(Dedicated to Dr. Lily Rose Tope, who cheerfully began last semester's Asian Lit course by asking a Murakami-reading classmate, "Ahh, but do you know how to read him?" I had since revisited this author - being a long-time closet fan - and had indeed better appreciated the Japanese-ness of his text, the better to salvage him from the Western morass that most of his [young] readers unfairly subject him to.)
And so, at the risk of essentializing, will venture to say that Spirited Away is "so Japanese" (Tope, circa-all the time). It is difficult to sustain this reading at length and in all fronts, but it is also from this, I think, that any universalist framing can and should depart. To cite, in the laying out of the status quo that the narrative is set to (predictably) break, there is a detail that might escape a Western viewer (yes, we had become pagoda-worshipping Asia-centric hippies in that class). In the car on their way to the new house, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents debate on the merits of moving to the new place. Chihiro, who is obviously a brat, is the least happy about the decision. She whines, holding some flowers: "My first bouquet - and it's spoiled."
Of course, the Japanese do not have the monopoly on making use of flora's (and nature's) ephemera to make a point. Here, we assume that the text comes from a strong Japanese sensibility and is therefore aware of these archetypes, these semiotic clues. Flowers are particularly resonant of Japanese aesthetics; ikebana is as concerned about the beauty of the arrangement as it is about the knowledge - the happy certainty - that such will not last, that it will eventually wither.
And so it is here, in this constant ephemera (odd phase, surely?), in this liminal, elemental space where Chihiro's rite of passage takes place. The movie had been compared, both justly and unfairly, to other tales of "coming into one's own." Justly, for a portal clearly demarcates the passage; labor is rendered an utter necessity; and at one point, Chihiro is forced to forget her name as a means of giving up control (as if the point is not clear enough, Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse, magically lifts off the text of Chihiro's name from parchment). But unfairly, for the similarities end there, and Spirited Away draws heavily on a culture that had seen the confluence - indeed the constant tug-of-war - of old and new, of paying homage to a dear heritage and needing to survive in a quick-changing world (Japan's post-war aesthetics and art movements all leaning on this ambivalence).
The Japanese are no stranger to such attention. Kodo, or "the way of fragrance," is practically unheard of compared to ikebana and the tea ceremony. In the film, not only is Yubaba's nose extremely prominent, two of the film's most striking motiffs, food and memory, are closely linked with smell. Often admired for its stunning visuals, Spirited Away's narrative provokes much more than glitzy Hollywood animation because it invokes a sense that is often more visceral - be it pleasurable or agonizing - than sight. And so we recall that it was the aroma of food that attracted Chihiro's parents to the feast that would turn them into pigs. It was her ability - and willingness - to bath a stink spirit without covering her nose that earned her the respect of her colleagues.
Which leads us to: No-Face! This extremely needy spirit is one of the most brilliantly conceptualized and emotionally resonant characters in any feature I have ever seen, animated or otherwise. Lurking around the bathhouse for god knows how long, he gains entry when Chihiro, in a simple act of benevolence, lets him in. This act of kindness destroys him.
His desire awakened, No-Face follows Chihiro and offers her copious gifts, from bath tokens to gold. Denied of Chihiro's affection, he turns to others, first luring a frog-attendant with gold and swallowing him, before turning the whole bathhouse upside down by eating every food in the premises in exchange for gold. He becomes insatiable. He loves.
I don't know: clearly, no amount of poorly argued exposition can capture the journey of No-Face in this film, and so I will stop (plus, I'm getting emotional na, especially recalling that train ride when he travels with Chihiro to Zeniba's house, where all the passengers are profiles, shadows "on the verge of being erased," trudging on to unnamed, unimportant stations).
If I have learned something from Spirited Away, it is this: that kindness transforms, and it doesn't matter how monstrous we've become; we only need to let it. Kindness is not the offer of entry or a feast, it is the ardent desire to partake in the humanity that Borges posits: in feeling that "we are all voices of the same poverty." Apologies to Dr. Tope if this is not "so Japanese." But maybe it is, because it is all.