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Friday, 30 May 2014

The spirit of Alice ?

This is a review of Spirited Away (2001)

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30 May

This is a review of Spirited Away (Sento Chihirono kamikakushi) (2001)

As one will see, the original title of Spirited Away (2001) is longer, for it contains both names by which the principal character is known (Chihiro and Sen) :

Many a writer has dwelt on names,from, Shakespeare having Edgar in King Lear, say, become Poor Tom (or Viola adopting the name Cesario, when she pretends to be a male youth) to the question of the name of the narrator of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman* to T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (as also brought to us by that Lloyd Webber)), or the significance of the names Ged and Sparrowhawk in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (and other kindred writings).

Earthsea is relevant, because Goyo Miyazaki, son of this film’s writer / director, made Tales from Earthsea (2006) for Studio Ghibli, and one cannot conceive that the Le Guin books were not part of Hayao Miyazaki’s universe, too : not that the idea of the real name for something, which, if lost – or, more relevantly lost to another – has a bad outcome, does not also come to us from the Kaballah, or the wood […] where things have no names from Chapter III of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (to give it its proper title, and whose author was not Lewis Carroll, but he called himself so…).

Spirited Away even has a significant character called No Name**, one of several to cause mayhem at a strange sort of spa. Yet we have to get there first, and Chihiro’s father seems to think himself first a rally driver, then an explorer, and it is his wife and he, not their daughter, who want to go down the symbolic tunnel (= the birth cannel, a horizontal equivalent of Alice’s falling into Wonderland) : although we believe that Chihiro’s parents are behaving like children, who could expect to be prey to a sorceress such as The Odyssey’s Circe, we do unkindly agree with the early description of Chihiro as a cry-baby.

And with babies, such as Bo, we have another seeming Carroll reference, for his Duchess (in Chapter VIof Wonderland) not only has a baby, but one that also turns into a pig. Yubaba, Bo’s mother, as well as being a sort of Thatcher figure***, resembles John Tenniel’s drawings for the Duchess (as engraved for the book) – Mari Natsuki provides the voice for her and her sister Zeniba, who appears to be a twin, if not in character and temperament, in a power-struggle with Yubaba.

A baby, whose pacification is the mother’s object, is also so rich in meaning from, amongst others, Freudian theory to Terry Gilliam’s animations and, of course, Eraserhead (1977). What is unavoidable here is that Bo is massive, and, when he returns after the trip with Chihiro to see Zeniba, Yubaba is surprised that he can talk, which, whatever all this means in the world of the film that Miyazaki has scripted, strongly hints at Bo having been infantilized by his mother :

One is reminded of Hugh Kenner****, being drawn into analysing the names of the characters in Beckettt’s play Endgame : although he finds a pattern in the fact that Hamm could be ‘hammer’, Clov -> French ‘clou’ = ‘nail’, etc., and we are clearly meant to congratulate Kenner for his ingenuity, he abruptly decides As so often, we are being teased by hints of system, not to be much pursued. How far, then, does one go, because oriental culture is, of course, at least as much to do with, say, dragons as the world of Earthsea, and Le Guin is therefore taking her lead from it in the origins and nature that she gives to these creatures ?

So probably it is only at enormous length, and weighing all the possible sources and influences, that one could attempt to enter into the creative place where Miyazaki drew up this world on the far side of the tunnel – maybe he actually saw, somewhere, a railway running through the water, and enlarged the conception. Yet he may also have had Carroll in mind again, this time Chapter III of Through The Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) (to give it its proper title) :

Here we have a Guard, asking for tickets (and the dislocation of scale that it brings about, in In a moment everybody was holding out a ticket: they were about the same size as the people, and quite seemed to fill the carriage.), and a very queer carriage-full of passengers altogether (‘There was a Beetle sitting next to the Goat’, etc.). Plus there is the language of criticism, for the dream-like inadequacy of Alice’s not having a ticket, mixed with puns, mishearings, and even a chorus of a great many voices. Chihiro is clearly in the mould of Alice (and her archetypes), for additionally she :

* As Alice does, with the Caucus-race (Wonderland, Chapter III), reverses roles with her parents – they have the childish impulse at the start to explore, which Chihiro dreads and so is urging caution, and Alice seems ever more serious than the Dodo, Duck or pontificating Mouse

* Is plucky, and, despite people mocking or chastising her (e.g. being called, according to the English sub-titles, a klutz two or three times, especially by Lin, although she wants to help), gets to the end of her journey – which, as in the case of both Alice books, is home***** (or, equally, Kansas in the case of The Wizard of Oz (1939), where Dorothy’s uncle, amongst others, has become transmuted into The Scarecrow in her dream, delirium, dislocation)

* Is given, therefore, the same hard time that Alice is, but shows her mettle and her other qualities – as well as finding a long-lost companion (lost in memory) in Haku

* Recognizes Haku when transformed, helps him in reciprocation of his help and in valuing him for who he is, and rights matters with Zeniba – Alice, too, is almost ever the peace-maker in the face of the irascible (The Duchess has been mentioned above, but there is equally The Red Queen), not to mention the homicidal Queen of Hearts

* Comes to the point where she relates to the logic of this other world so that she can grudgingly impress Yubaba and secure being able to leave it – in Alice’s case, it may just be trying to shake sense into The Red Queen / Dinah, but that is because Carroll’s world is a far more ostensibly and consistently dream-laden one (as Oz is, too, not least with those drowsying poppies)

Thus, Spirited Away is awash with possibility, and probably nineteenth-century parallel (Carroll’s Duchess has a frog doorman…), but it is far from being about mere story (or fantastic creatures) – or worth watching just for that. Seeing Sen negotiating the main building (for Chihiro is become Sen by now), when the principal emphasis is on ascent, one notices, even only out of the corner of one’s eye, a floral panel on the woodwork – or, as Sen, led by Haku, hurries through the gardens, one can go with the speed. Yet it will always be there, they will always be going where they are going, and one can actually luxuriate in what seem to be azaleas, lilies…

Elsewhere, in quiet moments, Miyazaki more obviously shows us a painter’s view of things – featherings, shading, effects so unlike the near-static depiction of the characters, however fantastical, gluttonous, or repulsively disgusting. Not just a Zen view, but also contrasting the muddy, slimy reality of this allegorical resort (money-laundering, corruption, and greed spring instantly to mind) with the other world and its values and reality. As commented on in reviewing The Wind Rises (2013), where these touches of colour are lighter and fewer, one can imagine an artist’s studio, where the artist reserves certain faces, details or tasks, but delegates the other work to assistants, who can be trusted to do it of a piece : can one not easily imagine Miyazaki, who doubtless did not carelessly call his enterprise Studio Ghibli, painstakingly paying attention to the features that he best wants portrayed ?


* Tristram being the wrong name, with all that follows from it, as well as Sterne adopting, at his friends’ urging, calling his property at Coxwold Shandy Hall after his work in progress.

** Which reminds one that Wilkie Collins gave that title to one of his novels, because names are powerful, and not having one can be devastating.

*** One can contemplate the points of similarity easily enough, but does the name Yubaba only contain the childish word for ‘baby’ in the English form ?

**** In A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckettt (Syracuse University Press, 1996, pp. 120–121).

***** Even if Alice gets back either by challenging the pack of cards to be any more than that, or shaking The Red Queen until she becomes Dinah…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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