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Ann D.

Spirited Away

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Ann D.   

I couldn't find a thread specifically for this film. As usual with me, please ahem if there is one.

I just saw this film tonight. I've been interested in it for sometime but never really put it at the top of my list of "must see's". This film is fantastic. I haven't been so drawn into a feature in a long while. (No pun intended.) This pulled me in the way I hoped The Chronicles of Narnia would, but didn't. I actually quit playing on my computer to give this movie my full attention.

I can't figure out what tugged at me more, the visual look of the film or the main character, Chichiro (I think is the name). She is someone who is constantly putting others before herself and transforms that entire world by doing so.

The sootballs are so cute! I want one!

It got a bit schmoopy in some parts, especially the interaction between Haku and Chichiro. Their relationship started out lovely, but then it became too saccharine for my liking. But that's probably the only thing that marred it for me.

The music was wonderfully creepy in the beginning.

I'd say more but I'm still sitting here spellbound, long after it's over. I know there are some Spirited Away fans here. I just wanted to add my voice.

Edited by Ann D.

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Neb   

You took the words right out of my mouth. The relationship between Haku and Chihiro seems a little rushed and forced at the end, but it's not that big of a deal considering how wonderful the film is overall. I love wondering what the family is going to find when they actually reach their "new" house. It's one of the few movies with a "dangling" end that I don't find irritating. Wonderful stuff.

Neb

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We had a thread on this film three message boards that got de-railed into a discussion of Fantasia 2000 and trivialized treatments of Noah's Ark.

I'm pretty sure we had another thread where SDG explained why the effect of pagan stories on impressionable children's minds was such a concern to him, though I can't find it at the moment. (The various word combinations I've tried in Google aren't producing it, and my archives are currently "in the shop" with the rest of my laptop.)

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Andrew   

Glad you've had a chance to view this, Ann. 'Spirited Away' is one of my all-time favorite films, the one that first drew me into the amazing world of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli - if you haven't yet, I recommend that at some point, you see 'My Neighbor Totoro,' 'Castle in the Sky,' Kiki's Delivery Service,' 'Grave of the Fireflies,' 'Howl's Moving Castle,' and 'Pom Poko.' None of them reach the level of greatness that 'Spirited Away' achieves, but they are all beautiful and captivating in their own ways.

There are simply so many jaw-dropping or touching moments to 'Spirited Away,' that I'm not sure where to begin:

- the initial horror of the transformation of Chihiro's parents

- the splendid melding of music to image - the first site of the spirit ferry's arrival comes to mind here

- Chihiro's plausible childlikeness, as in her stance as she runs frighteningly fast down the steps, arms crooked awkwardly

- the imagination that went into the making of such funky creatures as the Radish Spirit and No-Face

- the subtle environmental message, put forth in No-Face's purging scene and in the identity of Haku

The scene where the train travels across the water is in a class by itself, in my mind - there is something deeply stirring in those images, that moves me in the same way that seeing a Monet 'Water Lily' painting in person moves me.

And yes, 'schmoopy' is a great word... :)

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Andrew   

That's a very good review, Jeffrey - I think it may actually have been your praise of Miyazaki that got me started on his oeuvre.

I'm in agreement with your take on Eastern spirituality as portrayed in Studio Ghibli films. The way I see it, these films provide an introduction to another culture and religious worldview, and any attempt to shield kids from the fact that there is more than one worldview out there (and that this worldview can sometimes be presented in a lovely manner) seems a rather deceitful venture. I'm also left longing for a time when Christian film-makers can present a pro-environment message in such a fun, beautiful, and persuasive manner as is found in such movies as 'Spirited Away' and 'Pom Poko.'

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SDG   

While I've never been an advocate of "shielding" one's kids from the existence of other worldviews -- and in fact am a big believer in being as frank as possible with children about just about every subject, including other worldviews -- I can't see why a difference of opinion on the wisdom of different pedagogical approaches in this regard would elicit a word like "deceitful."

Parents rightly shield their children at different ages from all sorts of things that they feel could be harmful in one way or another. Different parents have different sensibilities about different subjects -- and of course different children may have different sensitivities.

For example, all parents have to decide what to tell their children when about danger from strangers. Some parents feel that the most important thing is to keep their children safe by making sure that they are aware of the dangers and emphasizing never to trust strangers; others are more circumspect for fear of traumatizing their children and harming healthy social and personal development. (Obviously, where you live and to what extent your children are surveilled could affect the calculations here.)

Regarding entertainment choices, some parents feel that fast-paced action is all good clean fun but sexual innuendo is inappropriate; others feel that innuendo basically goes over their kids' heads but violence is desensitizing. Some parents oppose both; others oppose neither. There is liberty here for judgment and discernment.

I suspect that most parents probably underestimate what their kids are actually capable of dealing with. In other words, kids are more resilient than we generally give them credit for. So this is an argument for trusting our children more and daring to be more frank and open with them than parents often are.

OTOH, I also suspect that most parents underestimate the impact that the stories their children imbibe affect how they understand the world and organize their thinking. Especially parents who don't make the above mistake of underestimating their children's resilience are prone to making the opposite mistake of overestimating their chidren's critical faculties, of thinking that their children are more rational and more capable of distancing themselves from what they're watching and saying to themselves "This is what somebody else believes, but not what I/we believe."

A key factor here, of course, is patterns and repetition. For example, children raised on a diet of, say, Disney renaissance cartoons may absorb certain ideas about parent-child relations that (it's not too much to think, IMHO) may affect their own responses to their parents, especially, say, in early adolescence.

Another factor is degrees of moral ambiguity. There is an age at which a child's understanding of good and bad is such that if a thing is bad, then only bad people do it. Thus, for example, if we must offer worship only to God, then praying to trees, for example, is something that only bad people do. And I don't think we do our children any favors at this age by trying to force them to grasp nuances of moral theology that they aren't ready for. Better to let them grasp right and wrong in the simplest of black and white terms for now, and help them grow in their understanding as they mature and are ready to tackle more challenging concepts.

My family lives in a fairly urban environment with a rather high Muslim population; women in birkas are a common sight at the playground and elsewhere. We're currently being visited every few weeks or so by some very nice Jehovah's Witnesses, and I invite my kids to join those discussions. And, of course, since my wife and I are both converts to Catholicism, all our relatives are something else, mostly Protestant or nothing.

I do my best to keep my own children as knowledgeable as possible about these and other worldviews. In principle, I wouldn't mind making prudent use of films from other cultures in such an endeavor. With respect to Studio Ghibli films specifically, I don't think I could say in an across-the-board way that they portray Eastern spirituality in a way that provides an appropriate introduction to such spirituality for children -- in part because not all Ghibli films particularly engage Eastern spirituality at all, and in part because not all that do engage Eastern spirituality are equally appropriate as introductions for children.

Before discussing Spirited Away, I'd like to consider the example of My Neighbor Totoro, a wondrous, beautifully simple film in which, among other things, we see a pleasant, amiable father in a perfectly matter-of-fact, contemporary setting leading his children in prayer to a large Camphor laurel tree, or to the spirit of that tree, the titular "Totoro," whom the father describes as the "king of the forest." Later, other prayers are offered to the tree/spirit by the girls.

I recently watched My Neighbor Totoro with our three younger children (I had seen it before; they hadn't). As an introduction to another culture and worldview, Totoro seems to me a reasonable point of departure for a child capable of understanding that some people believe in praying to trees, but we believe it is right to pray only to God (and the saints), and that the girls' father is a good man even though he believes in praying to trees.

But not all children are ready for that. As I mentioned above, there's an age at which a father who teaches his children to pray to trees is a bad man teaching his children to be bad like he is. Conversely, if the girls' father is a nice man -- and clearly he is -- then praying to trees can't really be so bad after all.

Of my three younger kids, David, 7 1/2, was the only one with whom I felt it necessary to discuss the issue of the film's animism. David is a remarkably shrewd and critical little guy (big guy actually), and when I mentioned that it was because of these elements that Totoro hasn't been part of our regular playlist along with Kiki (and, much less commonly, Castle in the Sky, which is equally unobjectionable and much more epic and visionary in plot and scope, but also far less engaging and appealing on a character level), David shrugged, "Well, I don't believe that, and no movie is going to make me." By this point David understands and accepts that people can have partial or mistaken ideas about right and wrong and still be good people, and I don't see him watching the film as a problem.

Anna, at 2 1/2, was mesmerized to an unusual degree. Since then, she's requested Totoro more than once (she says it with great precision, and is just fascinated by the film). I have no objection to letting her watch it, of course; she's too young to absorb the problematic bits. I would not have this confidence with Spirited Away; what is problematic about that film (more below) is much more prominent and integral to the images and mood, which Anna is astoundingly insightful at picking up on, and I wouldn't want her watching that film again and again.

The wild card is James, who's nearly five. In my book, that makes him old enough to absorb the image of praying to a tree, but not old enough to have the clarity and nuance that David does. It seems to me that he would either see the girls' father as a bad man or else think of praying to trees as something that isn't so bad, or that God doesn't want us to do but is okay for other people, or something like that. Thus, of the three of them, he's the one I would probably not want watching the film on a regular basis. As it happened, though, he wasn't as into it as Anna or David, and was distractedly off in his own world, so the issue didn't come up.

Spirited Away, for me, is a different kettle of fish. On the one hand, it is certainly a lovely film, and a masterful, haunting, awe-inspiring one. Having now seen a number of Miyazaki's films a number of times, I think Spirited Away is his most powerful film, though not the one I most enjoy.

OTOH, I also find in Spirited Away something chilly and disturbing, untouched by any rumor of grace or Christian humanism. This chilliness is also evident, to me at least, in a number of other Miyazaki films (two notable exceptions being My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service).

The film is pro-environmental, yes, though to give a preponderance of weight to this theme would be, I think, a reductionistic/rationalistic misreading of the film (not unlike the overemphasis on environmental themes in LOTR offered by some cast members during ROTK junket interviews [e.g., Billy Boyd and Dominic Monoghan (i.e., Merry and Pippin [or Flippy and Trippy if you're B. Nicolosi])]).

The environmental themes relate to Haku and the polluted river-god client, but much of the film's subject matter, including Yubaba, No-Face, the need for Chihiro to be employed, etc., seems to be coming from other places entirely.

Chihiro is essentially led astray and then abandoned by her brutish, insensitive parents, and left to fend for herself in a terrifying world of shifting, incomprehensible realities, thrown in among beings who seem at times benign and helpful, at times monstrous and hostile, sometimes with no particular explanation.

Some critics have read Chihiro's employment at bath house as an allegory of abduction and child prostitution. Whether or not you want to go there (and I for one don't find this reading helpful, though I see where it comes from), I think Chihiro's experiences are about as disturbing and incomprehensible as you could wish for in such an allegory.

This is a world in which I don't want my children immersed, certainly not again and again, before a certain point in their development of critical and emotional resources. Not just because of the animist elements like radish gods and river gods -- I can deal with that, up to a point. I have no problem with the idea of introducing one's children to other cultures and worldviews through images and stories, in principle (more about that in a moment).

But I feel -- on a level I can't completely articulate, and this is at least partially off the top of my head -- that the moral universe of this film is significantly at odds with the moral universe I want shaping my children's inner worlds. And that is what I see as the role of stories in early childhood: they help shape a child's inner world, imaginatively and morally.

Perhaps it is partly that I want -- and this is definitely off the top of my head, so I may have to revise or withdraw this in whole or in part -- mythic or fairy-tale stories for children that more clearly delineate categories of good and evil, of permissible and obligatory and forbidden. Perhaps it's the overwhelming ambiguity and confusion and absence of discernible moral order that bothers me about the film (which, again, is a film that I greatly appreciate).

At any rate, somewhere or other every parent has to draw a line between what is basically wholesome for their child and what isn't. This film, for me, is on the far side of the line for my children at this point.

Finally, I admit that my perceptions in this regard, like those of every parent, could be significantly colored by the actual children I have, and by the fact that our eldest, Sarah, has always had highly elevated sensitivities in a number of respects, including with respect to different worldviews. (She happened not to be watching Totoro with us, but if she had, while she would certainly have understood the moral theology involved in a good man praying to a tree, she would have been quite vexed by the scene, and it would have impaired her enjoyment of the film.)

Of course the absence of visionary Christian filmmakers (please understand "Christian" and "filmmaker" as joint predicates, not a compound term) doing great things in animation and in every other genre of film is a shame and a scandal. No argument there.

Edited by SDG

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Tangent, re: Christian filmmakers and animation

With Hoodwinked!, the digital-animation feature from the Weinsteins opening this week, we have the first feature from writer/director Cory Edwards, who is a Christian.

If the reports of Andrew Stanton's Christian faith are true, then Edwards is not the first Christian filmmaker to make a significant contribution to the genre. But Hoodwinked! is not Pixar... it's more of an independent feature that the Weinsteins through their considerable weight behind. (It's got an all-star cast, including Anne Hathaway, Patrick Warburton, Andy Dick, David Ogden Stiers, and more) So I believe Edwards deserves the lion's share of the credit for it. I'll be interviewing him tomorrow morning, so I'll learn a lot more then, hopefully.

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SDG,

How would you compare Spirited Away with Alice and Wonderland? Would you have the same problems reading Alice to your young kids as watching Spirited Away? I ask because they seem like very similar works; this statement you make, "left to fend for herself in a terrifying world of shifting, incomprehensible realities, thrown in among beings who seem at times benign and helpful, at times monstrous and hostile, sometimes with no particular explanation," could just as easily describe Wonderland as the Spirit World. This descriptor too: "the overwhelming ambiguity and confusion and absence of discernible moral order that bothers me about the film" seems applicable to Wonderland.

Or does the medium of print, rather than film make the difference (if there is one)?

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Andrew   

SDG (and others): Perhaps my prior comment was worded too strongly - the thoughtfulness of your approach is admirable, and is not at all what I had in mind when I made my comment (though I can understand how you might've made that assumption, since my comment came a few posts after PTC had alluded to your less-than-favorable stance on 'Spirited Away'). However, I've known parents who do shield their children from any presentation of alternate (i.e., non-Christian) worldviews that does not denigrate or even ridicule these viewpoints. I suspect when these kids emerge Gollumlike from their ideological cave sometime in late adolescence, they're in for a rude shock, that has high potential to steer them away from the faith.

Anyway, back to the film itself:

- As far as the suitability of this particular Ghibli film for kids, perhaps this film does stir up a kind of primal foreboding that doesn't emerge from many of the other Ghibli's. Several months ago, I started to watch 'Spirited Away' with my kids, and they were clearly discomfited by Chihoro's abandonment and the first appearance of the translucent spirits, such that we stopped the film and moved on to lighter fare. They've never asked to try it again, while they love 'Kiki,' 'Pom Poko,' 'Totoro,' and 'Castle.' (I have no desire to show them 'Mononoke,' because I don't especially enjoy this film, and I don't care to expose my kids to the spectacle of a dude getting his arm lopped off.)

- I do disagree with you, SDG, regarding the presence/absence of grace in this film: what about the great lengths to which Chihiro goes in her attempt to rescue/redeem her parents, giving up her name and allowing herself to enter a frightening state of servitude -- or Chihiro's goodhearted reaching out to No-Face and the assistance she extends to the filthy river spirit?

- I concur, however, that 'Spirited Away' should not merely be reduced to a pro-environment film, just as 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Karamazov' should not be called police procedurals. Care for creation and issues of justice are significant themes in these respective works, but Miyazaki and Dostoevsky are too great to be pigeonholed in such a fashion.

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- I do disagree with you, SDG, regarding the presence/absence of grace in this film: what about the great lengths to which Chihiro goes in her attempt to rescue/redeem her parents, giving up her name and allowing herself to enter a frightening state of servitude -- or Chihiro's goodhearted reaching out to No-Face and the assistance she extends to the filthy river spirit?

I agree with you. I find Chihiro to be inspiring in her approach to aggression and offense. It has, in fact, come to mind many times in my email interactions with people who email me enraged by what I've written. "A quiet word turns away wrath," says the proverb, and while that's doesn't always prove true, when it does, an encounter can be redeemed, going from spite to understanding.

At the same time, though, the fact that Chihiro's quiet tolerance is always rewarded could be dangerously misleading. Sometimes, monsters are monsters, and the moment you idealistically bring down your guard, you give the enemy the opening he's been looking for. Some greed-monsters want what they want so badly that they'll kill what they don't understand.

That's the risk of grace.

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solishu:

How would you compare Spirited Away with Alice and Wonderland? Would you have the same problems reading Alice to your young kids as watching Spirited Away? I ask because they seem like very similar works; this statement you make, "left to fend for herself in a terrifying world of shifting, incomprehensible realities, thrown in among beings who seem at times benign and helpful, at times monstrous and hostile, sometimes with no particular explanation," could just as easily describe Wonderland as the Spirit World.

Alan:

What about Oz? Surely if ANY faerie-land meets SDG's description above, it must be the merry ole' land of Oz!

Those are interesting comparisons considering that I've never cared for either Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, but I love Spirited Away. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this is that I can't stand Alice or Dorothy, whereas I found myself to be very attatched to Chihiro. I shall have to consider this further...

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SDG   

Thanks to all who've responded.

Andrew, FWIW, I didn't assume outright that your comments were directed at me, precisely because the object of your critique -- parents shielding their kids from the existence of other worldviews -- is not what I have defended; however, from the very beginning of the original Spirited Away thread I've been the voice of caution and reservation, so I wanted to clarify the point.

Andrew, thanks for sharing your experience about starting to watch Spirited Away with your kids and winding up turning it off in favor of lighter fare. At least this would seem to indicate a convergence of experiences regarding the film, if not agreement in every detail. (BTW, my kids also love Kiki and like Castle; we've never seen Pom Poko, but I'll check it out.)

My comments about grace have less to do with the "grace" that Chihiro might show to others than what I see as the absence of grace toward Chihiro in the world around her. With the great exception of Haku, which I don't remotely underrate, Chihiro seems to be cast into a world that is largely indifferent to whether she lives or dies. Unlike Frodo or Luke Skywalker, say, Chihiro's challenge doesn't take the form of a moral challenge in which her primary duty is to follow some higher calling or accept some great responsibility. Instead, she has to negotiate her world according to rules that largely don't make moral sense, at least on my multiple viewings of the film.

And Jeffrey, thanks for your comments. One could just as easily ask whether Chihiro is really an icon of grace, or a heroine of a tradition that ultimately lacks the Christian conception of good and evil. Indeed, for some fans, the appeal of Spirited Away and Miyazaki in general is precisely the lack of clear-cut good and evil. I'm a big fan of ambiguity in art, but there is a point in childhood where you want good good and evil evil, and I think it's important to give children stories that offer this clear-cut dichotomy. In part for this reason, I think Spirited Away may be not generally recommendable for young children.

Asides regarding other fairy stories: Alan, I can't think what you have in mind regarding Oz, either in book or film form, but Baum's pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding, Oz is actually a deeply traditional Western fairyland firmly grounded in traditional morality. Good witches are good and bad witches are bad; protection against the evil witch comes from a good witch's kiss of protection and by the magical agency of enchanted footwear (not by, say, asking for a job); etc.

And Solishu, the great thing about Alice in Wonderland is that Carroll (a mathematician by profession) is obviously joking on every page. It's deliberately absurdist entertainment, quite unlike Spirited Away.

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Andrew   

Thanks for your comments, SDG. As for 'Pom Poko' - I would definitely suggest screening it yourself before showing it to your kids, due to some of its imagery and subject matter (I've discussed some of this in the movie's own discussion thread). I pondered for a while before letting them see it, but both they and I are now glad to have watched it together.

As for Chihiro and grace - besides Haku, there are others who extend grace to her along the way. Of course, I'm drawing a blank on their names, but the servant girl and the second witch end up helping her quite a bit.

As for your comment that "Chihiro seems to be cast into a world that is largely indifferent to whether she lives or dies," I would have to say that's a somewhat accurate overall assessment, but then again, it's sadly not an unusual predicament for kids in our world today. For that matter, it's long been a subject of literature and tales for kids and adults (Oliver Twist, Hansel and Gretel immediately come to mind). I guess in writing all of this I'm merely questioning whether such subject matters should so definitively be written off as unsuitable subject matter.

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SDG   

Thanks, Andrew. FWIW, let's just say that I don't mean to be "so definitive" about pretty much anything here, either my conclusions or the arguments supporting them. I'm trying to articulate something that exists for me largely on the level of intuition. I don't pretend to be sure about this for anybody's family but my own.

Without writing off your point about the reality of the indifference of the world for many children and the possibility of this theme existing in other children's works that might concern me less than Spirited Away, "Hansel and Gretl" as a story of children triumphing over a malevolent witch who wants to eat them (like "Jack and the Beanstalk"'s tale of a child triumphing over a malevolent giant, etc.) seems to me cut from different moral cloth than Spirited Away, where pretty much no one is either ultimately evil or unambiguously good (even Haku becomes menacing and dangerous). Chihiro hasn't fallen into the clutches of Evil, exactly, and somehow that's more troubling to me than your garden-variety witch or giant who makes no bones about wanting to pick yours clean.

Does that make any sense?

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MattPage   
I'm pretty sure we had another thread where SDG explained why the effect of pagan stories on impressionable children's minds was such a concern to him, though I can't find it at the moment. (The various word combinations I've tried in Google aren't producing it, and my archives are currently "in the shop" with the rest of my laptop.)

Do you mean this one or ther3e is a little bit on this one

Matt

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MattPage wrote:

: Do you mean this one . . .

Yes, that's the one! I vividly remember SDG's visual-aural brain-development analogy.

Though I think this would be the safer link, in the long term -- I don't know how long Google holds on to its caches, and anyway, in Google you can't link from a cached page to another cached page.

Fascinating to get a glimpse of what I was like in the months before I met my Orthodox wife. :)

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Andrew   

::Does that make any sense?

Yes, it does. Your point about the moral ambiguity of the Miyazaki universe is a good one - I'm just not as troubled by it. In a world where the tendency is so often to label and demonize one's opponents in the name of nationalism, denominational infighting, empire-building, etc., I think such ambiguity can be healthy and mature (within limits, of course - I would cringe at a film about 'those loveable Nazi's' or 'the happy-go-lucky Khmer Rouge').

I find it refreshing that films like 'Totoro' and 'Kiki' have no villains. Yet even Miyazaki is not completely ambiguous - I don't think anyone would contest that the witch Zeniba is more virtuous and caring than her twin Yubaba (hopefully, I got their names right!). And there is a definite ironic justice in the fact that Chihoro's parents are transformed into pigs - emblematic perhaps of those who consume and destroy the environment, denigrating it from Miyazaki's pastoral ideal.

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SDG   
Your point about the moral ambiguity of the Miyazaki universe is a good one - I'm just not as troubled by it. In a world where the tendency is so often to label and demonize one's opponents in the name of nationalism, denominational infighting, empire-building, etc., I think such ambiguity can be healthy and mature (within limits, of course - I would cringe at a film about 'those loveable Nazi's' or 'the happy-go-lucky Khmer Rouge').
There, now. This is precisely the kind of thinking that I don't find helpful in addressing this kind of story, at least for children. To put it another way, "mature" is a very good word for it, and for precisely that reason it's not what I want for five-year-olds. First comes the goodness of goodness and the badness of badness; the moral calculations of nationalism, denominational infighting, empire-building, etc. can wait for another day.

Now, I heartily agree with you about films like Totoro and Kiki that have no villains. Hear hear. What I'm less comfortable with is a Yubaba, who is 85 percent a villain, but. (And even Haku, who is 90 percent a hero, but.) Yubaba is ominous, menacing, unscrupulous, selfish, exploitative -- yet ultimately not really Evil. Zeniba may be more virtuous and caring -- at least, she's friendlier to Chihiro, though that may easily be circumstantial -- but she too can be unscrupulous. In the end, both are addressed as "Granny" by Chihiro, as if they were effectively two sides of the same coin.

While my children are young, give me stories with wicked witches and brave heroes, fairy godmothers and big bad wolves, Jedi knights and dark lords. Let me regale them now with Superman or Spider-Man versus Lex Luthor or Doctor Octopus; time enough for the ambiguities of Magneto versus Wolverine when they are older. Give me a five-year-old who wants to slay dragons. I'll give you a twelve-year-old who doesn't demonize his opponents.

Edited by SDG

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Ann D.   

I like that the film is morally ambiguous, because life is morally ambiguous. Good people can act terrible, and terrible people can act good. (I speak only as an adult, and not with kids in mind.) That's why the movie touched me so well. It was one of the most real movies I've seen in a while, even though it's a fantasy. I can't get lost in most movies anymore, because I'm too aware that it is fiction (documentaries notwithstanding). With this one, however, I felt immediately that I was involved in the story with Chihiro.

I inwardly cheered when Chihiro refused the gold from No-Face. I was touched by Haku's concern for her by the gardens. I felt she was a realistic child when she screamed all the way down the stairs, and when she shouted at her parents not to worry, she'd save them. And I marveled at Haku's dance in the sky. In almost every scene, I was touched or enthralled by either a character or the world. Not too many movies do that to me anymore.

I also think there were moments of grace throughout, such as the ones already mentioned. I would also add the boiler room keeper (forgot his name, sorry) as showing grace as well, by sticking up for her when the assistant came out. As the assistant said, he was risking a lot for Chihiro.

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Andrew   

Very well-put, Ann - I resonate completely with what you're saying here.

As for the aspect of kids and moral ambiguity - I dunno, I think kids can start to grasp this well before adolescence. Indeed this is why I've tried to distinguish between the act and the person when chastising one of my children, even when they were very young (i.e., saying 'you did a bad thing,' not 'you're a bad boy'), and it's obviously very much in keeping with the Augustinian concept of 'hate the sin, love the sinner.' I'd say by the age of 7, it had already become necessary to have conversations along these lines with my oldest son, to try and aid in his moral development.

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MattPage   

: Good people can act terrible, and terrible people can act good.

Is this a comment on Kevin Costner and Sean Penn?

The parenmts turning to pigs scene always reminds me of PInocchio on Donkeys' Island (or whatever it was called). Regarding the ambiguity of all the characters, it's one of the things I find hard about the film, it doesn't really sit well with the genre for me. But then I guess that's because "the genre" is somewhat different to how I expect it what with it being from another, very differenty, culture

Matt

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Titus   

As I have no children of my own, I'm not really qualified to engage in this discussion. However, SDG, I was confused by your profession that the film has no moral universe. While I can certainly understand your reservations about exposing your children to Spirited Away, I think you may be on the wrong track here. I've always seen this film's fantasy world as a microcosm of our world, with a seemingly chaotic sequence of events and characters that veer away from Disneyesque archetypes of good/evil, but laying somewhere inbetween. For example, Yubaba is a domineering opportunist who exploits her workers (and arguably runs a morally questionable bath-house), but she's not without a modicum of scruples and obviously is a very caring (though misguided) mother. All of the major characters are granted layers of individuality that Disney's characters simply don't possess (for the most part).

The entire film's central purpose is to expose the strength of this (and, by implication, other/all) 10-year old girl(s). Our first glimpse of her is as she's pouting about the move to a new town and new school, lamenting her old friends and worrying about the struggle of finding new ones. One might have the initial perception that she's unequipped to handle such a move, or at least that she'll have difficulty doing so. Adults have a tendency to underestimate children, and the film works as a reminder for us of their wholesome strength and ability. Moreover, it serves as a sort of confidence-check for young children themselves. Chihiro isn't a superhero, nor is she granted any temporary fantastic abilities. She's merely a child, like any that might be viewing it (and Miyazaki even emphasizes her physical clumsiness throughout the film), yet she succeeds in this unfamiliar and somewhat disturbing locale. How does she manage this? Through hard work and unselfishness, plain and simple. Chihiro is posed queries and obstacles throughout the entire picture, and every single time she makes the moral choice and is rewarded for it (on the flipside of this, the film gives examples of others facing similar decisions and making the selfish or immoral choice and being reprimanded for it; i.e. Chihiro's parents, Haku selling our to Yubaba in order to hone his magical abilities, etc). Chihiro lives up faithfully to her contrat with Yubaba, was loyal to her friends, helped strangers in need (No-Face), and resultantly won the respect of everyone, saved her family, and was allowed to reenter her natural world.

In the English dub, they added the final lines that implied Chihiro remembered the entire ordeal, thus suggesting that she grew in some way as a result of the obstacles, which wasn't really Miyazaki's intention. In the Japanese track, she doesn't remember any of it and, thus, the film suggests that it was all merely proof of her capability (whereas in the Lassiter version, the effect is that we're led to believe Chihiro would not have the strength to change her outlook on what lay ahead unless she had faced these calculated challenges). The English track severely alters the central theme of the film, but nevertheless, the moral trajectory is there. Chihiro survives in this alien world through strength of character, hard work, and persistence. I remember being a child and looking ahead at adulthood as a daunting universe I feared I'd never be ready for--Spirited Away is a very reassuring film for such adolescents (as well as a strong moral guide, IMO). There are numerous allegorical layers and nuances peppered throughout, but this serves only to enrich the experience for adults, not alienate it for kids. And while there is some frightening imagery in the film that might disturb some younger children, if they can pick up on the morality of the picture than that may be compensated for. This is no doubt relative to each individual child, and my perspective would doubtlessly be much different if I had kids of my own, but I nevertheless wanted to throw in my thoughts on the film with the hope that it may provide a better context for the legions of parents who've found it suitable for their respective children.

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SDG   

Just a few quick responses:

Ann, much of what you say resonates for me as well. Certainly I am all in favor of moral ambiguity and polyvalence in film; that's part of the reason I was so impressed by Crash.

Andrew, I agree that kids of seven or eight are capable of levels of ambiguity; that's why I figured David wouldn't have a problem with the father in My Neighbor Totoro praying to trees but still being a good man. For my five-year-old I would rather focus on the goodness of goodness and the badness of badness, and even for my seven-year-old I'll hold off on the more challenging ambiguities of Spirited Away until he's older.

Titus, I certainly didn't profess that the film has no moral universe, a statement which is obviously untrue. What I said is that "the moral universe of this film is significantly at odds with the moral universe I want shaping my children's inner worlds."

Your comments about the added lines at the end of the English dub are fascinating. It suggests a desire in the US adaptation to find some sort of redemptive significance in Chihiro's experience, whereas in the original it sounds as if the whole story ultimately makes no difference for Chihiro or her family (though obviously it makes a difference for characters from the spirit world, most centrally Haku).

Perhaps this change in the US version is motivated in part by the precept in Western dramatic tradition that a protagonist be somehow transformed as a result of the events related in the story. Perhaps for Miyazaki the journey itself matters more than the destination, or perhaps the impact of Chihiro's actions on the spirit world matter more than whether Chihiro herself is transformed by the journey.

If so, that's yet another way in which I'm a child of the West -- though I think I would rather experience Spirited Away more as Miyazaki intended it to be, and would like my kids to experience it that way as well... when they're older, of course. :)

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