Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Animal Within: Some Quick Notes on Spirited Away

I’m puzzled about Spirited Away. Consider the sequence where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs. They smell food, then they see it, and then they sit down and eat it, ravenously. They ‘pig out,’ as the idiom goes – I don’t know whether there’s a Japanese equivalent. As that food was not intended for them, it was intended for the spirits, it seems apt that, in punishment for this transgression, they be transformed into pigs. They acted like pigs, ergo, they are pigs.

When we consider the whole film, however, there’s little or no sense that Miyazaki is toying with the idea that they’re somehow pigs or that there is something problematic about their nature. This is quite different from Porco Rosso, where Marco/Porco is a pig man from beginning to end, and it is his nature that is under scrutiny throughout: What kind of creature is this? What does it mean to be human? Spirited Away has an entirely different feel. Why?

In the first place, of course, Marco/Porco is the protagonist in Porco Rosso. The film is about him; he’s constantly before us on the screen. Spirited Away is not about Chihiro’s parents. They loom large in Chihiro’s mind, but the film isn’t about them; it’s about her.

In the second place, her parents are unambiguously human at the beginning and at the end – as is she, throughout. The strange stuff happens in a different world, whereas there is only one world in Porco Rosso. The ‘pighood’ of Chihiro’s parents is as bound to that alternative world as it is to them. It’s what they are in that world, not what they are in the mundane world.

And that pighood is given two different uses in that alternative world. Upon entry, greediness and gluttony are emphasized – pigging out. But that is not developed at all. It is stated, and dropped. When we see the parents again they are just pigs. And they look pretty much like other pigs. That’s what’s emphasized, they look pretty much like other pigs. So how, when the test comes – as it does – will Chihiro distinguish them from the others? That’s a very different problem from surrendering to animal instincts. It’s her parents who surrendered to their instincts; it’s Chihiro who has to distinguish them from others.

Let’s go back to the transformation sequence. Two humans give reign to hunger and become pigs, fat ugly pigs. In consequence they, and their still-human daughter, are committed to some alternative world. What’s this alternative world like?

It’s a bathhouse, a bathhouse for the spirits. It’s a place for the care and comfort of the body. Two major sequences emphasize that. In one Chihiro and Lin have to bathe a River Spirit who looks like a large lumbering mass of feces and apparently smells like it as well. This may be a bathhouse for spirits, but these are very physical spirits and caring for them is hard physical work.

The other sequence concerns No Face, a creature that Chihiro admitted to the bathhouse through a side door. No Face turns out to be heroically ravenous. He eats copious amounts of food, but also three bathhouse attendants. In effect, he becomes a pair of arms shoveling food and people into his mouth, which in turn feeds his growing belly. Chihiro purges him using medicine she received from the River spirit.

While that’s not all that Chihiro does in the alternative world, it is a large part of it. It plays large on the screen and in the mind. By having Chihiro’s parents transformed into large grotesque pigs, Miyazaki “sets us up” for the world we’re about to encounter. Yes, it’s exuberantly colored and rich in exotic detail, but it is a place of the body.

In contrast, Chihiro’s exit from the world is quite different in character. Rather than being haphazard and unintended, as her entry was, it is deliberate and orderly. Haku made a deal with Yubaba on her behalf, and Chihiro insists on keeping her side of the deal. The test, as we’ve seen, is to recognize her parents. When she passes it, her contract with Yubabu is dissolved, her name is restored, and she and her parents can return to the mundane world.

Keeping a deal, even one someone else made on your behalf, is very different from giving-in to one’s animal needs. The transition into the alternative world was marked by an event that emphasizes the nature of that world, a world of the body and its appetites. The transition back to the mundane world must necessarily be of a different character, one that emphasizes its difference from the alternative world.

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