"I think we should let our children watch animation only once or twice a year," director Hiyao Miyazaki told an interviewer in 2001, the year "Spirited Away," one of the most wonderful films of the decade, was first released in Japan. "There are too many things around us to relieve our unsatisfied hearts and boredom. This is the fault of adults; it's adults who are in the wrong shape. Children are just mirrors, so no wonder they are in the wrong shape."
Chihiro, the heroine of "Spirited Away," is in the wrong shape. Grumpy and sour, 10-year-old Chihiro whines at her parents about their move to a new town; timid and apprehensive, she clings so that her mother, irritated, shakes her off. Trapped in the spirit world in which the film takes place, Chihiro is belittled by the staff of the bathhouse where she gets a job. "What a dope!" one character says. "You're the most pathetic little girl I've ever seen," another says, laughing, "a stinking, useless weakling."
It's a lot of abuse for a 10-year-old girl to take, but the wonder of "Spirited Away" is that Chihiro believably transforms from "a lazy spoiled crybaby" to a tough, resilient little girl whose determination suggests the strong woman she will one day become. It's easy to praise Miyazaki's movie for its visual delights — the radish spirits and river gods, the ancient bathhouse floating on the sea, the scenes of flight (as in most every Miyazaki film) so thrillingly realized — but it's also easy to forget how touching a portrait it is of a modern child learning to live within herself, learning to be the right shape. Chihiro faces her fears and overcomes them, and finds within herself a strength she'd previously been unaware she had. And she does it so subtly that only afterward do you realize how profound that transition has been.
Late in the film, Chihiro takes a ride on a train through the cities and neighborhoods of this spirit world, the cars gliding swiftly across the endless sea, Joe Hisaishi's lovely score a counterpoint as day turns to dusk outside. Shadowy riders disembark, and the train slips past another little girl, waiting patiently on a platform in the pale evening. Chihiro's going to return something her friend Haku stole, and to apologize on his behalf, but she's also headed out of childhood and into adolescence. It's not a trip to be embarked upon lightly, and that's what makes the sequence so moving, not only for children but also for adults. For I remember a time in my life when I yearned to be grown-up even as I reveled in childhood, never realizing what would be lost when I moved on. "The train used to run in both directions," Kamaji the boilerman warns Chihiro as he hands her the delicate paper tickets. "But these days, it's a one-way ride."
Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.