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  • Writer's pictureShannon Heibler

Spirited Away (2001)

How on earth is this movie over 20 years old?? How?? I always think that I saw this right when it came out but that can't be true. I didn't see Princess Mononoke until college (2003ish) and that was my gateway to Ghibli.

There's so much to love about this film. The characters, the design, the deeply heartfelt storytelling. When I think about Spirited Away, my brain inevitably says something like, "It's not my favorite Ghibli (Howl's Moving Castle is) but it's probably the best Ghibli." Why isn't it my favorite? I kept asking myself that during this viewing and finally realized that it all hits a lot closer to home than I'm comfortable admitting. I relate to a few of the characters in dark, messy ways, and I'm embarrassed by it. But isn't this story ultimately about growth? About grounding yourself in who you are, who you've always been, and who you want to be?

One of my first professional theater gigs was with a company I'd been enamored with since high school. I couldn't believe my luck at getting to work there. The people were so nice. They liked me. Everyone said we were a family. That should have been a red flag but coming out of an abusive marriage and feeling so adrift in the world, I wanted that place to be everything. I bought in hard and I bought in recklessly. A few years later, and that shiny, impossible to maintain image I had was crumbling. People were nice but they weren't nearly as invested in me as I was in them. Some people were casually cruel. (I recognize that none of that was malicious but the fact that it was done without thought still makes it hurt like hell.) I could barely pay my bills let alone build a life for myself and as I struggled to tell this "family" that I was struggling, I was written off. I was dismissed as being emotional. And the more I was dismissed, the messier I got and the more I struggled. God, it's so hard to think of both what I was going through then and how poorly I handled it. But people who feel heard don't shout. And people who feel valued don't thrash about like I did. And I thought, maybe if I GIVE MORE, they'll value me. Maybe they'll want me. Maybe I'll have a home again. But instead, I No-Faced that company. Ate some people, vomited a lot, and wrecked a lot of relationships. Then I haunted it for a couple years. I even said to someone I thought of as a friend, "I feel like No-Face in Spirited Away. I want to be here so badly but I think being here is making me crazy. And I feel like people only want what I'm giving them, but I'm not allowed to be complicated or to want things myself." And he rolled his eyes at me and changed the subject. It all broke my heart. It's hard to think that no one should have invited me in from the rain. Or that something about me is inherently broken so I was only ever going to wreck it. I don't know. But I felt like a ghost on that train for a long time. I was as transparent as I could be and people still didn't see me. LORD I SPENT TOO MUCH TIME WRITING ABOUT THAT. And I hate that I still have so many feelings about it.

I also feel a lot like Chihiro, as much as I don't want to. I spent so much of my life so scared of getting hurt and so scared of losing the life that I knew, I got stuck where I didn't belong any more. Or I couldn't see the landscape changing around me, and then I was indignant. There are a lot of parallels I'll spare you but in this viewing, I was really proud of Chihiro. I used to be so annoyed with her (read: me) for whining and complaining, but now I just see the growth. Her insisting on a job. Helping the soot sprites. Helping others around her just by showing them that growth is possible. Being just so brave and learning to do what needs to be done, even when it's scary. She's going to be okay. Though, I admit, I wish that at the end of the movie, her parents could see how much she's grown. I love Chihiro.

I also love the mousebaby and the flybird. I don't remember the mouse saying, "choo!" all the time but I freaking love it. CHOO.

I am not remotely the first person to talk about this but some of the best magic in Miyazaki films is the accuracy of the feeling. Big tears, full body shudders, gooey/gross food that I feel compelled to put in my mouth. They are so fantastical but they feel truer to life than most films I watch. I never really thought a lot, before this viewing, about the use of transparency/disappearing in this movie but it struck a chord. That feeling of being unmoored and incorporeal in a place. Being unable to take up space or belong. Needing to acclimate with food and purpose in order to remain substantive. Just really brilliant grace notes in already solid storytelling.

Acrylic painting and pyrography on poplar slice.


-I don't really want to get into it too much. I'm not even sharing this to social media because a lot of people will recognize that path and I don't feel like talking about it with them. I barely want to talk about it in therapy because I'm bored to death with myself over it.

-The writing around the edge reads, "I am terrified that part of me will forever be stuck on that path, a shadow in sunshine, moonglow, and starlight. Do I haunt or am I haunted?"

-I had so many incredibly ambitious and overcomplicated ideas about how to do this one. I'm very glad I simplified.

-I was worried that the figure would be (too) hard to see with wood burning but it just melted(?) the paint(?) and turned white sooooo... call it a win.

Whew. I felt like this piece was a big ol' raincloud over me all week and then when I finally sat down to JUST DO IT, it went quickly and I'm relieved. It still makes me anxious to put it out there but maybe it's like Joan of Arc's short movie in the Film Fest episode of Clone High (watch that whole series please) and I think it's really obvious and vulnerable but the only one who gets it is teenage Sigmund Freud.

Next week! The best Batman (movie): Batman (89). I'm stoked. Michael Keaton being weird and delightful. Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson in drag. Tim Burton back when I enjoyed his directing. Gonna be great.

In the meantime, have a great week and be gentle with yourself. Healing is a journey and it's a weird, windy road that sometimes goes plum backward. Hang in there. Drink some water.

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