Crossing cultural boundaries, story brings us together like few other things. This was evident in the first Miyasaki film I talked about here and it’s even more evident in the film that is considered his masterpiece – Spirited Away.
No matter what mood I am in, sad or happy, angry or stressed, this story has a way of setting all things aside and encouraging in my spirit a Godly peace and takes me to a calm and gentle place full of joy and love. Hey, if it’s just me, so be it.
Although on some levels it is most definitely grounded in Japanese culture and stories – the Gods and Spirits and the whole concept of the bathhouse are most definitely oriental in nature – the storytelling tropes and tools used would be familiar to our Celtic, Norse and Greek Storytelling forbears. This should not really surprise us as all these tools and archetypes of storytelling were first laid down for us by the women and men who sat around fires together long before Babel was built and before we were scattered to the four winds. And so, telling stories from other cultures and across cultures helps remind us that once we were one tribe and that we can be so again. Maybe if we told more stories we would be less tempted to turn to the sword to deal with our differences.
And so here we find such familiar things as crossing the river into the Otherworld – the world of Faerie, the world of the spirits; the curse on parents (and porcine curses seem to be one of the most popular after the more dangerous lupine ones); the requirement to work for freedom; the oath of the antagonist to never refuse work to those that ask; the “good” twin as a balance to the “evil” antagonist; the use of names to control and enslave others; the use of food to tie the protagonist to the Otherworld. And these are the things seen at a cursory first glance. We have the many grotesques encountered along the way that belie their appearance, allies gained, friendships formed and multiple curses broken. There is use of spinning as an aid to magic, the nonsensical logic of the world and as ever, the grande theme of Love (true love being friendship, not romantic love) as being both the greatest protection charm and the most efficient means to undo harm.
All these universal story elements are combined with the idea of the story as a coming of age for Chihiro. Add to this the use of No-Face as an almost tragic counterpoint to Chihiro’s journey – it responds to Chihiro’s kindness with a kind of gluttony, potentially because it is a creature so starved of kindness that it doesn’t know what to do when it is shown some. No-Face both over-consumes and is over-generous in an attempt to elicit further kindnesses and to repay the kindness shown to it. Chihiro saves No-Face at the cost of a gift that was given to her for yet another kindness. And she, along with Zaniba, realises that it’s the influence of the bath-house itself that is a negative one for No-Face, ironically so as the bath-house is supposed to be a place of refreshment and purification. It is a good thing for everyone that Zaniba invites No-Face to stay with her, within the sphere of her gentle and peaceful influence.
Importantly the story also has a lot of breathing room, moments of pause and reflection, a spaciousness that is too often missing in storytelling these days in the rush to just get on with it. But this rush betrays our alienation from true rest, as goes life, so do our stories and in both we must rediscover the beats where there is no plot, just sitting about on a train contemplating. This is one of the things that is done very well by the recent Marvel Netflicks series, essentially 13 hour movies which have moments of quiet, character reflection, silence and rest. The splitting of Mockingjay into two halves also allowed these moments, moments imortant to the story as rest is to our own lives, but would not have had room for if it had been but one film (think especially of the scene in the quarry of part one where Katniss sings – a beautiful moment and one that revealed her humanity more than any “actions”, one that would have been cut in a three hour singular film).
All in all, the message of the beauty and power of Friendship Love, the beauty and artistry of the animation itself and the genius and gentle music all combine to make a beautiful story that always makes an aching heart feel good about life and my fellow humans.
Allow yourself to be Spirited Away and you too may find a touch of Peace, Love, Grace and Joy.