For all the (completely deserved) praise that's been lavished upon our Pixar since the studio's inception, I can't help but prefer the output of Japan's Studio Ghibli, which has produced, for my money, some of the most seminal releases in Japanese cinema outside of the king of Japanese production companies, Toho (which usually distributes Ghibili's films). Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the studio, has been scripting and directing -- and drawing most of the animations of his films himself, even into his sixties -- fantastic and thought-provoking children's entertainment for over 40 years.
Miyazaki's films tend to fall into one of two categories: largely plotless adventures of youths roaming a world that's so magical one doesn't need a destination (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo) and more action-packed, often politically-charged fare (Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke). Spirited Away, his 2002 opus, seamless fuses the two, and thus it is his finest work to date. Miyazaki does not force his themes with the same transparency as his American counterparts -- look, I love Wall•E as much as the next guy, but it would have been an outright masterpiece had the third act not become such a wretchedly simplistic, even for kids, environmental fable -- but even by his standards, Spirited Away is reserved and intelligent.
Its protagonist, as is often the case in the director's work, is a young girl: Chihiro, a petulant brat who vociferously objects to moving to a new town as her preoccupied parents simply drive on making the clichéd promises of "You'll make new friends" that parents will say to shut their children up to free up time for their own stressing. Her father, being a male, decides that he's a master cartographer, and so the family soon finds themselves lost, just outside a strange and barren locale the father believes to be an abandoned theme park (because when you've dug a hole, just keep digging). Under Chihiro's constant protests, the parents walk around the area, until they come to an unoccupied stall mysteriously containing freshly prepared, succulent food. The hungry adults begin to feast without the supervision or approval of any stall vendor, reassuring their daughter (suddenly the sensible one for refusing to eat without the owner present) that they've got enough credit cards and cash to take care of any tab. Chihiro explores the area, perhaps simply to find new ears on which to cast her endless complaints; she finds only a young boy, Haku, who warns her to leave immediately. She returns to her parents, only to find that they've transformed into pigs.
This is the setup to the film, the dividing line between the normal world and the magical realm that presents itself in this deserted area after dark, but it also brilliantly establishes a key theme without present it on the nose: Chihiro's father wasn't too far off the mark when he called the strange area an amusement park, as that's what it greatly resembles when lanterns flare over every shop like the sort of gaudy lighting displays that line game booths and overpriced food stalls. Whatever this place is, however magical and ancient it may be, it's as governed by avarice and shiny, tacky capitalism as the modern world. The image of the credit card-wielding parents turned to pigs through their gluttony perhaps isn't the most subtle metaphor, but it's not dumbed down for children, either.
To survive in this land, Chihiro must find a job, and she gets work at the local bathhouse, the castle of this greedy world. Its customers and employees -- typically humanoid with amphibian characteristics -- languish in herbal steams, trading gold that never seems to have any real application anywhere in this surreal world other than to cause people to lust for it. The bathhouse's owner, Yubaba, is a formidable witch whose power has quite literally gone to her head, as it dwarfs the rest of her. She loves gold so dearly that she will accept any customer with sufficient funds, even a "stink spirit," a rolling ball of slime and muck later revealed -- in keeping with Miyazaki's environmental concerns -- to be a beautiful river spirit covered in the grime of human pollution.
Above its commentary on greed and gluttony, however, Spirited Away concerns the generation gap, specifically Japan's but with enough general ties to make its message easily discernible to American audiences. Chihiro is the soft and whiny child of vain yuppies, a generational shift forward from the old/young conflicts found in Ozu's work, the Westernized children of traditional Japanese parents now the ones raising broods of disinterested weaklings. Miyazaki underscores the need for these children to have some challenges in their lives with his use of old myths, from a time when children could not only face peril in bedtime stories but death: the parents' transfiguration into pigs recalls Circe's spell from The Odyssey; the apparent thorn in the side of the "stink spirit," a fearsome creature rendered helpless and forced to rely on an insignificant creature for help; and Yubaba's seizure of Chihiro's name plays into the importance of names in old folklore, back when they meant something -- who can forget that exchange between Butch and cab driver Esmeralda in Pulp Fiction highlighting the loss of the majesty of titles: "I'm an American, honey. Our names don't mean shit." Gene Siskel used to complain regularly about films that placed children in peril for cheap audience manipulation but, while I understand what he was saying and agree, a conflated variation of that belief has all but robbed contemporary family fare of any dramatic tension. Miyazaki actually places this child in danger, not for effect but to teach her a lesson; Chihiro is juxtaposed with Yubaba's child, also the spoiled offspring of a money-crazed parent whose panicked maternal care has left the big baby terrified of the world around him. When Chihiro tells him, "Staying in this room will make you sick," the moment does not feel hypocritical because we've seen her slowly mature as a character, caring for Haku and performing her work with admirable dedication.
The two big threads of the film, Chihiro's maturation and the theme of greed, converge in the character of No-Face. A ghostly black wraith with a white mask (clearly derived from the Japanese stage form of Noh, giving the character's name a nice punny tinge), No-Face transforms in appearance and demeanor based on the emotions of those with whom it interacts. He offers bathhouse tokens and gold to Chihiro, who thanks it politely but does not particularly want the gifts, but when the other employees catch wind of a creature that can summon gold from thin air the bathhouse erupts in a frenzy, the unrestrained avarice of the employees bloating No-Face until it consumes everything in sight, including some of the workers. Chihiro returns to find the genteel creature now a gargantuan, four-legged mound of flesh and teeth, and she gives him a medicine ball she received from the river spirit. The act of giving this strange creature the medicine to help it and the strangers being devoured by it instead of using it on her transformed parents in the hopes of curing them and escaping reveals just how much this girl has grown in less than two hours.
Visually, Spirited Away stands as Miyazaki's most breathtaking achievement. Combining the light surreality of his gentler fare with the mythical beauty of Mononoke, Spirited Away is as gorgeous and inventive as it is merrily absurd: a boiler operator who looks oddly like Dr. Robotnik from the Sonic the Hedgehog games but with six arms enchants pieces of soot to carry coal into a furnace. Yubaba keeps a trio of bouncing green heads as pets, and she can turn into a giant bird. I admire Pixar's exploration of the area around the Uncanny Valley, searching for the precise moment where lifelike animation moves from endearing to creepy; yet part of the joy of this year's Up was its moments of pure silliness with human characters, a trait normally visible in films that feature non-human protagonists. Nothing in that film, though, can measure up to the brilliantly impossible animation on display here. Spirited Away boasts perhaps the most vivid color palette in Miyazaki's work, and where his fantasy realms tend to be frightening or inviting based on each film's subject matter, the twisted world of the "abandoned amusement park" is often both.
It may sound cruel to say that Spirited Away is about knocking a kid down a few pegs, as if I -- someone certainly not old enough to start tutting over the "young'uns" -- bought into some of the more disturbing arguments that society somehow lost something when we generally stopped beating children for discipline. Yet entitlement is common among today's generation, precisely because they learned it from their parents: by the film's end, Chihiro has learned to set aside her desires, which as far as we call tell gives her a leg up on her parents. That's what makes Miyazaki a great filmmaker and not some grumpy old man raging against "kids today": by placing young heroes and heroines in danger, he humbles them even as he shapes them into noble beings. As magical as anything Disney ever created and without the seedy corporate backroom dealings to undermine it, Spirited Away is one of the great works of animation, one that understands that we look to cartoons to see the impossible and accept it as plausible.