouched, is able to recognise this and ushers it away from the bathhouse.
Once Chihiro finds Haku courting death from wounds sustained during his theft of a magic seal from Yubaba's sister, a formidable sorceress called Zeniba, the film reaches its climax. Remarkably, it is not merely the hope for an antidote that compels Chihiro to take a one-way train to Zeniba's home but also a desire to deliver a sincere apology for the actions of her friend.
In this near-penultimate scene, the motif of the train which circulates from the very beginning of the film is at long last exorcised. The scene unfolds in silence, with the exception of Joe Hisaiashi's beautifully composed instrumental track which plays a rhythm that is soft with melancholy in the backdrop of a freshly-peeled sky, pink as after a sunset. Owing to the tracks' submergence under water, the train seems to glide over the cerulean ocean like a low-flying seagull. The faceless and lipless figures of spirits, thick and black like tar, in coats and hats and scarves, who occupy seats across from Chihiro and No-Face; the lone house; and the father and daughter waiting at a deserted stop, are weaved by a keen and genuine eye for detail and only further elevates the scene to an aching poignancy. “Spirited Away” does not bear the markings of a Shakespearean tragedy but this brief interval is strangely reminiscent of a catharsis.
It is night when the journey concludes. Soon, Haku will arrive, well-rested and in no need for an antidote after all, but till then, Chihiro enjoys tea and cake with Zeniba. As they bid farewell, we realise that the excursion has not been for naught; No-Face will now take up work as Zeniba's apprentice.
As Chihiro rides on Haku's back who has been transformed into a dragon, she tells him a story about a river named Kohaku and a little girl who had once fallen into it. In giving back his name, Chihiro opens the path to freedom. There is an underlying implication that the destruction of the river by man had left the river god without hearth or might. Its devastation is further heightened by the sight of tears of a simultaneous joy and despair, of the pair, hanging like crystallised dewdrops in the air above the free ocean.
The film segues into the penultimate scene where Chihiro wins her parents' freedom as well as hers by answering a riddle that will yield simply only to a child's mind. Kohaku and Chihiro's parting, coloured slightly melancholic, concludes with a promise to “meet each other again”, thus knotting two ends of a thread run loose from the introductory scene of the film. You may call it hope, but all I see when Chihiro returns her gaze to the tunnel is the knowledge that it will be a very, very long wait indeed.
I find myself nursing the ache of a tooth gone slightly more bittersweet after every re-viewing. I suppose, I too imagine myself neither a damsel-distressed nor damsel-errant, but mostly, as Miyazaki promised, one who will grow up to be “a charming woman”, and believe that I am the only person in the world who has ever felt these things. Perhaps you do too.
Nuzhat Biswas is the oft-curious hyphen betwixt an incurable humanist.