(Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Japan. 2001.

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Animism is a belief that a soul or spirit exists in every object. Shinto, the native religion in Japan that goes back to 500 BC, has incorporated many of the ideas of animism, worshipping the spirits of mountains, rivers, rocks and trees and using rituals that connect people to nature's timeless flow. Many of the spirits and stories from the Shinto religion are depicted in Miyazaki's animè feature Spirited Away and the director has said that many images in the film came from his childhood memories of traditional Japanese culture. Spirited Away won the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated film and has been deservedly praised for its imaginative story, brilliant colours, and superior technical achievements.

As an unhappy ten-year old girl, Chihiro, travels with her parents to her new home in the countryside, they take a wrong turn and end up in what they think as an abandoned theme park. Separated from her parents, who partake in a gluttonous meal, the little girl is drawn to a bathhouse for spirits and enters an alternate reality. Her parents have been transformed into pigs and she is trapped in a world she can barely understand. 

Chihiro does not change or grow up suddenly but calls upon her inner strength that she barely knew existed to help her out in dangerous situations. She is helped by young Haku, an assistant to Yubaba, the bathhouse manager who tells her that her only chance is to ask Kamajii for work in the boiler room (Miyazaki said that he was trying to show Japanese girls who never had to work the experience of hardship). Kamajii in turn sends her to Yubaba (yet another wicked witch stereotype) who steals her name, calling her "Sen" and gives her difficult tasks that she must undertake successfully in order to free her parents and return home.

Along the way, Chihiro encounters physical and psychological dangers. There are no simple villains in the film but there are many repulsive creatures such as a boiler room boss with six tentacles, a giant grotesque baby, rolling heads, stink monsters, and the like. One wonders where these images come from since Japanese gods have no actual form and elementals in mythology are part of the simple beauty and magic of nature. Yet, unlike the Disneyfied view of the world with sharp lines separating good and evil, Miyazaki's film is ambiguous and shifting and Chihiro must adapt, figure out the world she is in, and learn whom to trust. 

When Chihiro begins to control her own destiny, she creates supportive friends to help her complete her tasks and, in the process, discovers abundant courage and a sense of responsibility. As she and Haku move toward freedom, they both realize that they cannot escape their enslavement until they remember who they really are, a metaphor for all of us groping toward our spiritual connection. The power they find does not consist of magic spells or objects to render opponents senseless but the energy that flows from love, forgiveness, and non-violence. Spirited Away is a remarkable achievement and a film that left me feeling uplifted and connected to a greater reality.

Howard Schumann
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