(Warning: Story and plot twists discussed in explicit detail)
Hayao Miyazaki's Sento Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), about a girl named Chihiro whose parents have been turned into pigs, has been called everything from an anime variation on Charles Dodgson's Alice books to a fantasy treatise on parent-child relations in modern Japan to (as Miyazaki himself put it) a parable on developing maturity in ten-year-old girls.
It's the most openly dreamlike of Miyazaki's films. O, he's done dreams before (Nausicaa and her child Ohmu, Porco's vision of dead pilots filling the sky) but never so sustained, for almost the length of a film. His ultrarealistic style-- the characters don't burst into exaggerated cartoon expressions or deliver asides to the audience (in this he more closely resembles Disney as opposed to Warner Brothers or the Fleischers)-- suits the surreal imagery just fine.
Always argued that to achieve true strangeness one need to take off from a solid base of everyday realism. The sequence where the sky darkens and spirits appear around Chihiro wouldn't be as frightening if we didn't have the earlier sequence of her lying bored in the back seat of their car, her comically dense parents chattering away up front. The landscape-- endless shallow sea with sunken rail, garden-topped plateau surrounded by plunging cliffs, cliff and plateau dominated by massive red bathhouse-- wouldn't be as impossible if Chihiro (her name taken away and replaced with the moniker "Sen") hadn't spent quiet moments on her porch gazing at it. That the sunken rails and precipitous cliffs don't vanish like mirages the longer Sen stares at them-- that rail and cliff seem as solid as any in the normal world-- only adds to the mystery.
But more than contrasting images Miyazaki gives us contrasting emotions; against a wonderful and at times frightening background he gives us drama. Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass brimmed with fantastical creatures and images but at their heart were the reactions (scared, short-tempered, not always perceptive) of the very young (and very real) Alice Pleasance Liddell. Same with Spirited Away: the train gliding over water, the repulsive mud creature, the parents turned dumb and bestial would have little impact if there wasn't a real girl in the midst of it all, expressing wonderment and disgust and loss.
The film speaks to anyone who as a child had gotten lost in an unfamiliar world; it possibly speaks to Filipinos in a special way. Take Filipino overseas contract workers ("OCWs," as they are better known)-- the men and women who leave their families to work abroad. Like Sen they find themselves in an unfamiliar land (Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Japan) among unfamiliar people speaking an unfamiliar tongue; like Sen they are often forced to plead for work (in this case at the bathhouse), working for low wages, on harsh terms ("If I hear one word of complaint from you you'll be joining your parents at the pigsty").
Filipinos often take the menial jobs natives find too degrading, for unacceptably low pay: cook, waitress, child care, bathroom and home maintenance; they drive, do heavy labor, sign on as sailors. Filipinos are looked down on the same way Sen is by the bathhouse staff: as puny, useless, possibly smelly, definitely untrustworthy.
Filipinos have little choice but to respond the way Sen does: by bearing down on their work without protest. The scene where the spiderlike Kamaji warns Sen not to complain or ask to be sent back feels emblematic, as if he were speaking to countless desperate Filipinos, warning them to shut their mouths even at the cost of starvation, possible physical or sexual abuse, a violent death. Sen exerts herself to avoid being sent home or turned into an animal, looking all the while for a way to unenchant her parents; Filipino workers toil similarly, scrubbing their way square foot by square foot to eventual reunion.
Somehow the workers prevail-- they learn the language, familiarize themselves with customs, marry and raise their children; sometimes they manage to establish roots and thrive on alien soil. Like Sen they win the respect and affection of fellow workers mainly through diligence and endurance, and an unfailingly likable nature; when Sen is cheered by her fellow workers the moment again seems emblematic: Filipinos often inspire this kind of camaraderie, even among foreigners, even on foreign soil.
I kept asking myself: "Does Miyazaki know any Filipinos?" The question seems farfetched, though thousands live in Japan, many illegally, working under-the-table with the unspoken permission of Japanese immigration (for an excellent account of their experiences read Ray Ventura's autobiographical Underground in Japan); met a Filipino animator years ago who claimed to have worked on Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro-- he said he had helped animate the great mushroom-cloud tree that sprouts from Totoro's magic seed bundle.
Could Miyazaki be familiar with their plight? We may never know for certain. Perhaps Miyazaki only wrought better than he knew, his Sen speaking for more than just the Japanese girls he had in mind, his film honoring more lives than he had originally intended.
This article first appeared in Menzone, July, 2003
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