Reviews of “Chihiro, from a Mysterious Town — The Goal of this Film” (1999) and related work

“Chihiro, from a Mysterious Town — The Goal of this Film” (1999Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

In Spirited Away, no one waves weapons about or has showdowns using superpowers, but it’s still an adventure story. And while an adventure story, a confrontation between good and evil is not the main theme either. This is supposed to be the story of a young girl who is thrown into another world, where good people and bad are all mixed up and coexisting. In this world, she undergoes rigorous training, learns about friendship and self-sacrifice, and using her own basic smarts, somehow not only survives but manages to return to our world. She struggles free from tight spots, evades dangers, and ultimately returns to her normal, ordinary life. Yet just as our ordinary world has not completely disappeared, she has returned, not by vanquishing evil in the other world, but as a result of having learned a new way to live.

A fine, succinct statement of intent for the film in production. Miyazaki refers to some specific Japanese folktales, but not to the preceding three years he spent theorizing about the Japanese education system and its effect on psychological health.

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

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“Notes for the Spirited Away Image Album” (2000Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

A set of poems for inspiration in composing the score. The one called “Procession of the Gods” is the most interesting in relation to how the movie turned out, clarifying that the gods are overworked and on the wane — because of electricity.

References here: “‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Be All Right’: What I’d Like to Convey to Children” (2001), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

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Spirited Away (2001Moving picture, 125 minutes)

Suzuki Toshio (producer), Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

A ten-year-old strays into the land of Japan’s gods, where humans are unwanted guests or worse.

Modern-day fantasy with heavy folktale influences, including lots of metamorphosis. Like Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), the narrative is rich but falls into a trap of frivolity and self-contradiction eroding basic believability, despite the first-class execution and the laudable intentions outlined in the 1999 production memo. Like Kiki, it is saved by the great beauty of the execution and the solid grounding in psychology, both realistic and of the Freudian-Jungian fantasy type.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, “Mei and the Kitten Bus” (2002), “It’s a Tough Era, But It May Be the Most Interesting of All: A Conversation with Tetsuya Chikushi” (2002), The Cat Returns (2002), Thank You, Mr. Lasseter (2003), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Tales from Earthsea (2006), Over the Garden Wall (2014), Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017), A Whisker Away (2020).

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‣‣ “Room to Be Free: Speaking About Spirited Away at the Press Conference Held Upon Completion of the Film” (2001Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

The most interesting answer in this Q&A is on Kaonashi, “No-Face” in English. To me, his brief role as a counterfeiter in the movie recalls the man from Echigo in The Life of Oharu (1952). I had to watch Spirited Away two whole times before I understood that Kaonashi sounds weird because it talks with the voice of what it eats, which is just me being dumb, but Miyazaki actually says here that the character wasn’t planned, and giving him a presence was difficult. He started as just one of the weird background figures on the bridge, with no further use intended, and was then “drafted into being a stalker” as the sprawling project got into shape. The soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro (1988), similarly, were used because the creators ran out of ideas.

Miyazaki admits he is “just a bundle of contradictions” but asserts that “fantasy is necessary”, including its use in the interpretation of his films. He says, for example, that the levistone in Castle in the Sky (1986) is “just magic”, which is not entirely correct. The stone is not an ideal application of Clarke’s third law, but it functions more like uranium than Frazerian magic, despite its connection to the folktale dimension of the 1986 film. Miyazaki throwing that film under the bus here reads like a common defence by fabulist writers, saying that illogical plot points must be accepted uncritically for extradiegetic reasons: “he needed to turn into a toad”, he says of a character not in Spirited Away turning into a toad. This is disappointing.

The director also talks about the film in relation to the postwar bowdlerization of fairy tales. He interprets modern retellings of the story of Momotarō as “mixed up with Japan’s invasions of countries overseas during the war”. He does this without mentioning “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” (1943), but even so, this rare reference to Japanese aggression is interesting, especially because it is accompanied both by a description of Ghibli outsourcing animation to a Korean studio and Miyazaki—a known fiddler—concluding that “People should really stop fiddling with the old fairy tales.” Just a bundle of contradictions, indeed.

References here: “‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Be All Right’: What I’d Like to Convey to Children” (2001), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

document Japanese production non-fiction text

‣‣ “‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Be All Right’: What I’d Like to Convey to Children” (2001Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

An interview, made for the Roman Album, ranging across various aspects of the film’s production. There is more editorial commentary than previous such interviews with Miyazaki.

As in “Room to Be Free” (2001), Miyazaki touches honestly on the instrumental nature of the writing, here saying that Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs because “they were getting in the way of Chihiro becoming the heroine”. He denies trying to make an allegorical point of it, but still says that the parents represent “brand-name pigs, and rare-item snob pigs” from the economic bubble years. That’s a curious choice of words, considering his own tendencies in e.g. “My Car” (1988).

The interviewer brings up the “Procession of the Gods” from the “Notes for the Spirited Away Image Album” (2000) and Miyazaki explains that the parallel spirit world the family enters is a metaphor for Japan, and particularly its recent past, lost to modern consciousness, where children worked. The gods are the Japanese people, “like company employees who go on retreats together”.

The interviewer expresses surprise that the radish god in the film—the one with daikon tusks and a red soup-bowl hat—represents the Shintō deity Oshira. Miyazaki does not acknowledge whether or not that is a pun (Oshira meaning “the white one”), but talks about avoiding all traditional designs for the gods except the masks at Kasuga Taisha. He also talks about the design for Zeniba being based on Yubaba, explaining this both as acquiscence to animation directior Andō Masashi begging that no more designs be added, and as a metaphor where the two women are the same person. He laments the simplification of the project, from an original plan that would have taken up more than three hours.

The director talks briefly about the problem of worldview and human ecology that was more prominent in discussions of Princess Mononoke (1997), saying that the Japanese want to create a place where nature is not controlled, even if “something comes into this ecosystem and it changes as a result”. This is conceptually similar, he says, to Celtic philosophy, but fundamentally different from the modern German approach; it’s not a good schema, and it’s not actually well expressed, but somehow Miyazaki’s extemporaneous phrasing of it is still impressive. He also touches on the relationship between his fantasy and the subconscious (“our deep psyches”), saying that he works with an open lid on his brain. Spirited Away is a better example of that technique than all of his other films.

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

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