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 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 it 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. 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 of My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made better films- Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies- this is a favorite, and one of the great animated films. 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, know that it stands on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Weird Japan: Pom Poko, or the Tanuki Testicles

“We’ve got the biggest balls of them all.” – Bon Scott, AC/DC
Sorry, Bon. These raccoons have got you and Angus beat.

My friend and cohort Johnny wanted to see the classic animated film Pom Poko after seeing a video mashup with footage from it, and the classic rock song “Big Balls” by AC/DC. Now why would a children’s movie, one released in the U.S. by Disney no less, fit with a song filled with such double entendre? Permit me to demonstrate.

The clip that gave Johnny the girly-giggles.

Tanuki look like raccoons, but they are technically called raccoon dogs and live in Japan and Siberia.

This is what they look like. Note: no gigantic balls.

According to the wikipedia, tanuki have “unusually large testicles, a feature that has inspired humorous exaggeration in artistic depictions of the creature. Tanuki may be shown with their testicles flung over their backs like travellers’ packs, or using them as drums.” Maybe the tail is hiding something, but I don’t see any signs of elephantiasis. Then again, in Japan maybe they have a different idea of what big balls are. We’re all “Big” in Japan if you know what I mean.

When I went to Japan, I saw this statue of a tanuki outside of a restaurant, where they bring good luck and prosperity. Sort of like how every Chinese restaurant has red and some 8’s somewhere. It’s like the hidden Superman in every Seinfeld episode, look for it.
Look how cute! Then look more carefully. Keep looking. What the hell? Does that thing have wangmeat? Why yes it does. Hmm, how come it doesn’t have any legs? Mother of God. Its BALLS are covering its feet. Do I want to eat at this establishment? What if they serve me giant raccoon balls?

Nothing is funnier than Engrish.

Blob? Okay if big balls make you lucky with money, Italians would be winning the Powerball (pun definitely intended) instead of toothless trailer trash. Trust me. They need to make bigger pants for us. I just had mine let out so the boys could have some room. I may invest in a kilt. But enough about my balls, or as I like to call them, Mutt and Jeff.

The movie itself is actually very cute, and is about a group of raccoons living near the city during a housing boom. Their habitat will soon become condos. If Ralph Bakshi made this movie, they’d be crows, if you remember Fritz the Cat and its caricatures. “Sheee-itt! I hate this genchrication!” But enough gratuitous racism, back to the story. It’s a simple story. The raccoons fight the construction workers and the businessmen. They learn how to transform into people, which animals have always been able to do in Japanese folklore. The film jokes that all the fat Japanese who eat lots of candy and energy drinks are actually tanuki in disguise. Which made Johnny call me Tom Poko. So I hit him with my balls.

When tanuki party, they go balls out.

The do everything to harry and foil the construction crew except light a bag of poop on fire and ring the doorbell, which believe me, would fit right in to this movie. They enlist the help of the Tanuki Elders whose balls are the size of large trampolines, and one of them looks like Wilford Brimley.

Do you have the Diabetus?

The elders try to scare the humans away with a parade of creepy spirits running through town, but everyone enjoys it, and thinks it was put on by the local amusement park. See, we’re all so enthralled with our new-fangled technology that we can’t recognize the magic of nature and the spirits of the past! Apparently the raccoons were stoners, which makes sense because they sit around eating all day with their balls out for easy scratching.

More proof that tanuki are stoners.
Freaky-Ass Shit.
Bad trip, man.

This does exactly jack shit to stop the construction, as you can imagine. It becomes time for the Final Countdown, the big battle. Some want peace, others want war, and some of us want the animals to WEAR SOME FUCKING PANTS. Either way, we lose.
The war faction ready their balls for battle, and the peaceful ones actually hug the fucking trees.

There’s a joke here somewhere.

But you came to see flying raccoons with biggie-size nutsacks, and I will not disappoint. I warn you, the nature of the next images is extremely graphic. Well duh, they’re graphics. I never understood that stupid TV warning. Images are graphic. So let me say that the images are of a Nutley nature.

How to Attack With Your Balls

1. Get blue balls.
2. First you stretch your scrotum into a trampoline.
3. Have your friends jump on your scrotrampoline and become airborne.
4. Shock & Awe Paratroopers inflate ballsack (not Balzac, that’s a French author)
5. Use your scrote as a parachute and glide toward enemy targets. Yes, really.
6. Kick yourself in the nuts until you look like you’re riding a Space Hopper Ball.
7. Land with great fury!
Let’s take a short break to remember Space Hopper balls or Hippity Hoppers.

8. Swing your balls like a sack full of doorknobs.
9. Or just smother the riot police with your mighty scrote.
10. Don’t let the cops hit your nuts with their batons.
Note the veins. Sticklers for details, those fellows over at Ghibli studios. Yes, this was made by the same folks who did Princess Mononucleosis and Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s actually a quite funny and beautifully animated story that will make children think about nature, and probably get rabies from a raccoon. Just imagine the playfights they’ll get into using beanbag chairs. I can’t wait to have kids and mess their heads up with this stuff.

Proof that this nuttiness is nothing new.

In the end, the raccoon dogs learn to live alongside the city in smaller numbers, stealing from garbage cans and not assaulting people with their testicles unless the sanctity of their home is threatened. A delightful film to scar children with or laugh yourself silly with, once properly inebriated. 3 stars or 2 giant tanuki balls.

Are you done swinging your nuts around?