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Spirited Away: The Anti-Fairy Tale

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Intermix and Future Critics participant Nick Bugeja considers how Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away goes against the traditional fairy tale.

Hayao Miyazaki is as much an auteur as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, or Ingmar Bergman. His films are invariably polished, well-developed, and visually and intellectually stimulating pieces of cinema. Miyazaki was a founding owner of Studio Ghibli, which permitted him unfettered creative control when conceiving his films. This fact is evident in the way that his films are uniquely artistic, and the presence of recurring themes, visual motifs and personalities across his filmography.

Almost all of Miyazaki’s films have received overwhelming critical acclaim. In particular, though, Spirited Away is his towering cinematic achievement. The film follows 10-year-old Chihiro, as she embarks on a car trip with her parents. Upon discovering an abandoned amusement park, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs for stuffing their faces with food. Expectedly, Chihiro is disconcerted by this, and she takes it upon herself to free her parents of this unseemly burden.

Undoubtedly, Spirited Away can be understood within the realm of the fairy tale. It features a young, sympathetic protagonist, who is thrown into a fantastical world of intelligible animals, tyrannical matriarchs, and mysterious soul beings. On her journey, Chihiro is faced with significant adversity, and assisted by loyal, reliable allies in surmounting these obstacles.

From another angle, Spirited Away is better understood as a riff on the fairy tale. Although it operates within the fairy tale framework, it is forthright in subverting many well-established fairy tale conventions.

Spirited Away is not the only film to explore a different side of the fairy tale. The popular Hollywood film Shrek is also a manifestation of the anti-fairy tale. This is primarily asserted through the construction of its titular character, Shrek. He is not your typical hero. Unsightly and ill-mannered, Shrek is more laughable than heroic. Nonetheless, he manages to rescue Princess Fiona, and gain her infatuation. This is antithetical to how most fairy tales unfold. At the same time, Shrek is not entirely divisible from dominant fairy tale tropes, as it was produced by DreamWorks (a Hollywood institution), and reaffirms the need for romance to feature in fairy tale films.

Spirited Away, consistent with Miyazaki films, presents us with strong, independent female characters. Although Chihiro is only 10-years-old, she conducts herself with seriousness and industry to resolve her parent’s situation. Rather than rely on somebody older, or more physically imposing, Chihiro confronts Yubaba to express her disapprobation with the way that she is holding her parents’ captive. This scene is embellished by Miyazaki with an unshakeable sense of conviction, leaving us with no confusion as to Chihiro’s fortitudinous qualities.

It has always been a worrying trend in the fairy tale that female characters are often reduced to charming but inactive agents –  there only to be saved by a domineering, handsome male hero. Miyazaki obviously sees through the banality and untruthfulness of such representations, depicting Chihiro as a young girl who is ready for the challenges that she will face in her impending adulthood.

Additionally, Spirited Away is devoid of romantic interests. In quintessential fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty, romance between a man and woman is essential to the narrative and thematic concerns that are on display. Although it would be inappropriate for Miyazaki to give a 10-year-old love interests, he shows no signs of being engaged with this over-wrought trope. Instead, the foremost relationship in the film, between Chihiro and Haku, is one of profound friendship. At the beginning of the film, Haku guides Chihiro through this unbeknown world that she’s stumbled into. He has no agenda other than to help and assist her. Near the ending of the film, Chihiro admirably returns the favour, by taking Haku to Yubaba and pleading with her to save his life. It is a powerful display of love in friendship, and much more fulfilling than an obligatory showing of romance between two characters with little past history.

One thing that Spirited Away does well is portray the structural organisation of society within the fantastical world of the amusement park. When Chihiro first makes contact with the bath house, it is clear to us that it is a place of hierarchy. Contained within the hierarchy are Yubaba’s slaves, who labour in the bath house. We get a comprehensive idea of the way this arrangement functions, and it deservedly evokes our ire. Conversely, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the portrayal of the dwarfs as miners and Snow White as a homemaker is uncritical. There is no allusion to class or gender constructions, but rather these roles are merely conveyed in relation to the personal. Whereas, Spirited Away arguably makes reference to the organisation of labour and society within the world of the film and the world at large.

Rather than conclude with an indication of future unmitigated wonder, Spirited Away returns to an equilibrium. Chihiro is reunited with her parents, and they return to their home. We have no idea of what is in store for Chihiro, but we know that she will resume her life in the ordinary world. This is not exactly a riveting or cathartic conclusion according to the standards of the fairy tale. Nonetheless, Chihiro is soon to become an adult, and we are left assured that she will be up to the responsibilities that adulthood holds.

Nick Bugeja