Counting Down the Zeroes: Spirited Away

This post is part of Film for the Soul‘s excellent Counting Down the Zeroes project, reviewing the great films of the past decade.

One more thing to thank Pixar for is helping get Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli some respect in the States. I’ve been a fan since I saw Nausicaa presented at a science fiction convention in the early ’90s; back then was only available on a bootleg VHS with subtitles created by American fans who learned Japanese. Later I saw Princess Mononoke at an Asian Cultural Center in Minneapolis, dubbed for American release. So I thought it was wonderful when in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke was the general American public’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it is practically an action film, with a war between nature and a village of gunmakers; it’s an easy sell. Spirited Away is a disturbing fairy tale about a young girl kidnapped and enslaved by a witch. Instead of an action film we get an Alice in Wonderland set in a strange fairy tale world sprung from Miyazaki’s imagination, melding all sorts of folklore.
It is the tale of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. She is angry at leaving home, and sits petulantly in the back of the car. Her father takes a deep forest road, and they come upon an abandoned amusement park. As they explore, her parents find a room laden with delicious food, and begin eating ravenously. Chihiro senses that something is off, and does not eat; she comes upon a boy named Haku, who warns her to leave with her parents, but it is too late. Her parents have begun turning into pigs, and there is no return. They have entered the land of spirits, and cannot escape.
Rather disturbing, isn’t it? No more than a fairy tale, and that’s what this is. Chihiro follows Haku, who wants to protect her, but soon she is in the thrall of the witch Yubaba, a wizened old woman of bizarre proportions. Her parents are soon in Yubaba’s pigsty and Chihiro must find a way to free them and escape; her only choice is to work for the witch, at her bath house, where all the spirits come to get clean. From there on, we follow the naive yet plucky Chihiro as she works off her debt in the spirit world, making friends and learning the secrets of Haku and Yubaba.
The world is one of mystery and wonder, rooted in mundane work life. Another worker named Lin takes her under her wing—she’s one of the few humans there—and teaches her the ropes. They toil together scrubbing the baths, which are visited by frog men, dragons and “stink spirits.” Some are the spirits of rivers and trees, in other guises; others are pure mystery, such as a cloaked, silent figure in a Noh mask who seems a little too friendly and generous. Chihiro learns that Haku is also bound to Yubaba, and hopes to free him as well someday.
The story is slowly paced, but there is always something fantastic going on. The characters are full and believable, whether they are witches or drudges. And as always, the beautiful animation of Studio Ghibli is the backdrop. We see oriental dragons have dogfights in the sky against swarms of paper birds cutting them to ribbons; a spidery man with a dozen gangly limbs operating a coal furnace fed by a tiny army of dust motes; and parades of all kinds of spirits and fantastic creatures as they walk across the bridge to town.
The world has the same grip that the creations of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam, and it’s not all fun and games. Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name as collateral, and renames her “Sen,” as if capturing her soul. A ravenous spirit begins luring the bath house workers with gold nuggets and swallowing them whole. And Yubaba’s minions include a trio of bouncing, grunting, bearded disembodied heads, and a beastly enormous baby she dotes over. We get a real sense of danger for little Sen, no matter how resourceful she is.
Spirited Away is more than a coming of age folk tale about a spoiled child forced to grow up in a strange world. In part, the bath house is a token from old Japanese culture, “the good old days.” In 2001 when this was made, Japan was undergoing its own economic crisis, and a yearning for the simplicity of old abounded. But he shows the bad side of the past as well, with the forced servitude. The familiar Miyazaki nods to nature are subtle, but there; we see a polluted river spirit fly free, once it is freed of the garbage weighing it down. The punishment for the gluttonous parents is obvious; we have grown fat and need to tighten our belts. So in some ways, it is just as poignant for America now as it was for Japan eight years ago.
But lessons aside, this is a great story; at just over two hours, it never drags or feels indulgent. It envelops you, like a good fantasy should. There are mistakes and redemption; people of compassion and greed, selfish vampires, gluttons and the reward of earnest hard work, pride in doing the right thing, and forgiveness for trespasses. We dive deep into a strange yet familiar world, and meet fantastic and interesting characters. We even see someone eat a dried lizard, who makes it look so tasty you wish you could have a nibble.
Spirited Away is the perfect marriage of the more energetic Princess Mononoke and the children’s fairy tale My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made even better films—Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies—this stands with them, as one of the great films, animated or not. You can watch it subtitled, or with the excellent English dub that was released by Disney in 2003. When you see the wonder of WALL-E, or any Pixar film, know that they stand on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Hercules in New York

I’ve seen most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies. I’ve been a big fan since The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian, and sort of lost interest when Eraser came out. Do you know his first film appearance? Hercules in New York is a very low-budget sword-and-sandal movie from 1970. He was credited as Arnold Strong, in case his name scared people off, which seems odd since it was obviously a beefcake flick and there had to be fans who knew him from bodybuilding mags.

Sometimes we forget he cut weight for Conan.

The movie begins with some hilarious narration as the camera pans over some mountains, and zooms in to bring us to Mount Olympus. The set is a public park somewhere; you can hear cars going by in the original audio track, which I highly recommend. Arnold’s accent was so thick that he was dubbed for the theatrical release, and while it’s amusing to hear a generic voice come out of his mouth, the movie is much funnier with the restored dialogue. If you thought he was hard to understand in Conan or Pumping Iron, this will sound like crazy moon-man language.

“Zumday a real rain iz going to come and clean up zis place.”

The movie is pretty horrible, but that didn’t stop us from watching it in its entirety. Take one of those Italian Hercules movies starring Steeve Reeves, one of Arnie’s heroes, and mix it with Midnight Cowboy, and there you have it. It has plenty of moments of unintentional hilarity and copious cheesiness, and you get to see young Arnold with a bad haircut delivering lines that make you wonder if his nickname “The Austrian Oak” came from his acting instead of his amazing physique.

Far in the dim past, when myth and history merged into mystery, and the gods of fable and the primitive beliefs of man dwelt on ancient mount Olympus in antique Greece, a legendary hero walked godlike upon the Earth, sometimes…

Hercules is bored on Olympus and wants to go to Earth and “browse around a bit.” Zeus is having none of it. He’s as grumpy as always, and if you thought Lawrence Olivier was chewing the scenery in Clash of the Titans, this guy must have died with scenery lodged in his colon. He gets sick of Herc’s insolence and hurls a lightning bolt, made loving out of silver rebar by some forgotten prop designer, which sends his son tumbling to Earth to teach him a lesson.

Unidentified Flying Olympian

Two little old ladies see Arnold falling past their Pan Am jetliner and are overcome with the vapors over seeing so much beefcake tucked in a toga. Then he’s picked up by a ship full of sailors, and ends up getting in a shirtless wrestling match with the first mate because he refuses to take orders. I began to wonder who this movie was supposed to cater to… not really. I think the reason Arnie disowns this one is not because it’s terrible, but because it’s a campy beefcake movie.

Pretzie is extra salty.

Wait, it gets better. When he jumps ship, he’s rescued by Catfish from Jabberjaw. I’m not kidding- Arnold Stang, who also voiced Top Cat, plays “Pretzie,” a bespectacled New York nebbish peddling– you guessed it– pretzels by the shipyard. They nab a cab uptown, not before Hercules grabs a forklift and tries to ride it.

“Nice chariot, but where are the horses?”

As the camp increased to a fever pitch, it became clear that Arnie’s first movie was not really a Hercules movie like the Italian ones, or meant to capitalize on his status as Mr. Universe, but was probably crafted on the cheap to play in Greenwich Village theaters. My uncle, who ran gay bars for the mob back in his day, told me Midnight Cowboy was so popular that they were showing stolen prints for years. Pretzie sounds a lot like Ratzo Rizzo, but I was surprised to learn that Dustin Hoffman’s legendary performance was partly based on Arnold Stang’s stage persona- probably best seen in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as the gas station attendant with the Coke-bottle glasses. Instead of Jonathan Winters tearing things up, this time he has to deal with Mr. Universe.

Cameo by Jiminy Glick

Instead of pimping his new pal like Rizzo tried to, he gets him involved in mob-sponsored wrestling matches. They’re pretty sad to watch- Arnold is no wrestler, but he gives a good flex here and there. According to IMDb, Arnie got the part because his agent said he had a lot of “stage experience,” meaning posing on stage for bodybuilding competitions, which was mistook for work in theater. This is twelve years before Conan, and seven years before Pumping Iron, where he mostly played himself. He improved exponentially in those years. If you thought his alternate under and over-acting was funny in Conan the Destroyer, just wait until a skinny little sailor tries to strangle him here.

Arnie’s always been great at emoting struggle.

The plot thickens as Zeus realizes that Herc likes it down there and won’t come home. He sends Mercury to get him, who gets rebuffed. I have no idea what Hercules likes so much down here; he spends most of his time talking to a mousy girl in a sweater, the daughter of a professor played by James Karen, most famous for being “The Pathmark Guy” in commercials, and the boss who built houses on a graveyard in Poltergeist. Zeus sends Nemesis down, who slips Herc a mickey that denies him his godlike strength. This makes him lose a strongman competition vs. Monstro, played by “Mr. World” Tony Carroll, another bodybuilder.

Some of the overdressed goddesses.

Pluto even comes on down to try to lure him back, but he seems a lot more like Satan in his dapper suit. There are a few other goddesses in togas up in Olympus, but the filmmakers seem to know their audience was here for Austrian beef. When mobsters shows up to clobber the now-vulnerable Herc, we get Atlas and Samson– on loan from the Bible– to help save him.

“Atlas, when you’re done how ’bout we go for a nosh?”

The best part of the movie for us was the car chase around Central Park, put to frantic zither music. Milky and I accompanied them on the conga drum and ipu gourd. With enough beer and random percussion, the movie is quite tolerable. It’s from another time, when myth and history merged into…Z movies that you went to see because the theater had popcorn and air conditioning.

Now we know how Zeus got Samson- he’s actually a rabbi.