Monday, June 23, 2008

spirited away, by hayao miyazaki

So, sadly, we had to give up on Funeral Parade of Roses... my eBay purchase never made it here, and after a month and a half of waiting I eventually needed to request a refund, and Film Club had to pick up where we left off, which was with Ghost In The Shell way back in early May.

Co-founder Skunkcabbage decided to move us onwards down the anime path, suggesting we take a look at Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001).

This was maybe my fourth time seeing Spirited Away, and I really think it's a great movie for children (in addition to being just a great movie in the more general, all-around sense). I thought a lot about why this might be, and eventually realized that the movie is all about ontological instability.

Ontological instability is a fancy description of a condition wherein the fundamental existence of things is mutable, in flux, or otherwise suspect. As adults, we like to pretend that our worlds and our identities are fundamentally stable: that things have a kind of permanence that can be existentially "banked on." Children, however, don't have the luxury of being able to assume that the world is in any way stable, for the obvious reason that the early years of a child's life are spent undergoing Cronenbergian levels of intense developmental changes, taking in massive amounts of new information, and trying to decode the rules imposed upon you by adults, rules which doubtlessly appear to be capricious and incomprehensible. Spirited Away, then, like its most obvious influence, Alice In Wonderland, is essentially a parable about trying to negotiate your way through a fluctuating world while at the mercy of these assorted complications.

The story begins with our protagonist, Chihiro, moving to a new town (a familiar instance of the kinds of radical change that parents commonly visit upon their children). You can pretty much see at a glance how enthused Chihiro is about this idea:

Before long, they've made a wrong turn, and they come upon a strange complex of seemingly abandoned buildings. No one can quite determine what their purpose is, and their mystery further unsettles Chihiro, although her parents respond essentially blithely to it (Chihiro's father, operating in a typically adult male mode, attempts to establish ontological stability by declaring (wrongly) that the buildings must be part of a theme park abandoned in a 1990s economic crisis).

This setting will prove to be one site of radical instability or flux in the film, which ends up being effectively illustrated by the motif of water. As they first explore it, there's no water present: there is, in fact, a dry riverbed running through the middle of it.

But then at nightfall there's a river there:

And then two days later it's actually become an entire ocean:

It's not merely the world that's mutable and impermanent, however, but Chihiro's own identity as well. Not long after the world has begun its shift, Chihiro threatens to fade out into pure nothingness (one possible terminal point of ontological instability):

Eventually she finds a way to keep her form, but that's not the last time the film casts her status as an individual into doubt. She negotiates the world well enough to eventually encounter its ruler, Yubaba (it's worth mentioning, as a sidenote, that Yubaba—all jewels, makeup, cigarettes, and unpredictable rage—is pretty much a walking incarnation of the things that children find mysterious / grotesque about old people):

She agrees to put Chihiro to work, and in doing so, she alters one of the key markers of Chihiro's ontological permanence. Specifically, she changes Chihiro's name, literally lifting the kanji from the page:

Chihiro's not the only character who suffers from radical instability: did I mention that her parents are turned into pigs?

There are other examples as well, probably most notably the character of Haco, who may or may not be her ally (and who at various points in the film may be a boy, a dragon, or a river). It all adds up to a memorable evocation of the often traumatic (but occasionally pleasurable) experience of attempting to negotiate an unstable world from an unstable subject position. Again I'm reminded of Alice in Wonderland, which leads me to the announcement of next week's pick: the semi-animated 1988 Alice adaptation created by Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Stay tuned!

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