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“What’s going on here?”
“Something you wouldn’t recognize, it’s called love.”
-Lin and Kamaji, shippers on deck
Just as any business, sport, or some other third thing has its hall of heroes and boundary-breakers, so too does animation. Walt Disney, John Lasseter, Glen Keane, Chuck Jones, and countless others have left their mark in the pantheon of this art form. One of the most prolific names in animation is a man who some call the “Walt Disney of Japan”, a man famous for his strong characters, gorgeous aesthetics, creative storytelling, and notorious indecisiveness on the subject of retirement.
I am of course talking about Hayao Miyazaki.
When most people think about Japanese animation, things like Astro-Boy, Pokemon, Akira, and certain things involving tentacles come to mind (never again, Deviantart..never again…). Miyazaki, however, is in a class of his own. Deftly weaving together tales ranging from fantasy to slice-of-life (or a mix of the two) while blending in likable heroes and villains, some kickass technology (particularly things involving flight), and subtle themes of environmentalism vs. industrialism, he takes animation to its fullest potential in both artistry and story. He worked his way up in the animation world through the 70’s and eventually founded Studio Ghibli, which is as much a cornerstone of Japan’s identity as Disney is to America. In fact, Miyazaki and several members of the studio paid a visit to Disney’s animation studio in the early 80’s where he met a young animator by the name of John Lasseter. Lasseter was frustrated with how Disney was treating their animated movies at the time (this was the dark period long after Walt Disney’s death but before the Renaissance of the 90’s) and he briefly bonded Miyazaki over their shared love of animation. Later, after Lasseter was fired for his “outrageous” experiments of combining traditional animation with CGI and went on to found Pixar with Steve Jobs, he visited the Ghibli Museum (yes, there is a museum and park dedicated to Studio Ghibli in Japan and going there is on mine and every animation-phile’s bucket list) and he got to meet Miyazaki again; learning more about his approach to storytelling and animation would inspire him when creating his first movie, a little thing called Toy Story, maybe you’ve heard of it.
Just as Miyazaki’s influence helped him reach a broader audience for his films and climb up in the animation world, Lasseter wanted to do the same for his friend. He was upset at how many of his movies were poorly dubbed and released in the US, so he used his clout to convince Disney to buy the distribution rights and let him oversee every aspect of their release, especially the English dubbing. Look on the back of any Studio Ghibli DVD and you’ll find a who’s who of the best of Hollywood lending their voices (Anne Hathaway, Laura Bacall, Christian Bale, Gillian Andersen, Mark Hamill, Liam Neeson, and Michael Keaton, to name a few) and they all do phenomenally with the material given. Spirited Away in particular has a lot of well-known voices, but not for the reasons you might think. As much as I love this movie, I swear John Lasseter was going through a list of Disney veterans who have experience playing similar parts when casting them for Spirited Away. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
The main protagonist is a curious sweet-natured girl who’s loyal to her family but has a bit of a bratty streak…
Her friend is a moody teen who learns to open up to others he considers family…
She’s helped by an outspoken feisty assistant caught in a contract with the antagonist…
And a cranky old-man who keeps the place he calls home running even though he looks like something from out of this world…
Our villain is an overbearing mother whose soft spot for her son is clouded by her greed more often than not…
And then there’s also John Ratzenberger. Because Pixar.
Contrary to what you might think, I don’t find the familiar voices distracting at all because the actors do their jobs so well. I can even overlook the one or two moments where the words don’t match the mouth movements because they and the people translating the script are doing their hardest to make it work for an audience that speaks a completely different language (I will say, however, that watching a dubbed animated film is much easier on the eyes than a dubbed live-action one). I can understand if why anyone else would feel differently and claim the original Japanese dub is better, but if you want to watch it that way you can just change the settings without losing a thing (also, have fun reading subtitles for two hours!)
Our movie opens as a young girl named Chihiro (Daveiugh Chase) sullenly sits in the back of a car clutching a bouquet of flowers. She and her parents are moving to a new town, and like every kid in movies where the plot involves moving away, she’s not happy as it means leaving her old life behind. Her mom and dad try to reassure her that going to a new school and making new friends will be fun, but Chihiro won’t hear of it. She starts to panic when she notices her flowers, which are a goodbye present from her pals, are starting to die, and her mom tells her that they wouldn’t be if she didn’t cling to them so tightly (which is the first instance of a theme that you’ll see running throughout the film that I’ll address later).
Chihiro’s father, who’s driving, gets lost and decides to take a “shortcut” to reach their new house (oh boy, I’ve seen Beauty and the Beast enough times to know this won’t end well). On the way they pass little stone houses by the road, which Chihiro’s mom tells her are shrines built for spirits back when people used to believe they lived there. After a bumpy drive through the woods, they nearly crash into a small grinning statue in front of an old tall red building. Dad wants to go check it out in spite of Mom worrying about missing the movers and Chihiro whining about how scary it is. They leave her behind to investigate, and after a minute alone with the creepy statue, Chihiro runs in after them.
After a long walk through a dark tunnel, the family finds itself in a sort of terminal which opens up into a beautiful field and a dried-up river. Dad surmises that this whole place was probably part of an abandoned theme park that closed after Japan’s economy went down the tube after the 90’s (and yes, Japan does have those. Lots of those. Lots of creepy, creepy, post-apocalyptic Disney World knockoffs of those). The “park” isn’t as abandoned as they think, however, because they can smell food cooking nearby. They follow the scent to a nearby village that seems to consist of nothing but restaurants and find one with lots of delicious food out for the taking but no one around. Mom and Dad help themselves and when Chihiro suggests eating here isn’t such a good idea, they tell her to join them in eating the mysterious strange food left out in the open.
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Frustrated, Chihiro wanders off until she comes across a bathhouse. How do we know it’s a bathhouse? Because she says out loud to herself, “It’s a bathhouse”. This is something that tends to tick off fans of the original Japanese dubs of these kinds of movies; in order to fill in the silence or give context to Western viewers, dubs will often include lines like these where there are originally none. Personally, I don’t mind it here as it’s done for the latter as opposed to the former, and thankfully that’s the case for most of the Ghibli dubs done through Disney.
Chihiro goes in for a closer look and finds a train running under the bridge. When she looks back up she sees a boy standing there staring at her. He yells that she shouldn’t be here and urges her to run while she still can. Confused, Chihiro leaves, and finds strange shadows moving through the town as night swiftly approaches. And when she finds her mom and dad…
Horrified, Chihiro flees through the streets until she reaches the river she crossed earlier, only now it’s filled with water and she’s stranded. A boat from the opposite bank docks and a multitude of spirits, invisible at first but gaining color and form as they disembark, head for the bathhouse.
It’s safe to say by this point Chihiro is more than a little freaked out, and she does what any sane person would do in the situation – go into fetal position and tell herself to wake up and disappear from this nightmare.
The boy from earlier finds her and tries to help by giving her something to eat, but after seeing what food does to people in this place Chihiro is understandably reluctant to eat anything. Unfortunately her disappearing condition is also starting to make her intangible, and the boy tells her that she will disappear entirely unless she takes it. She does, and she turns back to normal without becoming the next Porco Rosso (heh heh, Ghibli reference).
The mysterious boy, Haku (Jason Marsden), informs her on what’s going on – she and her parents have crossed into the spirit world, and because her parents have eaten food meant for the spirits, they were turned into pigs. Humans aren’t looked upon favorably here and there are already some creatures out there that are looking for Chihiro, one being a raven with the head of an old woman. Haku hides Chihiro, then spirits her away (heh heh, title drop) through several underground rooms, including one where hundreds of squealing pigs are held in pens (not the most comforting thing for Chihiro to see after what’s happened).
They reach the bathhouse, where many odd-looking servants are greeting their unusual spirit patrons. I’m sorry I didn’t say it earlier, but the designs of these spirits are so creative that they can only come from a place like Studio Ghibli. You get the idea that they are supernatural but there’s still something rooted in the earth about them. Though some are clearly inspired by frogs or lizards or foxes or birds, each one is unique and memorable.
Haku and Chihiro have to cross a bridge to get in the bathhouse, but Chihiro has to hold her breath the whole time so no one else will see her. As they walk, she passes a wraith-like creature standing on the bridge that only she can see – and apparently it can see her as well.
Just as they’re nearly across, one of the servants, a frog (not one who looks like a frog, an ACTUAL frog), hops right into Chihiro’s face and startles her, causing her to gasp. Discovered, she and Haku flee to a hidden corner of the bathhouse. By now word has spread that a human is hiding nearby and everyone is looking for “Master Haku” to help them find it. Haku has to leave in spite of Chihiro’s pleas but gives her some very important instructions via Vulcan mind-meld.
Haku will create a diversion, giving Chihiro enough time to escape to the boiler room. There, she must ask Kamaji, the boiler-man, for a job, no matter how hard the work is or if he turns her away. Working at the bathhouse is the only way she can survive here, otherwise Yubaba, the witch who owns the bathhouse, will turn her into an animal. He reassures her she will be fine, and Chihiro realizes Haku knows her name in spite of never having told him. Haku cryptically tells her he’s known her since she was very little and leaves.
Chihiro sneaks around until she reaches a long steep set of wooden stairs winding around the bathhouse and slowly climbs down. It’s very tense until a step breaks and Chihiro finds herself sprinting down them screaming at the top of her lungs until WHAM! She slams face first into a wall. No joke, this is one of the funniest pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. The timing and build-up couldn’t be more perfect. I burst out laughing everytime I see it.
After avoiding being caught one more time, Chihiro finds the boiler room and comes across –
This is Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), a multiple-spider-armed old man who constantly runs the boilers of the bathhouse and brews the special healing waters for its guests. He’s assisted by tiny soot sprites that constantly carry heavy lumps of coal back forth from their tiny mouse holes to keep the fires going.
And in case you were wondering, yes these are the same soot sprites that appear in “My Neighbor Totoro”, one of Studio Ghibli’s most popular movies. I actually saw that film after I watched Spirited Away and was disappointed they were in it for only one scene, because for little black balls with no mouth, voices, or barely any limbs, they have quite a lot of character to them…and they’re adorable as heck.
Chihiro asks for work just as Kamaji gets requests for four different baths to be heated at once, so he’s in no mood to listen to her. The soot sprites get back to work and Chihiro notices one struggling under the weight of a particularly heavy bit of coal. She picks it up after it apparently crushes it (it reforms after being freed), and Chihiro makes the treacherous journey bringing of the coal to the boiler. On seeing her do their work, the other soot sprites “beg” for help by pretending to flail under their load. Kamaji demands she leaves and they break it up because they’ll turn back into ordinary soot if they don’t do their work, but the sprites all insist that Chihiro joins them.
The scene is interrupted by the arrival of one of the bathhouse workers, Lin (Susan Egan), bringing food for Kamaji and sprinkling star-shaped candy out for the sprites. Lin isn’t happy on finding the human everyone is looking for, but Kamaji, who’s reluctantly impressed with Chihiro’s stubbornness, sticks up for Chihiro by telling Lin she’s his granddaughter. He bribes her with a roasted newt (which is apparently a rare delicacy in the bathhouse) to take her to ask Yubaba for a job. Lin agrees, and Kamaji wishes Chihiro good luck.
Now I confess that the first time I watched this movie was a few years after its release when it was showed on Turner Classic Movies as part of a month-long Miyazaki special. This was the part it was on when I happened to change to the channel, and I decided to keep watching because though I really wanted to see this movie, I didn’t have the chance to until then. I kept watching despite the fact I missed the first twenty minutes…and I didn’t regret a second of it.
Flipping weird…and flipping GORGEOUS.
Lin leads Chihiro through the gorgeous bathhouse, encountering even more strange and amazing spirits along the way. She manages to hide Chihiro from a nosy superior by distracting him with her roasted newt and sticking her in an elevator with the enormous but friendly radish spirit (the not-quite Totoro thing in the second-to-last picture just above this paragraph). Chihiro rides with the radish spirit until she reaches Yubaba’s penthouse suite. When Chihiro is too nervous to knock, the talking doorknocker tells her off –
-and Yubaba pulls her in to her office telekinetically . After getting looked over by a trio of hopping heads (I think they’re supposed to be Yubaba’s henchmen but there’s no explanation if they are), Chihiro comes face to face with Yubaba, the big-headed (in both a figurative and literal sense) witch. She silences Chihiro by zipping up her lips (literally) and berates her and her parents for interfering in the spirit world like the stinking humans they are. Yubaba hasn’t decided on what to turn Chihiro into yet, but wants to know who helped her get this far in the bathhouse before she does. Immediately on unzippering, Chihiro pesters Yubaba for a job. Her constant asking sends Yubaba into a rage, and she flies into Chihiro’s face demanding why she should hire a weak, spoiled and whiny crybaby like her.
As much as I hate to admit it, Yubaba is right about Chihiro on all accounts, but it’s clear that most of it stems from her fear and lack of familiarity with this place. The one thing keeping her going is sheer stubborness, which hints towards her discovering the courage she never knew she had later.
Yubaba is interrupted by a cry from the next room and a giant baby’s foot breaking through the door. She goes to quiet the child, and between it’s screaming and Chihiro’s persistence, she decides to relent and gives Chihiro a contract. Chihiro signs and when Yubaba looks it over, she says “Chihiro, such a pretty name…and it belongs to me now.”
Unfortunately, Chihiro really should have read the fine print before signing – the price of getting a job at the bathhouse is Yubaba taking your name and everything about yourself that goes with it, and you can never leave her service without it.
Yubaba gives her the name Sen and asks her apprentice – who happens to be Haku – to take her to the servant’s quarters. Sen tries to talk to Haku in the elevator, but he coldly tells her off. None of the workers are thrilled to have a human in their midst, but Haku tells them they can go to Yubaba if they don’t like the arrangement. Once they’re alone, Lin congratulates Sen and takes her under her wing. Chihiro asks her about Haku, and she’s told that he’s Yubaba’s stooge and she’s better off avoiding him.
That morning, while everyone sleeps, Haku sneaks into Sen’s room and tells her that he’ll take her to see her parents. Sen makes her way to the boiler room and finds that the friendly soot sprites have held on to her shoes for her. After she crosses the bridge where the same masked spirit is still watching her, Haku leads her to the pen where her parents, now full-fledged pigs, are sleeping off their fateful meal. Haku warns her that though she can come visit, she can never come without him, and she must take special care to remember what they look like. He also returns Sen’s clothes that were thrown away after she was given a uniform. Sen finds the goodbye card from her friends in the pocket which has her true name – Chihiro – and she remembers everything about her that Yubaba made her forget. Haku wistfully tells her that his is how Yubaba controls her workers, and he wishes he could remember his name, though for some reason he’s able to remember hers, and she must keep her true identity a secret from everyone else. He gives Chihiro some breakfast and Chihiro takes a moment to let all her pent-up emotions over everything that’s happened to her out.
Eventually, Chihiro and Haku have to go their separate ways, though he promises that she can count on him. When Chihiro looks back to thank him, she finds a silvery dragon flying though the sky. She also doesn’t notice the masked spirit following her to the bathhouse. Chihiro hides her shoes and clothes with the soot sprites and stops to rest. Kamaji wakes up later to find her sleeping on the floor and he drapes a blanket over her (aww).
The following night Chihiro is put through the tough regimen that all the bathhouse workers are put through. Suffice it to say she has a hard time keeping up. Her status as a human also puts her at a disadvantage with the higher-up, as the foremen pick her and Lin to wash out the biggest and filthiest tub in the house. While throwing out some water, Chihiro sees the masked spirit staring at her from outside. Thinking he’s a guest, Chihiro invites him in from the rain, and it enters before promptly vanishing.
Lin and Chihiro are having a hard time cleaning out the massive tub and Lin sends her to get a bath token from the foreman to get the job done quicker. The foreman (Rodger Bumpass), however, doesn’t want to deal with Chihiro and rudely tells her to finish the job herself.
Wait…that nasally condescending voice…where have I heard that before….
While he’s talking to the other employees, however, the masked spirit, now sporting a small friendly grin, appears behind him and gives Chihiro a bath token.
Meanwhile, Yubaba is in her penthouse counting her jewelry when she gets a feeling something is coming, something big. Even the whole town below feels it, and the spirits there close up their shops as whatever it is trudges down the street.
Lin shows Chihiro how they fill the tub – there’s a hidden panel in the wall with a hook inside. The bath token goes on the hook which is sent to Kamaji. He prepares the herbal bath inscribed on the token. Water then pours from a chute that comes out of the wall into the tub. Lin leaves to get them some food, and that’s when the masked spirit appears before Chihiro again, this time bringing her even more bath tokens. Chihiro politely tells him she doesn’t need any more despite his urging. Interesting enough, now that he’s in the bathhouse, the spirit, whom we later learn is called No-Face, gains a more corporeal form and a little bit of a voice. When Chihiro refuses his gift, he vanishes, and Chihiro hides the tokens in a bucket.
Yubaba appears downstairs and warns everyone about what’s heading their way – a stink spirit, and a very powerful one at that. She sends some of them outside to try to get the massive oozing mass of slime to leave.
Left with no alternative, Yubaba forces Chihiro to attend to the stink spirit while she, the guests and other workers watch the spectacle from the safety of the higher floors. This is the one time where the animation gets very anime-esque; Chihiro’s eyes bulge from her head and her hair stands on end as she’s overwhelmed by the powerful stench, her moves become very stiff and her face…it’s just hilarious to watch. Her expression says it all.
Chihiro succeeds in getting the spirit to the tub, and it’s so big it not only floods the room but turns the water into filthy polluted mud. Thankfully, Chihiro has the bucket full of tokens and she manages to send one to Kamaji on her own. While refilling the tub, she slips in and gets stuck in the sludge. The spirit rescues her and holds her up to his side, where she finds what she thinks is a thorn caught in there.
Lin comes in to help and Chihiro tells her what she’s found. Yubaba realizes that this isn’t an ordinary stink spirit they’re dealing with. She gives Chihiro and Lin a rope to tie around the “thorn”, then they and the whole staff (with Yubaba and the patrons cheering from the sidelines) work together to pull it out.
It begins to come loose, and to Chihiro’s surprise, the thorn isn’t a thorn at all – it’s the handle of an old bicycle. As it’s pulled out of the muddy mass, more and more tangled up trash comes out until the whole bath room looks like a hoarder’s wet dream. With a satisfied sigh, the spirit dissolves into the bath and forms a watery fist around Chihiro as a fresh wave of water washes away the outpouring of garbage. Separated from the rest of the onlookers by a thick mist, the spirit releases Chihiro and appears to her as an ancient face rising out of the bath.
The face vanishes after it gives her his thanks, and Chihiro finds a strange little cake in her hands. As the flooded water clears away the silt, Yubaba and the workers find hundreds of specks of gold on the floor. The spirit departs in the form of a giant watery dragon and flies away laughing into the stormy night.
Everyone cheers Chihiro’s victory; even Yubaba hugs her, mostly out of thanks for the amount riches the visitor, who was really a powerful river spirit, left behind. She congratulates her staff by giving them drinks on the house that night –
-but only after they give her all the gold they picked up first.
Chihiro doesn’t mind, however, because as simple as the cake appears, she feels she’s been given a much greater gift than gold.
This scene is one of the movie’s many highlights. The animation is great, it shows how hard Chihiro is willing to work as well as her compassion and bravery, and it’s her first big victory in the bathhouse. It marks a turning point in her character and foreshadows more than a few things to come in terms of the plot and her development. Also, fun fact: this scene was inspired by a time when Miyazaki volunteered to clean up a heavily polluted old river and found a bicycle in there completely in tact. I always find it interesting when a director incorporates a personal memory into a story this way.
Lin and Chihiro share some dinner on the balcony of their room and watch the train speed through the flood below them. Chihiro asks about where Haku goes to and Lin says he’s probably off doing some dirty work for Yubaba. She also expresses her wish to someday leave the bathhouse and ride the train as far from there as possible. Remembering the cake and feeling curious, Chihiro tries a piece and immediately wolfs down the rest of her dinner to get rid of the awful taste and keep from vomiting (yeah, I’ve eaten expired Snowballs and had that happen).
Meanwhile, the frog servant sneaks into the bath room to search for any gold Yubaba may have missed and comes across No-Face looking at him from the tub. When he orders him to leave, No-Face makes gold appear from his hand. He lures the frog over to him with it…and then a huge mouth appears below his mask and he eats the frog whole. The foreman voiced by John Ratzenberger comes in and finds a drastically different No-Face now speaking in the frog’s voice demanding lots of food and a bath.
Chihiro has a dream where she visits the pig pen with the river spirit’s gift, intending to give it to her parents so it can break the spell. Unfortunately all the pigs look the same and she can’t tell which of them are her mom and dad. When she wakes up, she finds nobody in the sleeping quarters; the workers are taking care of a mysterious new guest who’s giving gold away like hotcakes. Chihiro resolves to wait for Haku to return from wherever he is so he can take her to her parents before she forgets them.
As she looks out at the water, she sees Haku in his dragon form being attacked by a flock of white birds. He looks dangerously hurt, and Chihiro calls to him. He crashes into her room and she tries to close the sliding door against the onslaught of birds…only to find they’re really paper cutouts of birds. The now-shredded papers pick themselves up and fly away, but one hides behind Chihiro’s back. Chihiro checks on Haku and…he’s not looking well.
Haku wildly flies away again and disappears though a window on the other side of the bathhouse. Chihiro tries to follow him and winds up bumping into the rich stranger everyone’s been getting their golden tips from.
On a side note, I like the little rhyme John Ratzenberger ad-libbed for this scene. It’s not in the Japanese dub, but it’s very funny:
“Welcome the rich man, he’s hard for you to miss/
his butt keeps getting better so there’s plenty there to kiss!”
On seeing Chihiro, No-Face presents her with a whole handful of gold. Chihiro, however, is desperate to get to Haku and apologizes that she can’t accept his gift. Confused, No-Face makes the pile bigger thinking it will make her happy, but Chihiro runs away. One of the little touches of animation that I like with No-Face is that even though his mask has only one expression, depending on the situation, it alters just the smallest bit so you can tell if he’s happy or sad. The way he looks when Chihiro leaves and all the workers pounce upon the gold she refused is almost heartbreaking; she was the only one who was genuinely nice to him and everyone else only wants him for what he can give.
The Ratzenberger foreman yells at them to back off and tries to apologize for Chihiro’s behavior, but No-Face is in no mood to deal with anyone now. With a Joker-esque one-liner made both funny and creepy by his unusual voice (“Wipe that smile off your face…you’re still SMILING!!”) he grabs the Ratzenberger foreman and another worker and eats them alive, causing everyone else to panic.
Chihiro manages to get outside and makes a perilous journey up the side of the bathhouse. Along the way she sees Yubaba in the form of a giant bird return to her penthouse (which happens to be where Haku is situated) after spending the night out. Chihiro hides from her and breaks the window to her bathroom open (unknowingly with help from the paper bird). She runs through the apartment, coming across a luxurious nursery filled with oversized toys and pillows. Chihiro overhears Yubaba order the dying Haku to be dealt with and hides in a mountain of pillows when she sees her heading her way. Unfortunately for her, the pillows are the first place Yubaba looks in when she checks on her giant baby. She acts all motherly to her boy and gives him a big kiss before leaving.
Chihiro tries to leave once she’s gone but the baby pulls her back in and scares Chihiro by talking to her – and not in half-formed babyspeak either, I mean full-formed sentences. Even though his name isn’t mentioned in the film, the baby is Boh, and he’s played by Tara Strong (Gee, as someone who grew up watching a lot of 90’s Nickelodeon cartoons I can’t imagine how she got this part…)
Boh represents everything Chihiro used to be before her experiences in the bathhouse, namely a big petulant baby. His smothering from his mother has made him into a literal overgrown child who believes he’ll get sick if he leaves his room. He insists that Chihiro stay and play with him, even threatening to break her arm or cry and bring back Yubaba to kill her if she doesn’t Chihiro tells him that this smothering is what will make him sick (remember those flowers from earlier? Toldja there was a theme going) and gets him to let go by showing the “germs” from Haku’s blood on her hands (his sudden screaming at the same time the music kicks back up scares me every damn time).
Chihiro runs out to find the three hopping heads pushing the unconscious Haku towards a hole in the floor. She tries to protect him but Yubaba’s human-faced raven attacks her and Boh comes out to force her to play. Before he can start crying, the paper bird yells in his mother’s voice to shut up. An opaque version of Yubaba appears from it (albeit missing an arm due to one of the wings being torn off, a little touch that I like) and turns Boh into a cute little mouse, the raven into a fly, and disguises the three heads as Boh.
This is Zeniba, Yubaba’s twin sister (also voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) and she has business with Haku. Apparently he stole a magical gold seal from her, one with a powerful curse that will kill anyone who takes it, and she wants it back. Chihiro insists Haku would never steal from anyone, but Zeniba says he’s nothing but a dirty lying thief who became Yubaba’s apprentice just so he could steal her secrets.
Chihiro refuses to stand down and the moment Zeniba is distracted, Haku wakes up and destroys the paper bird (Zeniba going “Ow, a paper cut” before disappearing admittedly gets a chuckle out of me) He falls down the hole taking Chihiro, Boh and the fly with him. As they plummet into the depths of the bathhouse, Chihiro grabs on to Haku’s horns and gets some strange flashbacks of her riding Haku underwater.
They crash into the boiler room on top of Kamaji. By now Haku has gone completely feral and blood is dripping from his mouth. When Kamaji suggests that he may have swallowed something that’s making him bleed internally, Chihiro forces him to take half of her cake from the river spirit. They did a great job animating this bit; I’ve had a dog for ten years and they capture exactly what it’s like when you have to give it medicine it doesn’t want (Haku’s dragon form being part-wolflike also sells that). Haku coughs up the gold seal along with a rather jumpy black slug. Chihiro manages to squash it before it can get away and Kamaji gives her what Miyazaki describes as a “Japanese cootie shot” to keep the bad luck from the creature away.
Haku changes back to human, but is very sick. As they tend to him, Kamaji tells Chihiro his sad backstory – Haku was a boy who showed up one day out of nowhere and took a job as Yubaba’s apprentice despite Kamaji’s warnings. Haku told him he couldn’t return where he came from if he wanted to, and under Yubaba’s control he lost much of his warmth and innocence. It’s a dark story, but they made the weird decision to have it told over this bit of adorability with Boh and the soot sprites.
Chihiro wonders if maybe she can convince Zeniba to remove the curse from Haku if she returns the seal and apologizes for him. Kamaji is doubtful but he thinks he has something that may help her reach Zeniba. Lin enters looking for Chihiro and tells her all about what’s happening with No-Face. He told Yubaba that “Sen” was the one who let him in the bathhouse and he is demanding to see her. Kamaji reappears with some train tickets he’s been saving and gives them to Chihiro. It’s a one-way ride to Zeniba’s place at Swamp Bottom, and leaving the bathhouse means endangering her parent’s safety, but Chihiro would do anything to help Haku after he helped her, which leads to the above quote.
Chihiro goes to confront No-Face accompanied by Boh and the fly. Yubaba urges Chihiro to get as much gold from him as she can to pay for the damage he’s caused and forces her and her friends in his room, not recognizing the “filthy mouse” as her son, to his despair. By now No-Face has grown to almost gargantuan size and his voice is an eerie mix of the frog’s and John Ratzenberger’s fading in and out depending on the intensity. No-Face asks Chihiro what she wants and he’ll give it to her, mainly gold because that’s what everyone in the bathhouse wants. Chihiro says that she needs to go and suggests No-Face do the same. No-Face, however, says he has nowhere to go and is all alone. With this bit of dialogue we learn so much about him; he’s willing to give anyone what they want to love him, but the greed of the bathhouse has twisted that into violent desperation.
Chihiro gives him the last bit of her cake to help him, and it causes No-Face to vomit up loads of thick black sludge. Slowly. Realistically. Horrifingly. You people are lucky I couldn’t get a good screencap to show just how disgusting this part is. Just take my word for it.
He chases Chihiro out of the room and through the bathhouse while still throwing up in a really intense scene that I’m sure will make most parents will think twice before assuming all animation is cute distracting stuff for kids. Chihiro wisely surmises that taking in the greed and opulence of the bathhouse is what made No-Face this way, so she tries to lead him outside and away from anyone in his path. He gets weaker and weaker as he goes along, returning to his more frail ghostly body and voice, and eventually throwing up everyone he’s eaten.
Chihiro reaches Lin who’s waiting with a boat to take her to the train. She’s not keen on No-Face being anywhere near her friend and lets him know that he’s gonna get it if he tries to hurt her (see, tough girl with a heart of gold. Totally Megara).
This leads into one of the most simple but beautiful scene in any movie I’ve seen, the train ride. Chihiro uses the tickets for her, Boh, the fly and No-Face to get on board, and from there it’s a quiet contemplative ride across the water into the sunset. It’s a moment to breathe after the chaos that comes at just the right time. Nobody says a word; the beautifully moody music and Chihiro’s contemplation speaks for itself.
Forgive me if I sound like an old grump/movie hipster, but you don’t get many scenes like this in movies nowadays, if at all. Miyazaki is a master in these kinds of moments, which he calls ma. It can be a few minutes to relax, as with this scene, or to help ramp up the tension leading to a big moment. These ma scenes are sprinkled throughout each Miyazaki’s films, and Spirited Away is no exception (Lin and Chihiro hanging out, Chihiro waiting for Haku before he crashes into her room) but the train scene is the most prominent example, and the most beautiful.
Meanwhile, Haku awakens and Kamaji updates him on Chihiro’s situation. Yubaba’s back in her quarters and refreshed after being covered in slime by No-Face, but she’s not satisfied with the gold that was gleaned from him before his rampage. The assistants who were once bullying Chihiro, including the ones swallowed by No-Face, stick up for her because she saved them, but Yubaba demands they turn Chihiro’s parents into bacon for the trouble as punishment, something even they are aghast at doing. Haku shows up to Yubaba’s bemusement, since she believed him to be dead by now. Haku tells her something precious of hers has gone missing and Yubaba immediately inspects her gold (quality parenting!)
It’s only when she realizes she’s not missing any that she turns her attention to Boh and discovers the illusion cast on the hopping heads. As she looks on in horror, her gold turns into what it really was all along – clods of dirt. This finally sets Yubaba off and after frantically searching the nursery for her child, she rages at Haku.
Haku remains startlingly calm in the face of fiery death and tells her Boh is with Zeniba. This gets Yubaba to calm down and she strikes a deal with Haku – she promises to free Chihiro from her contract and send her family home if Haku will go and fetch her baby. Yubaba insists, howeverm that she gives Chihiro one final test first, and if she fails, she belongs to her forever.
Meanwhile, Chihiro and her friends reach Swamp Bottom, where they are greeted by Ghibli’s shout-out to their buddy Pixar.
The hopping lantern leads them to Zeniba’s cottage, where she is waiting for them. Like she said before, Zeniba is Yubaba’s absolute identical twin in all but personality. They may dress the same and even have the same fancy jewelry, but Zeniba prefers a humble life, finds joy in the simpler things, and is kind and selfless (at least when she’s in a good mood). She even asks Chihiro to call her “granny”, something which Yubaba hilariously takes offense to when Chihiro calls her that later.
Chihiro gives Zeniba back her seal, and she is surprised to find the spell she cast on it is gone. Chihiro, thinking the slug was the spell, apologizes for squashing it, which sends Zeniba into gales of laughter. She explains that the slug was something Yubaba forced inside of Haku to control him and steal the seal; her real spell was already broken by Chihiro’s love. Zeniba serves her guests some tea and apologizes to Chihiro for not being able to help Haku and her parents. Though Chihiro admits she feels she’s met Haku before, she doesn’t remember where. Zeniba suggests that Chihiro take some time to think while she, No-Face, Boh and the fly help her in some spinning.
The scene that follows is accompanied by one of my favorite pieces of music written for film. I suggest you listen to it while reading what happens next to get the feelings that come with it, because it is one long crowning moment of heartwarming. I give you Joe Hisaishi’s “Reunion” aka “Reprise”.
No matter how hard Chihiro tries she can’t dig up any memories of Haku. She worries that he and her family might be dead by now, but Zeniba cheers her up with a present – a sparkling purple hair-tie made by her friends and infused with magic to protect her. As she re-does her ponytail with it, a gust of wind nearly blows down the door, which Zeniba takes as another guest arriving. Chihiro answers the door.
Happily reunited with Haku, Chihiro has to say goodbye to her granny, and even though they knew each other for such a short time, it’s still very bittersweet. Chihiro tells her her real name, and in a nice subversion from earlier, Zeniba replies, “Such a pretty name. Take good care of it.” Zeniba forgives Haku as long as he promises to look after Chihiro, then says a heartfelt farewell to her little nephew and invites No-Face to stay with her. Chihiro and Haku then take to the sky.
As Chihiro clings to Haku while they swim through the sky, she gets more flashes from her past, extensions of the ones she had earlier.
Chihiro whispers what she remembers in Haku’s ear – when she was a little girl, she lost her shoe in a river and fell in trying to retrieve it. Instead of drowning, the river carried her to safety. The name of the river, the name that Chihiro thinks must belong to Haku, is Kohaku.
On hearing his name, Haku’s scales shatter away with a sound like a thousand windchimes. He and Chihiro fall as he changes into a boy again, but he clasps her hand and they float through the air. Tears of happiness fill Haku’s eyes as he thanks Chihiro for helping him finally remember who he is. Chihiro informs him that the Kohaku River had apartment buildings built over it, which is why he couldn’t return home. They are both overjoyed that they remember each other, and Chihiro cries out, “I always knew you were good!”
They reach the bathhouse by morning, where everyone including Yubaba is waiting for them. Yubaba thinks Haku didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain until Boh decides to change back in front of her (the fly decides to stay as it is). To her surprise he stands up on his own and talks to her, showing how much he’s been changed by his travels like Chihiro has. He tells Yubaba he won’t love her anymore if she hurts his friend. Chihiro, however, is through with letting others protect her and is ready to face Yubaba herself.
Yubaba presents her test – there are two rows of pigs lined in front of the bathhouse. If Chihiro can identify which ones are her parents, then they can all go home.
After looking the rows of identical pigs over, Chihiro takes a different option and tells Yubaba none of the pigs are her mom and dad.
It might be a bit of a cop-out, especially seeing how she only got the chance to see her parents as fully-formed pigs once and it seems like she’s just winging it, but hey, Chihiro’s been through a lot, let’s let her have her happy ending.
She says goodbye to everyone, even Yubaba, who grudgingly lets her go. This is another thing in this movie that I like. In most animated films the villain is always destroyed and evil is overcome forever (see the majority of Disney films from the past 75 years). Here, conquering evil isn’t the focus of the story. The bad guy isn’t necessarily defeated, or truth be told, all that evil. The point of the journey isn’t to stop Yubaba’s crooked business or destroy the bathhouse and free the workers, it’s Chihiro learning the value of friendship and growing up. Yubaba is a force to be acknowledged and worked with or against, but not killed, because life doesn’t come down to pegging someone as good guy and bad guy and killing the latter. Miyazaki has this wonderful habit of doing this with most of his villains, making them characters who go to extremes for sympathetic reasons (Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, Fujimoto in Ponyo) or not even including a villain at all (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and more).
Haku leads Chihiro to the riverbed, which is now dry again. He informs her her parents are waiting on the other side, changed back to normal and with no memory of what’s happened (plot amnesia usually annoys me, but in their case they’re probably better off with it. Think of those mental scars they’d have otherwise.) Chihiro is sad that she may never see Haku again, but he says thanks to her he’s going to quit being Yubaba’s apprentice and be free at last. He even hints that they may one day be reunited (I’d make a joke about fanfic writers jumping on the idea, but in the 15+ years since this movie came out, the section of fanfiction.net devoted to Spirited Away has been filled with nothing but that).
He lets Chihiro go with the warning that she cannot look back once (nice nod to the Orpheus myth) and despite one close call, she wills herself not to. She and her parents go back through the tunnel (they use the same animation and dialogue from when they first entered it yet it doesn’t feel lazy; it’s more of an interesting parallel to have them exit the same way they came). They find the car covered in leaves and dust, hinting that they’ve been in there longer than they thought. As her mom and dad clean up, Chihiro finally lets herself look back into the tunnel. Her purple hair-tie glimmers, the only reminder of her time and friends in the spirit world.
Now here’s a big difference in how the film ends in the two different dubs. In the Japanese one, there is complete silence as the car pulls away. In the English one, we hear Chihiro’s dad remark that she must feel scared about starting a new life, and Chihiro quietly replies “I think I can handle it”. Say all you want about unnecessary dialogue, but I like this addition. It’s a small touch that shows how far Chihiro has come and gives the film just the right note to go out on.
Also, while I’ve praised Miyazaki up and down about his creative choices, this bit of dialogue, for me at least, negates what he said in interviews about Chihiro having no memories of her time in the spirit world after leaving it. Am I the only one who hates when a story ends with their characters getting their memories erased, even if they somehow still remember the lesson they’ve learned, because it makes absolutely no sense. How would a character be changed for good if the experiences that changed them were wiped from their mind? Wouldn’t that resort them back to how they used to be? Why negate everything we just saw happen if our main character can’t acknowledge that it really did *COUGHCHITTYCHITTYBANGBANGCOUGH* At least Eoin Colfer had the good sense to realize that when writing the Artemis Fowl books. Once its hero got “mesmered” after his first three adventures to “protect” the supernatural world, he went back to being a precocious little sociopath and everyone learned the hard way how much they screwed up by doing what they did. Frankly I could rant about this for hours but I don’t want to end this review on a sour note.
Spirited Away is one of those rare movies that is completely original and imaginative, and deserves every bit of praise it gets. Every moment, be it action-packed or quiet, is enrapturing. Miyazaki was inspired to create this story after meeting the moody daughter of a friend and seeing her friends reading girl magazines that focused more on things like boys than anything empowering. He set out to make a movie that girls between not quite young children and not quite teenagers could watch and enjoy with a heroine they could look up to. That’s right, women-bashers. Spirited Away, one of the most critically acclaimed movies worldwide, is a feminist movie. Good luck hating on movie trailers now, pigs.
There’s a lot that’s been said about this movie, that it’s a metaphor for the afterlife, child slavery/prostitution, and the clash between the old and new cultural ways of Japan, and Miyazaki himself has said that any of these interpretations are correct (yes, even the prostitution one). I remember hearing an anecdote where he had to explain to the Japanese actress playing Chihiro what the “cootie shot” was and lamenting how the youth have forgotten the ways of his childhood. There are obvious parallels in the story to other notable fantasies such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, but it draws heavily from Miyazaki’s familiar running themes of man’s relationship to nature, the dangers of greed, and the journey from adolescence to adulthood so that it forms its own unique identity. Believe it or not, Miyazaki had to force himself to tone down the eye candy in terms of background and animation AND cut out hundreds of minutes worth of storyboards and ideas so the movie wouldn’t run over three hours, but what we got in the two hours shown is gorgeous enough as it is. Still, what I wouldn’t give to see what he originally came up with…
It’s no surprise that this became the highest grossing film in Japan to date and also the second movie to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar. What did surprise me was that Miyazaki himself didn’t come to collect the award in person. He later revealed that he chose not to come to the ceremony out of protest for America invading Iraq that year, which I can understand since he is a staunch pacifist (just wait until I review Howl’s Moving Castle). Ever since then he’s been nominated several times, but, as of writing this, Spirited Away is Miyazaki’s only Oscar win, and the only one awarded to a hand-drawn feature. I hope someday that will change, but I will applaud any film that wins regardless of the medium used if it is as amazing as this movie is. At the moment Miyazaki is in another “I’m retired but experimenting” phase, this time with CGI, and I’m eager to see if anything comes from it. Regardless, it’s good to know we can always be spirited back to this masterpiece.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
All screencaps used are from disneyscreencaps.com.