Her parents have turned into pigs; a ferry is approaching on a sea that wasn’t there a moment ago; floating cards turn into masks that turn into the faces of floating spirits; and she’ll dissolve away if she doesn’t get help soon. Alice in Wonderland meets the East in Hayao Miyazaki’s follow-up to Princess Mononoke, by melding myth, make-believe and the modern.
Like Alice, Chihiro embodies our contemporaneous, human, little-girl perspective as she follows not a rabbit, but her parents into an alternative reality with a logic of its own. In this queer land where humans have no pull, she’s forced to trust the first stranger she meets, the boy-spirit Haku, who advises her through practical lessons in an impractical place, the first of which is that she has to get a job. He tells her to seek Kamaji, slave to the boiler that heats the bath, a crotchety, crickety old man with six arms and a big pot of tea, who grinds mysterious grasses into powder like a Chinese medicine man.
With even more sophisticated and outstanding technical attention to anime than Mononoke, Spirited Away manifests layers of reflections, wind, smoke, shadows, imperfections and dramatic cinematic perspectives, peopling its hand-painted milieu with spirits in need of a bath. Visions of Tenniel’s Alice illustrations hover as you watch the frog men and Yubaba, a bejeweled witch with a masculine head half the size of her body, and her bouncing googly-eyed green heads that grunt, bob and follow her around like empathetic dogs.
Spirited Away ups the animation ante. It’s a test, a lesson, a mystery and an adventure, taking full advantage of the complex powers of anime and its freedom to go wherever the mind can imagine. Paper dolls chase a white dragon with eagle talons and the face of a wolf, above Magritte-surreal landscapes where a train travels on water, stopping for shadows of passengers in a parallel reality. But like life, nothing and no one is ever completely as it, he or she seems.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].