When dealing with a filmmaker as prolific and consistent as Hayao Miyazaki, selecting your favorite from among their body of work can be difficult. Do I choose the more fun film? The heavier, more thought-provoking film? The aesthetically significant film? The issue here is that all of Miyazaki’s films are fun, they all contain heavier, thought-provoking content (in one form or another), and they are all not only aesthetically significant, but aesthetically pleasing.
Yet here we are at Spirited Away, which is, I think, not only Miyazaki’s greatest film, but one of the greatest films of all time. It is in this film where many aspects of Miyazaki’s work collide together. The stories dealing with young children, growing up, the environment, responsibility, greed, gluttony, pride, and magic all crash head-long into one another in this film.
Chihiro, a ten year old girl saddened by her families move to a new place, finds herself in the midst of a strange realm of spirits and monsters (not quite the “Wonderland” of Lewis Carroll’s book, but rather much darker and stranger), and finds herself with a job at a bathhouse for ghosts. The story superficially involves Chihiro and Haku, a mysterious boy who works for the evil witch Yubaba, attemptsing to save her parents from Yubaba, but is more specifically about her learning to take responsibility for her choices and actions.
The film is overflowing with strange creatures and Japanese cultural references (one analysis I read compared the bathhouse to a Japanese brothel — only figuratively, not literally), and all of the strangeness (to our western eyes) is centered not in the main character or her mysterious friend Haku. The center of the story and its themes comes from the strange spirit called No Face.
No Face might have a relation to the Japanese Noh Theater (he very clearly wears a mask, a traditional costuming piece in the Noh), but he might more simply be a manifestation of greed and selfishness without the specific cultural subtext. Some even think that he represents a man trying to buy the affection of a prostitute in a brothel. Whatever he might represent, however, it is very clear that he is Miyazaki’s way of dealing with greed and selfishness.
Miyazaki plays No Face’s greed and thinking he can buy affection and happiness against Chihiro’s selflessness and compassion. This leads us into one of the more interesting studies of Miyazaki’s work as a whole, one which I previously discussed writing about Princess Mononoke: the sense of duty and responsibility all of his main characters share.
No Face’s presence in the bathhouse is Chihiro’s fault. One night, during a rain storm, she saw him outside and left the door open so he could come in out of the rain. Harmless, right? Not so much. Then, when No Face starts causing trouble, Chihiro takes care of it and fixes the problem. Not because No Face tries to bribe her with gold or because she feels sorry for him, but because it is her responsibility to do so.
Spirited Away is filled with things like this, and this is not even the surface. Gluttony (and greed) are present, as are the wonderful themes of flying and freedom (and the train! What could the significance of the train be?), but the heart and soul of this film is Chihiro growing up and becoming less selfish. In many ways I think this is Miyazaki’s most mature film, and yet it is still very fun. Watching Chihiro change, and make the characters around her change as well, is exciting and satisfying.
This is such a wonderful movie and it holds a very dear place in my favorite movies of all time. In Miyazaki’s body of work it is quite literally a masterpiece among masterpieces.