Spirited Away is a Reality Show

As someone who grew up with Spirited Away, and hails it as a flawless masterpiece, naturally I am obsessed with getting other people into the film. Throughout my execution of this mission, I have noticed one common thread: everyone feels that the ending was anticlimactic. At first, I just dismissed my inability to see this problem as mere childhood bias. After all, I had seen the movie so many times that I have probably become desensitized to any flaws it may have.

However, after seeing the movie on the big screen with my roommate while living in D.C., something finally clicked. My roommate loved the film, up until the ending, as most seem to do. However, he explained his issue not just as one of anticlimacticness, but of a lack of payoff. He saw the driving force of the movie as Chihiro’s mission to return her parents to human form and return to the mortal world. If you did have to give the movie a simple synopsis for the sake of a magazine review or IMDB page, that is essentially what should be said. However, I also believe there is a huge misconception based on that very synopsis.

Spirited Away is not an epic fantasy story; it is a reality show. The fantasy adventure premise is merely a vehicle to transport you to a world. Once you are settled in this world, the movie is not about this central conflict. It is about Chihiro, a young immature girl, learning to adapt to a new environment, and mature into a responsible and strong individual.

It is, for this very reason, that the plot of saving her parents is somewhat abandoned for the second and third acts of the film, only to be quickly resolved in the last five minutes. The movie is not about that story, it is about a story of personal growth in a unique setting. But the conflict did get you invested in Chihiro and the characters that inhabit this world, didn’t it?

Reality shows are about people’s lives, individuals adapting to new situations and dealing with their own personal growth. Although person vs. person conflicts are present, they are often artificially inserted to get you more invested. Sound familiar? Hayao Miyazaki inserted an almost artificial fantasy conflict to get you into your seat, and then pushed it to the side to make room for the real Spirited Away.

It is also for this reason that there is no central antagonist in the story. Yubaba, the witchy owner of the bath house, may seem like an obvious candidate to point fingers at. Those assumptions would be misguided. What did Yubaba ever do to harm our protagonist? Yubaba didn’t turn Chihiro’s parents into pigs, her parents did that out of their own selfishness. Yubaba didn’t refuse to give Chihiro her parent’s back. Chihiro never asked for that directly, Haku told her to just ask for a job in the bath house instead. Rather than simply turning Chihiro into an animal, she decided to allow her to work. Yubaba was just a greedy, but overall redeemable person, using a bad situation to profit. Despite being a spirit, she was just being human.

That’s the core of Spirited Away to me, a story about people. Through Chihiro’s eyes, it’s a peak into a world that has been static for a long time, and will continue to be static after she leaves. Chihiro isn’t some epic fantasy heroine that is going to change the status quo of some fantasy world. She’s just a girl, thrown into a rough situation and learning to mature from it. Spirited Away is not a fantasy adventure, but a reality show peering into a fantasy world through the eyes of an outsider.

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How Moana Messed Me Up

When I think about movies I want to see in theaters, I place them in one of three categories. There’s the top tier- movies I must see in theaters, maybe even opening night. Then comes middle tier- movies I would like to see in theaters, but will take my time to see. Finally, at the bottom tier comes movies I will see if invited or if bored with a friend.

Despite being a new Disney animated feature, Moana fell into the third tier for me. I really don’t know why it did, I’m usually the first one out the door when it comes to Disney Studios and Pixar films. I think it may have just been a sheer lack of someone to convince me to see it. The last day before my good friend Zack (go check out his YouTube channel 123zc1, it’s well worth your time) and I left for the semester, we had a few hours to kill. We made a last minute decision to finally see Moana, and boy was that decision well made.

Moana is not the best Disney film by any means. Movies like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame take that position. However, it is by far the one I’ve personally connected with the most, making it my hands down favorite. I can definitely say that Zack felt very similarly, but at a stronger level, as he was crying throughout most of the movie.

I’m entering a crossroads in my life that has put me in existential disarray. I will be graduating college, and entering the “real world” this year. I know that I will have to get a 9-5 job, and probably live with my parents until I can save up enough to leave Florida. Although not thrilled, I have come to terms with this seemingly inevitable future. This is the path for someone with a passion that does not lead directly to a sustainable career. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a driving passion in my life. Since a very young age, I have always wanted to be an author. Writing fictional stories is my calling. My characters live in my mind like real friends and family, becoming fully realized even before they are put to paper. Having written my first novel last year, I can tell you firsthand that there is nothing more thrilling and satisfying then acting upon your passion.

I can’t talk about the experience of seeing Moana at this time in my life without talking about the accompanying short film. Inner Workings follows the story of a man who is living the exact path I face. The moral of the short is that you have to include little things in your 9-5 office life that make you happy, or else you’ll be miserable. However, I’ve had some influences in my life over the past year that have made this short mean a bit more to me. The Pro Crastinators are a group of YouTube content creators that have served as my main creative influence and entertainment source over the past year or so. Each member serves as a shining beacon of success from abandoning the normal path, and focusing their entire lives on their creative passions. Whether it be anime analysis, writing/drawing comics, or documenting their slow path towards insanity on video, they have embraced their true purpose, and abandoned their ties to the typical life structure that society enforces. In other words, they are a very hedonistic, but intelligent bunch. They would take Inner Workings, and throw it in the trash. I can’t say whether the Pro Crastinators are the angel or the devil on my shoulder. What I can say is that Inner Workings falls right alongside with the ideals of my parents, grandparents, and mentors/advisors, who all believe that a stable 9-5 job is the way to go. Just add a few small things that give you joy and you’re good to go.

If Inner Workings represents the ideals of my family, Moana is the mindset of the Pro Crastintors. The very meaning behind the entire plot of the film is to ignore what society deems to be the correct life path, and follow the passion you have in your heart. Moana has a deep-seated desire to explore the ocean. However, her entire family and village swears by never leaving the island they inhabit, and fulfilling the traditional life path that they have all taken. The only human character who encourages Moana to act on her passion is her grandmother. Gramma Tala is to Moana what Jesse Wood is to me: the voice on one of my shoulders telling me to screw society and follow my passion for writing fiction. While the ocean in the film is a literal entity that calls to Moana from inside her heart, it is clearly symbolic of her internal passion.

I would like you to read the following lyrics. They are to one of the climatic songs of the film, I Am Moana. The first stanza is the ghost of Moana’s grandmother singing to her (I believe this ghost not to literally be present, but in her head). The second stanza is of Moana herself responding. I believe these words perfectly reflect the entire point of Moana as a work of art, and hope you agree:

 

I know a girl from an island

She stands apart from the crowd

She loves the sea and her people

She makes her whole family proud

Sometimes the world seems against you

The journey may leave a scar

But scars can heal and reveal just

Where you are

The people you love will change you

The things you have learned will guide you

And nothing on earth can silence

The quiet voice still inside you

And when that voice starts to whisper

Moana, you’ve come so far

Moana, listen

Do you know who you are?

 

Who am I?

I am a girl who loves my island

I’m the girl who loves the sea

It calls me

I am the daughter of the village chief

We are descended from voyagers

Who found their way across the world

They call me

I’ve delivered us to where we are

I have journeyed farther

I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me

It’s like the tide; always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me

That come what may

I know the way

I am Moana!

 

I just need to replace all the specifics of the lyrics with things about me, and this song becomes about me. That’s the beauty of Moana as a piece of cinema. The film is made for self insert; you can’t help yourself but look at everything metaphorically. You can replace the plot elements, setting, specific passions, and characters with things that apply to you, and the story still works. Moana is the story of a girl following the voice inside her heart, and embracing her true passion. That’s the most inspiring thing imaginable to me, and that’s why this movie messed me up.