“Dogma inevitably will find corruption, and I’ve certainly never made religion a basis for my films. My own religion, if you can call it that, has no practice, no Bible, no saints, only a desire to keep certain places and my own self as pure and holy as possible. That kind of spirituality is very important to me. Obviously it’s an essential value that cannot help but manifest in my films.”Miyazaki
Spirited Away is not my first Studio Ghibli film, but it is the first time that I have watched a Ghibli film with a greater appreciation of the art, sound, atmosphere and spirituality of it all.
I watched this film with my Muslim anime group, Animate Life!, and it was specifically requested and chosen for its praises in both the secular and spiritual world. The group was filled with anime lovers, people who had seen the film, and people who had never seen anime outside of knowing what Pokémon was. While I had not seen Spirited Away myself, I had a specific intention of how to separate the viewing, questions to ask, and specific things to bring up. However, quite a few things happened in lieu of me wanting to do what I wanted to, and Allah is the best planner of all of us, it worked out a lot better His way.
After prepping the group with sushi, homemade ramen, and aspirations for the movie, I was able to watch their reactions of the fantastical art and animation as we watched Chihiro’s family wander into this abandoned amusement park. There was confusion, laughter, shock and awe during the first part of the film. The murmurs, laughter and occasional incredulous “what?!” stayed in my mind as I tried to piece together the minds of the new viewers while also trying to piece together the piece myself.
After Chihiro’s job at the Bath House led to a shocking turn of a stink monster turned dragon spirit, we paused the film for a brief break. It was here that the real magic happened. Conversations on how the three bouncing heads were weird, “I thought Haku was a girl,” and a room filled with questions and people trying to piece together how Yubaba had a baby in the first place. We regrouped and absorbed the bits of conversations I overheard and I provided key advice in watching the movie:
“Watch this through the eyes of a child. Not as rationally thinking adults.”
I encouraged the group to feel empathetic and put themselves in the shoes of Chihiro, a young girl without her parents in a strange place with spirits and talking creatures. Rationality was far gone out the window.
This advice lead to a whole new experience the second half of the movie – even for myself. The emotions of the film changed to something of childlike understanding which lead to some amazing insights from the group as a collective. Before we shared our thoughts, I thought it was important for the group to know the quote I posted previously in the article about Miyazaki and his stance on his religion. I have mentioned this article in previous works, but again, Beneath the Tangles, inspired this particular viewing party solely based off their feature article by Kaitlyn Ugoretz.
Before I get into reviews, it is important that I mention why I chose this movie. From my own personal interaction within the Muslim community, not all communities are opening or welcome to animation, drawings or are just unaware of the culture altogether. Studio Ghibli is a household name even in passing. While the movies may be fantastical to the untrained eye, they hold magic that once understood can be moving. Alhamdulillah, that was something I saw on that day, magic of understanding not only the film, but magic of seeing other Muslims who were outside the bubble of the anime world, look through the window of what it is, not what it’s made out to be.
Religion, spirituality and the arts are blended. They work hand in hand. In fact, one could even say one is emboldened by the other. But that is a discussion for another day insha’Allah.
A few of the takeaways from the group are what many would see at a first glace. Materialism, consumerism, and greed. Something that was agreed upon after remembering one of Chihiro’s father’s first lines, “Don’t worry honey, I’ve got cash and cards.” A timeless reflection of fixing our problems with money and also ignoring the warnings and woes of children. Turning into pigs wasn’t just due to eating food in the spirits world, but also a reflection of the gluttonous behavior mankind exhibits when they have even a taste of anything that fills them; be it food, attention or any other material gain.
Yubaba and her Bath House carried the conversation for hours. The Bath House itself spoke of cleanliness, but only cleanliness of the external, not the internal. Your body is clean, but the spirit is still heavy with the filth of the world. We can even see the change of the spirits from the very beginning. Their sur de soir behavior, placing themselves on a higher pedestal from humans.
Yubaba and Zeniba were two sides of the same coin so to speak. The only similarities the sisters shared was their face. One member even said, “when her sister came in, she didn’t have the mean essence about her.” When Zeniba entered the scene where Haku was entered, she wasn’t threatening as Yubaba was when you first meet her. Even when Chihiro had to travel to her home there was no real fear about Zeniba herself, but the travel of how to get back home. “She was immediately referred to as granny…” one member reflected about how unthreatened she felt by her. The entire atmosphere changed in the movie after their visit to Zeniba’s house down to the spirits of the Bath House and even Yubaba’s giant baby boy.
By the time it was time to end, the discussion of No Face bought a heavy, yet brief, discussion on loneliness, companionship and even eating disorders on a one on one connection. This discussion even lead me to believe it needed it’s own piece (to add to my own excitement).
In it’s entirety the movie, even without my approval, was bound to be a success. There were too many elemental points that hit hearts critically. Reminding people of their childhood, of how to treat children, of the environment and our own desires.