In Praise of ‘Spirited Away’

The Godfather trilogy, Festen, Akira, The Matrix… these are just a few of my favourite movies. One an epic crime story, one a groundbreaking example of Dogme 95, another an exquisitely crafted apocalyptic anime set in a dystopian world, and one famous for it’s use of the most innovative cinematography for its time. Each of them gems worthy of inclusion in any hall of fame. There are a number of movies like that. And yet, for all their brilliance there is still for all of us at some point in our lives that one movie. The one you keep returning to, the one that stands out above all others. For me, that one movie is the Japanese Oscar winning animation ‘Spirited Away’ (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Spoilers ahead, go see the movie first. And watch it in original Japanese audio, not the dubbed version.

It first appeared in theaters in 2001, and last year marked its 20th anniversary. ‘Spirited Away’ already garnered rave reviews when it came out, but film critics still seized the opportunity to reflect on how incredibly well this movie aged, and to again sing its praise. One of the most beautiful aspects of this movie, I think, is its ability to appeal to both children and adults. A very rare talent. And I’m not just talking about a few cleverly masked inside jokes that you’d only get if you’re a parent, for example. This movie is much more than that. For not only is Spirited Away a truly masterful mixture of magical entertainment for children, but it’s actually also a very well executed intellectual commentary on modern society in Japan. I highly recommend the thorough and insightful analysis by Ayumi Suzuki, which is so good that most of what I write is either directly or partially related to that piece.

Most of the movie is beautifully hand drawn, frame-by-frame, computers only assisting in rendering a couple of scenes. Hayao Miyazaki, the famous director of studio Ghibli, is known for preferring this classical style of animation and is not likely to switch to computers, unless he has to. When Zeniba makes a hair tie for Chihiro, she uses no magic to drive the spinning wheel, commenting that it’s better without magic. It is tempting to speculate that this is a reference to Miyazaki’s own preference for the traditional methods in animation, without the aid of computers. What also stands out about Miyazaki’s animation style is the frequent moments where nothing really happens. In previous interviews Miyazaki has stated that this is intentional. It is the Japanese concept of ma, which the director compared to the silence between each hand clap in an applause. Without that silence there would be just an overwhelming cacophony of noise. Thus, the occasional contemplative ’empty’ scenes in the movie function much like rest points in sheet music.

Another stylistically beautiful element that stands out to me, is the moment when Chihiro begins her perilous journey along the staircase on the side of the bathhouse. There is a wonderful scene in the beginning where both the bridge of the main entrance, with the spirit guests noisily walking on it, as well as Chihiro on the side of the bathhouse are visible in the same frame. This is a technique also used in other movies, for example when you have a wide shot showing one character in a room in one half of the screen, while on the left side we see another character doing something in a corridor (the breakfast scene in Fargo, for example). Having two separate things happening in the same shot makes the scene more exciting and dynamic. Another example of effective use of cinematic technique is the shot where Chihiro looks at a stone bollard with faces carved in it on both sides, right before she follows her parents into the tunnel. Here it looks like Miyazaki used a very subtle dolly zoom effect, or something like it, to make the scene appear creepy. Spirited Away is just full of great shots like that.

Breakfast scene in Fargo (1996)
Chihiro’s journey to the boiler room

The attention to detail in the movie is just amazing. When Chihiro makes her way up the stone stairs towards the bridge, just before seeing Haku for the first time, she does so revealing right-sided dominance, as she always uses her right leg to step up. And as Chihiro makes her way down the staircase on the side of the bathhouse towards the boiler room, the attention to detail on the wall is equally stunning. Every little crack and weathering of the outside wall is revealed. So much love went into drawing all that! When she get’s to the boiler room, we see all the rust, every rivet, hissing steam escaping from pipes, wonky dials frantically rotating back and forth to suggest great pressure. This reminded me a bit of kintsugi, which is related to wabi-sabi. The philosophy that the ephemeral, fragile, imperfect nature of (repaired) objects should be valued, that the damage (with or without repair) of a thing actually adds to its beauty and value, is something that you can see throughout the movie. It also adds an organic feeling. For example, by the time Chihiro meets Kamaji you have the distinct impression that his boiler is alive, with a furnace for a mouth and two pressure dials for eyes. This fascination for machines and mechanical devices, and how they have a spirit of their own, is seen in other Miyazaki’s films, like Howl’s Moving Castle for example.

What I also love about the movie is that the characters are never black-and-white. No one is altogether good, or altogether evil. This is nicely illustrated with the evil antagonist in the movie, Yubaba—the witch who runs the bathhouse—and her twin sister Zeniba (who lives a quiet life in the forest). They might as well have been named ‘Ying’ and ‘Yang’ instead. I won’t go into detail about how Yubaba might represent the rise of Western industrialization and capitalism in Japan, around the fin de siècle of the 19th century. This has already been thoroughly discussed by Ayumi Suzuki. And the same goes for No-Face, the masked black faceless spirit resembling greed who ends up devouring a number of Yubaba’s greedy staff.

Another scene that stands out is the train journey, when Chihiro travels to Zeniba’s house. It is in my opinion one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. It begins with the characters on the train; the passengers and the conductor/machinist are all black, semi-translucent, faceless. I differ from Suzuki’s interpretation in that I think perhaps Miyazaki wanted to simply suggests the anonymity of the public. After all, who remembers everyone you see when walking on the street, or in a bus? Are they not all just as faceless, don’t we sometimes just look straight through the other people? The most beautiful thing about the train journey is that the tracks and surroundings are flooded with water, creating a smooth reflective surface surrounding the train that functions like a great big mirror reflecting the sky. I believe Miyazaki is possibly commenting on the illusion of free will in our ‘journey’ through life, especially in a collectivistic culture like the Japanese that values conformity. We have the idea that the train could go anywhere, but unseen by us are the tracks and switches underneath the surface, constraining its course. In Japan, the pressure to perform well scholastically is immense. One might wonder how free someone born in any culture is, to be fully in control of their own future, but perhaps more so in Japan. Indeed, perhaps in Japan this idea of freedom only exists de jure, not de facto; constrained as its people is by a plethora of societal rules, mores, and high expectations. Similarly, the train has no choice but to follow the tracks, even though the water on top suggests boundless freedom. Thus it makes you wonder; Did Miyazaki merely intend to make a stunning visual, or did he find a very clever representation of an important philosophical concept, of fate and determinism? Regardless of the ‘correct’ answer (if there is such a thing in art), this is not just pretty animation anymore, it is visual poetry.

More comments on Japanese society and ethics can be found throughout the movie. When Haku tells Chihiro that she must find work, or else Yubaba will turn her into an animal, for example. Work, or be nothing. Or take the soot sprites in Kamaji’s boiler room as another example. When Chihiro tries to help one of them, Kamaji warns her that if the susuwatari stop working, the spell will be broken and they will cease to exist. As if Miyazaki is commenting on Japanese modern culture; “Without your job you’re nothing.” In Japan, does personal identity come from within or do most derive it from the context of their work? This idea is also reflected in the fact that Yubaba controls her employees by taking their names away from them—Chihiro becomes Sen, for example—linking their identities to the witch’s bathhouse. That is also why Haku quits his apprenticeship only when he finally recovers his own name.

I also wouldn’t be the first to see the similarities between the many contrasting aesthetic elements (Western modernisation versus traditional Japanese style) in ‘Spirited Away’ and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s classic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’. Notice for example how incredibly bright the bathhouse is, just the kind of garish flooding by electrified lighting that Tanizaki bemoaned. Even the ferry carrying spirits to the bathhouse is almost as bright as the sun itself! This is contrasted with areas outside of the bathhouse, or at least the main areas visible to the guests, where there are plenty of beautiful shadows. Notice also that Yubaba is dressed in Western clothes, and the top floor where she lives is decorated in Western classical style. A stark contrast with the traditional Japanese style of her employees and their living quarters. This was also noticed by Ayumi Suzuki, whose excellent analysis I again refer to here.

Then there’s the brazen audacity of Chihiro’s parents, who without permission just begin devouring food in an empty dining place, with the father remarking that it’s okay since he has bank cards and cash on him. Why not be rude if you can afford it? Money can almost literally turn people into pigs. Together with other characters like No-Face, and Kamaji—the six-armed spider-like slave to the boilers, symbolising great ability and industriousness—Miyazaki seems to be commenting on the greed, the materialism and hedonistic consumerism in Japan that was imported from the West over a century ago and thrives to this day.

Another magical scene is for example when the hopping lantern guides Chihiro from the train stop to Zeniba’s house in Swamp Bottom. The latern is said to be a reference to Pixar’s famous ‘Luxo Jr.‘ lamp, that comically squishes the ‘i’ in the well-known short animation that precedes the beginning of every Pixar movie. This hommage is done so incredibly well, that it simply blends seamlessly into the movie and convinces fully, even knowing it’s a nod to Pixar/John Lasseter. Another reference is the ‘Stink Spirit’, which Miyazaki has taken from his own experience cleaning up a polluted river. In fact, one strongly suspects that all the gods that come to the bath house do so to be cleansed of human pollution. Again a reference to unbridled consumption and the throw-away society.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the whole movie is mostly a comment on the bad influences of the West on Japanese society. These are just little comments that have been masterfully blended in a great story that stands by itself. Indeed, the adventure of Chihiro remains the star of the show. A true hero whose perfect child-like innocence, perseverance against many hardships—and her love for Haku and her parents—conquers all. She seems to embody all that is good and pure, has great strength and a keen intuition. There should be more examples like her in movies, and Miyazaki is famous for his many films featuring strong female protagonists: ‘Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind’, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, and others. Indeed, Miyazaki’s movies often have strong feminist themes and can have a very meaningful impact on a person’s life.

As far as Spirited Away is concerned, I will leave with one last comment on the incredible beauty of this film. In the end of the movie, when Chihiro exits the tunnel with her parents, she looks back one last time. In that moment the hair tie that Zeniba made for her sparkles magically, subtly informing the viewer that the whole adventure really happened and reassuring us that Chihiro is forever under its protection. That is where the movie ends and the amazing song ‘Always With Me‘ (Itsumo Nando Demo), performed by Youmi Kimura, begins. The idea that there is value and beauty in damaged things is even reflected in the music, for example:

When a mirror has been shattered, scattered pieces on the ground

Glimpses of new life, reflected all around

This is the most perfect happy ending I’ve ever seen in a movie. Everything in this animation just lives and breathes pure magic, pure love. I am not ashamed to admit the ending brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched ‘Spirited Away’, and the movie continues to move me to this day. For me it is simply the greatest movie ever made.

Dinner at Yiantes (Γιάντες)

I’m in Athens, and last Sunday I went out to dinner with some friends. Because of COVID-19 concerns, and because I’m vulnerable despite being vaccinated, we opted for an establishment that would accept reservations (not all Greek establishments do), and preferably with excellent ventilation. And Yiantes (the ‘Y’ is read as the Greek letter ‘Γ’) fits the bill. They accept reservations and—in the summer—they’ve got an open roof. Perfect!

For some reason we couldn’t get a cab by calling the taxiservice. Too busy. So we tried our luck by going to a nearby busy street instead. There we also had quite some difficulty hailing a cab. Apparently it’s a Sunday thing. So for anyone traveling to Athens, make sure to arrange a cab well in advance on Sundays. Anyway, we finally found a cab and it dropped us off near Valtetsiou, the street where Yiantes is located. We sit down and order.

We have a quick glance at the menu, but need more time to order. First some drinks. The ladies get a carafe of house white wine. It was decent, no more, no less. I ordered some beer. They have a fairly extensive selection for Greek standards, even offering Belgian beers like Duvel and Chimay. They were out of Duvel, so I ordered a Chimay Blue trappist beer. It was brought to me quite strongly chilled, which is not the correct temperature for this type of beer. But this is a Greek thing: beers are typically served at freezing point. And it all comes from the same fridge after all. It’s no big deal, I just let it warm up a bit.

We have a brief discussion about what everyone wants. Greeks share food, so this is a necessary ritual. One in our company is vegetarian, but this is no problem: many of the dishes in this establishment are vegetarian or vegan. A plus, in my opinion. Time to order.

Cheese croquettes

First item we order: Spinach-rocket salad with sesame oil, pickled pear, raisins, dried tomatoes and “manouri” cream cheese. This place is known for serving dishes with a ‘twist’, so we still didn’t feel like getting the “standard” Greek salad (Xoriatiki). And truth be told, no regrets. This salad was very nice.

Spinach-rocket salad

Then we continue ordering. The fava (φάβα in Greek), made with yellow split peas, is always a good choice and the only vegan dish we tried. Here it was decent, certainly tasty but not the best I’ve had. Somehow a bit bland, and not quite creamy enough. Maybe not enough onions? Fava without onions is nothing, after all.

Organic fava

We order two more dishes. The wonderful cheese croquettes with sweet caramelized onions (see first image), that ended up being my favorite that evening, and the eggplants with fresh coriander, some caramelized cherry tomatoes and buttered feta cheese. It’s always a bit risky changing a tried-and-true recipe, but the dishes that featured ‘twists’ on classic Greek cuisine did work quite well.


While I don’t have a picture of it, I also had the marinated pork chops with potatoes and beef sauce. The pork chops (basically grilled ‘pancetta’) were very nice: thin slices with a light crunch and tasty Maillard reaction. But the sauce was too sweet to my liking. Trying the French style a bit I suspect, part of the whole ‘traditional Greek food with a twist’ theme, but I think in this case it requires a more ‘gamey’ meat. I would have preferred something lighter, to balance the rich sweetness of the fatty charred pork, and also a bit more garlic, but this is my personal preference. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was bad and I would also understand if many people liked it just as it is now.

I loved the open roof and the ambiance, and the food was decent enough. Not too expensive, prices ranged from around 5 euros to just shy of 8 euros for the vegetarian dishes. Pork chops were around 10 euros. Would definitely recommend and come again!

Open roof, graffiti, ambiance impression

Review of Joker

Slight spoiler alert, I reveal some details about the movie. Best to watch it first before reading on.

The 2019 movie “Joker” is available on Netflix and my review of it is long overdue. To say that this is a somewhat controversial movie would be an understatement. Reviewers seem highly polarized in their opinions. Roughly half the reviewers thought the movie absolutely sucked, while the other half thought it was a truly great movie. There were some who literally feared mass shootings, and there were some who praised the movie for addressing important issues related to how society deals with mental healthcare.  

A few mental healthcare specialists have pointed out that Joker does not offer a realistic portrayal of mental disorders. Some even went so far as to write to newspapers to express their concern that the factual misrepresentation of mental disease in Joker might damage the public image of real people with psychiatric conditions. On the other end of the spectrum, we find specialists who reflect more favourably on the movie and who successfully argue in a peer-reviewed journal that Joker actually does a pretty decent job of depicting traumatic brain injury.

Going beyond the fascinating—but otherwise irrelevant—factual accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness, one reviewer of Joker wrote that a movie must first of all be interesting. And in his opinion, Joker wasn’t. I think that’s a bit odd. Allright, Joker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s understandable. But considering the polarizing result, the mass media attention, the controversy surrounding Joker, it could certainly be argued that Joker is anything but uninteresting. Quite the contrary. Admittedly, much of the reason for that is the Oscar winning performance of Joaquin Phoenix. His version of Joker really steals the show. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s title is simply “Joker” and not “A Treatise on Social Injustice, Economic Inequality, and the Rise of the Commedia dell’Arte in pre-Chiropteran Gotham”.

Now about the movie itself. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Gotham is a sick town. The news playing on a radio in the background informs us that Gotham city is turning into one big rat-infested trash heap because of a long strike by garbage collectors. Arthur Fleck, a traumatized rent-a-clown, goes to work as a sign-spinner on a busy street in front of a store going out of business. He does so next to a porn movie theater bearing a sign saying that it’s “healthily air conditioned” inside. So this movie is not just about mental disorder, it’s about a whole city that is out of order. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s heavy melancholic cello music (also Oscar winning) is perfect. The mood is further enhanced by the cinematographer’s use of a green filter, casting a sickly hue in every shot. Frequent use of low aperture results in a tasty ‘bokeh’—or differential focus—in some key scenes, creates a fitting sense of introversion. To me it emphasized the narcissistic, self-centered aspect of Arthur’s personality, as well as his mental sickness.

It’s hard to imagine this movie being as successful as it is with any other actor playing Joker than Joaquin Phoenix. His performance was simply amazing, the best I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie in quite a while, and in my view justly rewarded with an Oscar. The way he uses almost every muscle fiber and makes his bones stand out in his lanky sinewy body really works perfectly. He makes Arthur look broken, malnourished, bruised… The heavy smoking completes the image of sickness. In the opening scene, Arthur applies clown makeup and with his fingers pulls the corners of his mouth into a smile while a glistening tear runs over his cheek. That’s Arthur before he is Joker. He does it again after his transformation in the end. The movie has a certain pleasant symmetry.

Arthur’s main goal in life is to become a comedian. But as we follow him on his journey along that path, we soon realize how insane that is. When Arthur visits a comedy club during amateur hour, seeking inspiration for his material, he writes weird notes in his personal notebook, such as ‘sexy jokes alwaze funny’ ,while laughing completely out of sync with the rest of the audience. Arthur has no intuition of comedy. Instead he just copies jokes and behavior from other people as if they were recipes in a cookbook, to be served at the right time. Arthur’s ambition of becoming a comedian is so ill suited to someone with his mindset that it is a bit ironic. Like a person with a pathological lack of empathy for other people’s wellbeing desperately trying to become a grief counselor or nurse. Arthur even copies the moves for his entrance on the Murphy Show from a previous guest by watching a recording of the show. The stark contrast between the aspiring comedian, and the psychotic, hallucinating, mentally unhinged trauma survivor works really well.

Arthur’s unusual collection of mental conditions, which is what some reviewers seems to find problematic or even controversial, is not the most important aspect of the movie. Instead, I feel the most relevant thing is more how his milieu reacts to his conditions. Arthur’s curious collection of mental problems may or may not be accurate, but it still lends itself perfectly well for a valid commentary on how modern society treats people with mental problems. Arthur’s lack of support from social workers, the way people react to him in public, his virtually non-existent treatment by specialist healthcare professionals, the outrageous cutbacks, ending his medication, social isolation, his lack of education, living in a badly maintained apartment building where he takes care of his mother and watches TV… It’s a desperate situation to be in. And there are elements that feel pretty close to real life. Inadequate funding for mental healthcare is a real issue in the Netherlands, for example, where it was recently reported that waiting lists to treat young people dealing with serious mental conditions can now be as long as two years. That waiting period even applies to young people asking for help to deal with suicidal depression. For some on that list, help comes too late…

But there is of course more to the Joker origin story than just the city’s socio-economic problems and the critique of mental healthcare in modern society. The connection between Arthur and Thomas Wayne is also explored, in an interesting way. And there is a sort of twist that reminded me a bit of ‘Fight Club’, which I won’t spoil here. Yet, I don’t think there’s enough in this movie to justify a sequel. Do we really need to see yet another Bruce Wayne turn into yet another Batman? I don’t think so. In that sense, Joker is already a finished movie that can stand by itself. In the end, we see Arthur sitting at a table across an employee of the Arkham asylum. Arthur is laughing uncontrollably, but perhaps this time his laughter isn’t because of the brain trauma. When the employee asks him what’s so funny—apparently unaware of his trauma related laughing condition—he replies: “You wouldn’t get it.” The perfect answer, from a homicidal comedian who never got a joke in his entire life. I rate Joker 8/10.