Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spirited Away: The Greatest Film of All Time

"An alternative universe coinciding with our own"

I really appreciate what a co-movie lover said recently, that as one gets to the top of one’s all time favorites list, that it becomes more personal. I think that is really true. My top ten is peppered with films that mean something important to me personally, but may not be as thrilling to others: Wendy and Lucy, The Mission, Being There. They all carry double meaning for me: not only being well done films in their own right, but also expressing messages that are important to my life. They not only speak to others in a general way, but they speak to my life directly in a way others might not understand.

So, with Spirited Away, I can give you the many reasons why this favorite film of my favorite director is generally excellent. The animation is top notch, for one. In re-watching Ponyo, I realized how much we are missing in focusing on computer animation instead of hand-drawn. It has taken hand-drawn animation almost a hundred years to reach this place, while computer animation is still a teen. Computer animation is wonderful, but it still has a long ways to go to establish a set of symbols we recognize as human emotion. Miyazaki, however, has taken the step that Disney never did to make characters that are so real we feel that we know them. This is certainly found in the writing and the voice acting (even the dubbed vocals!), but especially in the drawing. It is not because they are more realistic looking, but because we grew up with this kind of animation, and Miyazaki, adding in expressions found in manga and older anime, has given us a visual language we can truly connect with.

"Living in the stream of life, led by love"

Also, Spirited Away is one of the magnificent stories of imagination. Setting aside the Japanese spiritism (which we will talk about in a moment), the amount of imagination that creates both the setting—a bath house for spirits—and specific unique characters such as No Face and the Radish Spirit, takes even the imaginative achievements of The Wizard of Oz, The Neverending Story and Labyrinth to new heights. But more than that, this imaginary story is realized perfectly visually. We can see this world existing. This isn’t just an amusing tale with muppets or dressed up humans or poorly executed claymation. This is another world that we have the opportunity to visit for a couple hours, and that experience gets added to our own.

I am just saying what could really be said of almost any of what I call “first tier” Miyazaki. As well as this: Miyazaki’s characters are fully realized. These are real people, even the spirits are of a type of character we recognize. While there is sometimes comedy, it is the comedy of real life, not just pratfalls and one liners. When there is achievement, it is rarely of the deeply heroic kind. Rather, it is the daily success of those who act noble in small ways. In this way, Miyazaki can connect to us in ways that blockbusters rarely do. There are scenes in Miyazaki that, despite the outlandish settings, we can see as reflections of our lives. Or our lives as we wish them to be.

"Look, I can do it, too!"

There are two reasons, however, that Spirited Away especially speaks to me personally. First of all is because we get to see Chihiro/Sen grow up. I have three children of varying ages—17, 14 and 9—and they are all in different stages of development. All of them are, in a sense, Chihiro. At the beginning she is whiney and grumpy and self-centered. The move is hard on her, her parents realize this, but it is necessary and they need her to stay strong through the difficulty. But it is when her parents become self-centered that she is forced to grow up and become stronger than she—or her parents—ever thought she could be.

Step by step we can see her shed her self-centeredness and fully take on the task of being responsible as the best of grown-ups are. This is in contrast to Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service who begins the movie responsible and hard working. Chihiro had to struggle through every step of the way. First she expresses the moral outrage many young people express when they see grown ups acting irresponsibly. Then she follows important instructions for how to live in the new world (something most fairy tale protagonists fail to do). Then she learns boldness and tenacity in the face of threat. Then she learns about hard work under someone else’s orders. Then she learns about loving people even when they seem to not be lovable at times. Then she learns about sacrifice for love. And finally, she learns that intelligence balanced with care and wisdom is what truly saves the day.

"Soaring high"

These are the life lessons I want all of my children to learn. They are the lessons I see them learning, bit by bit. The art of raising children is the art of seeing them become the Chihiro at the end of Spirited Away. Every once in a while, as a parent, you can think to yourself, “I taught them that”, but most of the time you can’t. These are lessons they have to learn themselves in the midst of the struggles they have to face in life. But at the end of the movie, I am so proud of Chihiro, the buttons on my vest would burst, if I actually wore a vest. She is my children. My son becoming a responsible adult. My oldest daughter being self-confident and self-reliant. My youngest daughter learning to speak with respect and act in mercy. This is all I hope for my children, in the strange worlds they will have to challenge.

My final reason is my strangest, and probably my most significant personal reason why I love this film. I am only going to tell you guys, and I hope you won’t tell anyone else. Not because I’d get in trouble, but because it’d be difficult to explain to my denomination and especially my congregation. I could do it, but it wouldn’t do any good, so why bother? Anyway, here it is: the metaphysics of Spirited Away is pretty close to how I see the world functioning.

"Christianizing Shintoism"

No, I don’t think that spirits have their own bath house and restaurants. I don’t think that if humans eat spirit-food that they turn into pigs. Nor do I think that young girls could be hired by someone to serve spirits. I do, however, believe that there is an alternative universe, that runs on its own physics, that runs parallel to ours. I do think that there are beings—and you could call them spirits—that live in that universe. I also think that most of them are morally neutral, neither good nor bad, just trying to live their lives by their own values. And I think that, at times, the two universes can converge, and allow communication between them.

This is not an unusual worldview, in the broader scheme of things. Historically, before the Christian era, almost everyone in the world believed that summary of mine. Certainly the ancient Jewish people did, as well as the first Jewish Christians. It is Plato and his disciple Augustine that began to turn the world away from this notion. They saw the spirit world as either the realm of ideas or as under the control of a single unified being. Under their philosophy, the spirit world is neat and orderly, with everything politely lined up perfectly, within the mental grasp of humanity.

The ancient pagan world, the ancient first temple Judaism and the first century Christian church saw the spirit world as full of chaos as it was of spirits. Each spirit had its own focus and desires and hopes. They had their own realms of responsibility—jobs, if you will—of rivers and vegetation and winds and planetary beings. Part of the spirit world is described as a sea, filled with dragons of chaos, battling against spirits who desired order and peace in both the spirit world and on earth.

Spirited Away, although a fantasy, is based on Japanese spiritism, a form of that ancient worldview. In a twisted sense, the metaphysical basis of that movie is somewhat the same as the writers of the Bible. This is how I see the world working. I do not deny scientific reality—our world does operate on the laws of physics and development of life as discovered by scientists. But looking at the physical realm is only a part of the story, like Chihiro’s parents seeing an abandoned amusement park.

Some are content with this world and understanding its laws. Others get to see the wonder and magic of the world below the surface, on a level not usually seen by eyes. I wish to be one of the later.

Any who are concerned about my right to be a pastor, or my sanity, I would be glad to give the phone number of my denomination, and you can rat me out. I understand. Sometimes I don’t think I’m completely sane, either. By the way, my wife already knows, so you don’t need to bother calling her.


  1. Wonderful article. Spirited Away is one of my favourite films of all time.

    Along with every other Miyazaki film :)

  2. Its funny! I was just thinking that Spirited Away is the best animated movie ever. Im glad to find people who share the same sentiments.

  3. I would say that I actually prefer Princess Mononoke by slight margin, but I understand why Spirited Away has a broader appeal as it is less violent and more "pure" than Princess Mononoke which is a film that is too tied to anime conventions (though, these are conventions that Miyazaki himself helped to define, specially with Nausicaa).

    Though, Spirited Away, Mononoke and Nausicaa are my top 3 films by Miyazaki which I would agree is the best director ever as his films have a certain purity in ways other films don't. Spirited Away has the most universal appeal of these three films and thus can be considered the greatest.

    I would add that Tarkovsky films also posses a special sense of purity, though their films are not as accessible and entertaining as Miyazaki's films. Spirited Away attains such massive levels of greatness as it combines the artistic sophistication of Tarkovsky with the entertainment value of Spielberg.