Spirited Away is a highly imaginative film in which we watch several characters plunged into a land of their own imagination. Like most Miyazake films, this one attracts adults as much as it does children. A far cry from something created in a Disney studio (though Disney did dub the film, poorly, and bring it to the U.S.), Spirited Away has enough thematic richness to make it a contender at film festivals and to withstand the most intellectual exegesis of film critics. In the following essay, I will attempt just such an analytical approach, to see just what Miyazaki is trying to tell us about imagination and reality.
At the beginning of Spirited Away, a girl named Chihiro enters the spirit world only because she is forced to follow along with the curiosity of her parents who insist on entering a creepy passageway. When her father first approaches the gateway that forms the entrance to this world, he remarks that it is made of plaster – and thus only a façade meant to look like an architectural construction from an earlierJapan. Already there seems to be some sort of a sham associated with this otherworldly world. As the three move further across this spatial boundary, the father remarks that the world they’ve walked into must be a theme park that went out of business when the economy faltered in the 1990’s. His statements position this world as something designed for another time – whether it be the late 80’s or far earlier. As the film progresses, a bathhouse appears, along with animist-like spirits, all reflective of some earlier Japan severed from the modern world by the rapid progress of economic modernization. Even the river spirit – clogged as he is with the pollution and debris of human activity – reflects a kind of harmful neglect in the relations between the human and the spirit worlds.
The boundaries between these two worlds are not instantaneously crossed. Nor are those crossings easily reversed. In fact, the first 10 minutes of the film moves in several gradations of plausibility and dislocation: from the car ride to a new home to a construction of plaster in the woods, then from an abandoned train station into an empty theme park. Finally, this theme park takes a strange sinister spin when the lights begin to go out, an unknown boy cautions Chihiro to leave and the parents turn into human swine. These changes introduce a new set of rules, outside the bounds of cause and effect that operate in the outside world. Chihiro must escape before the sun goes down or she will be stuck. Then, when she tries to batter the world out of her mind, pleading, “This can’t be! I’m dreaming! I’m dreaming! Wake up! […] Go away. Disappear. ” Strangely, she does begin to disappear; her hands and feet become faintly transparent. Then, the unknown boy has her eat a small bit of food to reverse this process. All of these strange rules – none of them wholly explained – require even greater leaps of the imagination to maintain any shred of plausibility. The viewer must either identify with Chihiro, calmly welcoming the ‘magical world’ in all its peculiarities – or must maintain a boundary of skepticism between the self and the screen, remaining in the ‘real world’ by rationalizing and labeling the sights and sounds of the film as those created by a studio of animators.
In the final portion of the film, Chihiro leaves the bathhouse, reunites with her parents and bids farewell to Haku, the boy she has saved because she has helped him discover his name. In their final conversation, she asks if they will reunite in the ‘real world.’ He promises that they will, suggesting that perhaps his existence there will be symbolic, perhaps as an actual river, as a memory of this imagined experience, or in some other journey into an imagined world. Once all of Chihiro’s trials are completed, she returns to unknowing parents who have not shared the same imaginary experiences. Her fright is parallel to that at the beginning of the movie, clinging to parents unaware of the world they are moving into. Strangest of all, bits of leaves and dust cling to the car when they return to it. Perhaps the director is here suggesting that they did pass into some other world for a length of time. Perhaps this time was only equal to the duration of the movie, or perhaps it lasted several days. Because we never follow them to their new home and the moving crew, we will never know exactly what happened within the diegesis of the film. If we take these details as symbolic of the viewer’s experience, though, Miyazake suggests that we have somehow entered the ‘image, imagined, imaginary’ – to use Arjun Appadurai’s phrase – and participated in a social practice of the imaginary.