Terrified by the toxic perkiness of Pokémon and Sailor Moon, or by the splattery violence of other Japanese cartoons, mainstream America has largely shunned as childish or eccentric what Japanese audiences see as a sophisticated, adult art form -- in every sense. Anime, as Japanese animation is otherwise known, has its eroguro (erotic-grotesque) side: One film features a woman who turns into a spider post-sex, her crotch transformed into a yawning, fanged maw. Other anime films forgo the Freudian vagina dentata antics but explore similarly dark topics: nuclear holocaust, postapocalyptic society, technology gone awry. But anime also has a gentler aspect, perhaps most famously personified for the West in Hayao Miyazaki, who has been called "the Walt Disney of Japan."
But Miyazaki defies such easy categorization. Unlike his Western viewers, Miyazaki doesn't even call his work anime. He's publicly rejected what he sees as the genre's nihilistic violence, and instead combines a love of Japanese folk tales with an environmentalist message. And although Disney is behind the U.S. release of his latest film, there's little the two have in common save their popularity and the ubiquity of their marketing. For one thing, Miyazaki is idiosyncratic, fond of nonlinear plotting and visual flights of fancy. And where the Mouse House has a tendency to swap sweetness for saccharine, to simplify the tangled and to lighten the dark, Miyazaki rarely indulges in such tendencies.
As a friend once told me, "Dude, Disney ruined my favorite fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Because in the real story, that girl turns to foam."
Compared either with Disney or with his counterparts in the often violent anime realm, Miyazaki's an original, a modern-day mythmaker. His coming-of-age stories for little girls showcase little girls, not grown women. And in these stories, a girl's salvation comes not from romantic love or manly rescue but from her own confidence, bravery and sense of wonder.
Miyazaki has created such a tale in Spirited Away, a bizarrely beautiful movie that will inevitably draw comparisons to Alice in Wonderland. Centered on a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro (voiced by Lilo & Stitch's Daveigh Chase), the film opens with a shot of her lying glumly in the backseat of a car. Her family is moving to a new town, and her sulky face, pipe-stem legs and balled-up socks telegraph her apprehension. Along the way, despite Chihiro's reluctance, the family takes a detour to investigate what lies beyond an intriguing dark tunnel. There the characters find what appears to be an abandoned theme park -- one of many that opened in the 1990s, Chihiro's father explains, before Japan's economy tanked. Her parents begin to act strangely, sniffing their way to a stand piled with delicious food. They obviously haven't read their Homer, nor do they pay any heed to the park signs that read "demon" or "giant," and so they start gnashing at the food like tourists at a Las Vegas buffet. Right before Chihiro's horrified eyes, they burst out of their pants and turn into slavering pigs.
As it turns out, Chihiro's family hasn't walked into an old amusement park at all: They've strayed into a bathhouse for the gods. Humans are not allowed here, but anyone who manages to get work at the bathhouse won't be turned out. Chihiro, desperate to depiggify her parents, pleads for work from the bathhouse's head honcho. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), a Grimmish witch who looks like a bobble-headed whorehouse madam, binds the girl's contract by literally stealing half of Chihiro's name away, leaving her with only the character "sen."
With that, Sen embarks upon a crazy fever dream of a journey, a set of trials to prove her mettle that rival any in the Psyche or Orpheus myths. The work is tough -- huge, reeking stink spirits to scrub, food to serve -- but Sen manages to make a few friends, including Haku (Jason Marsden), Yubaba's mysterious boy apprentice, and a menacing black-robed figure wearing a mask.
Miyazaki portrays these relationships with a good deal of ambivalence and complexity. Is Yubaba all evil and Haku all good? What is the black-robed creature after? We're not sure, and neither is Sen. Run by forced labor and powered by avarice, this bathhouse of the spirits has its own ambivalence, and its own darkness. When one visitor conjures up fistfuls of gold, the bathhouse staffers launch an all-out hospitality offensive, stuffing the spirit with roasts and fish and soup and noodles to sate its ever-increasing appetite. One character performs a little ditty, something like, "The bigger its butt gets / the more there is to kiss!" And kiss it the characters do, until the customer starts eating them. In this world just like in ours, greed begets greed.
The real world and the spirit realm rub up against each other in other ways, too, as when a river god comes to clean himself and coughs up a great flood of bicycles, refrigerators and cans. Miyazaki has toned down the green message from his last movie, the heavy-handed eco-Amazon fable Princess Mononoke, but he's still managed to infuse this film with a gentle warning: If humans don't tend to the earth, how much can the gods do?
The stakes are high, especially in the world Miyazaki dreams up -- one that's seethingly alive, populated with talking foxes, frogs, dragons and harpies. Women from the ancient Heian era flutter about, their eyebrows plucked off and redrawn as surprised black dots high on their foreheads. Kappa -- prankish water spirits that prey on humans -- also make an appearance. (As legend has it, if accosted by a kappa, one should bow to it. It will then bow back, emptying the water that gives it magical powers from the indentation on its head. Or throw cucumbers: Kappa are fond of them, hence kappa maki.)
As his use of Japanese fable testifies, Miyazaki's films are shot through with a sort of nationalistic nostalgia. He yearns for a Japan -- mythic, natural, animistic, harmonious -- that is disappearing beneath a blitz of neon lighting, TV dramas and piggish consumerism. But he also taps into the mythology of other nations more than he's ever done before, hinting that perhaps the malaise is not Japan's alone, that the disease has spread. Miyazaki is not so simpleminded as to locate a perfect vision in the past or the spiritual -- remember the fat-assed, gold-wielding creature that eats the screaming bathhouse staff? What he does suggest is that something is awry, that we've all lost touch with the richness and complexity of the natural world, our Jungian unconscious, our myths and stories.
Who makes a better bridge to that vibrant dream world than a 10-year-old girl? And who can better appreciate the waking life of mono no aware -- the delicious melancholy that attends the beauty of all fading things -- than the adults in Miyazaki's audience? It's that last sentiment that lingers as we leave the theater, blinking like Chihiro does as she emerges from that dark tunnel into the real world. After all, watching Miyazaki's movie is like being spirited away ourselves, dreaming with our eyes open about the joy and the hellishness of growing up as a child (and perhaps as a nation).
Don't look back, we're admonished at the end of the movie. The pull of the underworld, both beautiful and terrifying, may be too tempting to resist. But don't forget, either. Yes, all things are transient, Miyazaki seems to remind us, but perhaps they don't have to fade as fast as our callous hands, and careless memories, force them to.