Always With Me: On Spirited Away and Being Torn In Two
To live is to exist in state of constantly being torn in two. This is true on a strictly biological level—cells reproduce through mitosis—but it's true on a less literal level as well. Childhood and adulthood are thought of as distinct, but there's no easy way of actually separating the two in practice. We're taught gender as assigned and binary, and are expected to adhere to the according stereotypes, no matter how we might feel about them. What's expected of us is usually different (to some degree) from what we want or what we're capable of. We are walking contradictions, and it's not necessarily a resolution one way or the other that we come to as we grow, but clarity as to how those natures mesh, and an acceptance of the in-between. There's no film that illustrates this middle ground as well—and as beautifully—as Spirited Away.
I'll admit to an intense personal attachment to the film. I first saw Spirited Away at the age of nine. It was almost two years after I had moved from New York to Illinois, as my attachment to the East Coast was slowly edged out by what would be a total of ten years in the Midwest. It was also just as I was beginning to understand that the hyphen in "Korean-American" was a visual representation of poles in my own identity. Chihiro, the young girl at the center of Spirited Away, embarks upon her adventure just as her family is moving, and upon becoming a part of the spirit world, juggles identities as well. She even gives up her name (though not by choice), going by "Sen" for the duration of her time with the spirits. To that end, the original Japanese title of the movie makes this split more explicit, addressing her as if as two different people—it's called Sen and Chihiro's Spiriting Away.
The spirits that she meets present similar dichotomies: the men who work at the bathhouse all seem to be halfway between human and frog; the sootballs that help stoke the boilers eat sugar stars that are their aesthetic opposites; No-Face goes from being a meek shadow to a monstrous glutton and back again; even in the bathhouse itself, the Japanese architecture and decor give way to distinctly European influences in Yubaba's suite. Then there's Haku, who spends his time alternately as a boy and as a dragon, who can't free himself of Yubaba's grasp because he's forgotten his true name, his true self. As such, he understands better than anyone else that there are two sides to Chihiro; midway through the movie, he returns her old clothes to her, telling her that they're for when she goes home. He also returns a farewell card she'd been given by her friends when she moved, the only memento Sen has of the name Chihiro.
Unfortunately, such tenderness is offset by harshness, as well. Spirited Away doesn’t shy away from violence, which is stark in a way that’s usual for any film that’s arguably geared towards children. When Chihiro’s parents first transform into pigs, a shopkeeper swats at her father with a series of sharp, upsetting cracks until he topples over. When the witch Zeniba attacks Haku in order to retrieve something he's stolen from her, the paper dolls she sends after him cut him until he’s bloody. As he flees through the narrow tunnels of the bathhouse, his scales tear off against the walls. But it's that same witch who provides one of the film's sweetest moments. When Chihiro comes to her to apologize and to ask to restore Haku to health, she agrees, and before Chihiro returns to the bathhouse, gifts her with a shimmering purple band with which to tie her hair. "It'll protect you," Zeniba tells her. "I made it from the thread [your friends] spun." Like the namecard that Haku returns to her, it's a memento of love, and it's the only thing that Chihiro carries back with her when she leaves the spirit world.
Joe Hisaishi's score performs the same kind of double act. “One Summer’s Day” opens the film, and is centered on a simple piano melody and a string accompaniment. As the film dives deeper into the world of the supernatural, the orchestrations change, too. They become more fleshed out, featuring more varied instruments and more instruments in general, not to mention busier arrangements. But the piano persists, just as Chihiro does. For instance, when Chihiro first meets Kamaji, the spirit in charge of the boiler room, the music that accompanies the scene is predominantly brass, clarinet, and flute, but as Chihiro becomes dynamic in the scene, the melody gives way to climbing and descending piano scales.
The film is careful in its use of silence as well. When a stink spirit—a huge mass of brown sludge and trash—arrives at the bathhouse, it's to a persistent whine of strings and pop of brass. It's a noise that only ceases when the stink spirit's true nature is revealed: it's a river god. Once all of the refuse is cleared from the water, the movie goes absolutely silent. In place of filth, there's crystal-clear water and a fine mist, and when there's finally sound again, it's in the trickle of water and the river god's booming laugh. It bursts forth from the water, which is rendered—in a stark visual change—by computer animation rather than in traditional hand-drawn animation.
The animation in Spirited Away is gorgeous. It's a beautiful, polished film, a clear step up from earlier works, in which the painted backgrounds and the animated frames were subtly distinguishable by the slight shadow cast by the animation. The divide in Spirited Away isn’t between hand-drawn animation and computer animation, instead, just as the dual natures of the characters and of the music are inseparable, the different styles of animation only serve to immerse us in the world of the movie. There's the river god, and then are the flower fields that Haku leads Chihiro through to see her parents, unending whorls of color that present a lovely contrast to how bleak her situation seems to be, and there's the train from the bathhouse to Swamp Bottom and the shadows who occupy the space between, shapes of people who don't belong in one place or another.
But nobody truly belongs in exactly one place. There are countless different versions of ourselves, some parts of which we cast off, and some which we keep, a point that Spirited Away makes in every facet of its being. It's those small battles and reconciliations that make us who we are. As Zeniba tells Chihiro, "Everything that happens stays inside you, even if you can't remember it."