Re: Spirited Away is a Terrible Movie
This is a response to a guy on YouTube who calls himself “Confused Matthew.” He does a variety of movie reviews on request. By and large, he doesn’t hold back, nor does he have the ability to see a movie for what it is. Yeah, he’s that kind of critic. In his review of The Lion King, he goes off on a very long-winded tirade about how much he hates Timon and Pumba because of how uncouth and selfish they are. I thought he was kidding at first. Y’know, like, being ironically humorous of something like that. But he was dead serious. About two months ago, he did a review of Spirited Away, and, of course, hated it.
I decided to write this post because I actually got the chance to re-watch Spirited Away. Just yesterday, in fact. It’s still as captivating and beautiful as it was when I first saw it back in middle school, which is the great thing about Miyazaki/Ghibli films. They’re timeless and not a complete embarrassment to the industry.
Crafting this response is a little tricky. At one end, Matthew does bring up good points about why the movie falls short of perfect, namely some stylistic choices in storytelling. On the other, he overlooks some of the plot points of the story, and by extension, its overall aim.
“To be perfectly honest, or rather brutally honest, I can’t stand Anime. I don’t like it and I don’t understand why anyone else does. Now, going into what I don’t like about it would be fruitless as they are all personal problems and not problems having to do with the actual genre. And that is the distinction I will try to keep in mind as we proceed.”
There are two things that are wrong with this statement. First, if he readily concedes that he doesn’t like Anime, what does he hope to achieve in this video. Granted, I’m not saying he’s not allowed to make this review – everyone has the right to voice his/her opinion – but that brings me to my next point. Anime isn’t a genre. I can tell how he flashes a promotional picture of Inuyasha onto the screen that he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of Anime, and that’s fine. But I’m also willing to conjecture that he thinks Anime is just a one-way road of banal sword fights and endless magic battles. You just can’t make these generalizations in reviews.
“The film has a huge problem shoved up its ass right from the beginning. The premise of the film has been summarized as follows: Spirited Away is a story of a spoiled child forced into a fantastic world… Two problems: one, the world isn’t fantastic as much as it is random and arbitrary. And two, the girl was never spoiled. Never. Not once. Ever. The girl is mature and sensible right from the very beginning.”
What movie were you watching? Chihiro is upset about having to move. She’s sarcastic to her parents and isn’t very receptive to their orders. When she tells her mom that her flower bouquet is dying, she pouts and whines. When her parents want to look through a tunnel that’s in their way, she yells no and adamantly refuses. Its’ a very nuanced kind of spoiled. Were you expecting some hyper-exemplified American Barbie Doll stereotype?
“…And the girl is thrusted into the spirit world guided by some guy that’ll show up, oh, about three times in the whole film… I guess that we’re supposed to believe that she wants to rescue the personality-less guy that she encountered in the beginning, but why would she? The two never got to know one another, and we never got to know him. So the film is just making a point of force-feeding her with a friend and an objective.”
Were you paying attention to the story? I’m not going to give away Haku’s real identity for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but he mentions time and again that he knew Chihiro from when she was younger, and that he wants to save her because of that. There’s even a part where Chihiro unwittingly calls out his name when it isn’t even clear that what we’re looking at is Haku. There’s clearly a connection, and that connection helps Chihiro grow. That’s the overall aim of the movie, to see Chihiro become stronger. Something that obviously went over Matthew’s head.
“Like almost all Animes ever made, the world in which this is set is not very well-defined.”
Again, generalizations. Barely saved by the world “almost.” Also, the plural is Anime.
“The people here work at a bathhouse for spirits, but it’s unclear who these spirits are, where they all come from, or what the parameters of them are.”
I’m starting to think this guy isn’t as credible as I once thought. The spirits are gods. It’s been stated numerously throughout the film. Obviously their designs are influenced by things in Japanese culture that a lot of Westerners (especially children) wouldn’t be familiar with. But it shouldn’t even matter because they’re not even major plot points in the movie. They’re just fantastic creatures.
“Rather than create a magical world with structure and coherence, it just feels like the makers of this film are just barfing out whatever weird thing comes into their heads… Are these spirits? How does this place work?”
Translated: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaah! I need structure and coherence in my fantasy Anime! How dare the animators show creativity!” I bet if this guy watched Fantasia, he would scream “Why are the brooms dancing and sprouting arms?! This is bullshit!”
“Just like most all Animes, this is not a magical world, it’s just a stupid one. All of the characters are shallow, undefined and undeveloped.”
It helps that all of the characters, sans Chihiro of course, don’t have a whole lot of screentime. It wouldn’t make sense to develop any of the side characters because the movie isn’t about them. There are individual scenes where you can see that Chihiro is really coming into her own. like how early in the movie, she’s hesitant to walk down a long flight of stairs that resides on the side of a large cliff, but is later seen to dutifully run along a pipe suspended between two buildings. The side characters help to bring out that side of her.
“In fact, you could remove everything and have the same movie. Or just watch the film in any order you like. Beginning, middle, end; end, middle, beginning, or so on. It’s all just a bunch of random stuff happening.”
When you try to define a movie like Spirited Away in a ‘logical’ sense – making a list of everything that transpired in the story in a narrative format – then you’re kind of missing the point of the movie and doing a disservice to the filmmakers. It’s more about having everything happen and then letting it come full circle towards the end.
Let me offer a parallel. Has anyone read anything by Murakami? They basically follow the same narrative format. “Dance Dance Dance” is a favorite of mine. When I first read the summary on the back of the book, it went something along the lines of a writer trying to find his missing girlfriend. Seems simple enough, right? But when you actually read the book, you’ll find that it’s anything but. It’s about a freelance writer and his eclectic associates. There’s an aloof, 13-year old girl who loves rock and roll, an old classmate to the protagonist who turns out to be a movie star, and a guy who calls himself the Sheep Man who lives in a different world. Throughout the story, the guy sleeps with various call girls, travels to Hawaii, and is even framed for murder. Taken separately, these events seem completely inconsequential, and they really leave you to question the purpose of certain chapters and events. But nothing is introduced into a story without having a purpose. In the case of Spirited Away, the events that happen don’t really have an extrinsic value. It’s kind of hard to explain, and even now I’m having trouble because it’s kind of one of those things that you have to experience in order to understand. If you invest yourself enough into the story, then everything will just click when it’s over. And that’s essentially the kind of storytelling technique that’s employed in Spirited Away.
Of course, Matthew probably isn’t going to read this post. And even if he does, he’s most likely the kind of guy who doesn’t like to admit that he’s wrong. If he does, he’ll just hide behind his name and say that he was “confused” or some shit like that.