Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott // Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away, Alien, and the Familiar Uncanny
Review by Clément Hossaert
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
Through the Looking glass.
We don’t talk about this a lot, but in a movie distributed by Disney, parents were slowly transformed into pigs, child labor and prostitution is tackled and globalized capitalism is evoked as a faceless power that is destroying the very fabric of our humanity. One of the reasons Spirited Away might be hailed as one of the greatest children movies of all time is the uncompromising nature of the danger Chihiro is confronted with once she finds herself in the spirit world of the Bathhouse near an abandoned theme park after her parents’ transformation.
The level of detail Miyazaki asks of his crew in their craft is always astounding and the kids are spared no details of the bizarre compulsion that takes the parents while they’re absorbing lushly colored meal. The direction of the story is then set, and constantly turns what is common, familiar and comforting to the very opposite. Everything in Spirited Away that sips of familiarity, tropes and places for Japanese people, into distracting, and ultimately haunting pieces of detracted corporeality and fake Japanese historic sights.
The ghost world is not set in an ancient architectural relic of a forgone era, its inhabitants are trapped in a fake but familiar bathhouse close to an abandoned themed park. The world of Spirited Away lives in the uncanny experience of the familiar gone haywire. When Freud writes about the Unheimlich, what we translate as the uncanny today, he actually states that the differing etymological origins of it actually brings both a sense of something that is “unhomely” and something that is “close to home, enclosed in it. At the fringe of the story, a character that slowly embodies the absolute worst and saddest condition of the creatures in the bathhouse appears as the No-Face.
Not a lot is known about it, except that it is the last step of dissolve of a character that probably spent a long while in the spirit world. There is a possibility that No-Face was a child, who, like Chihiro, got stranded in the spirit realm and slowly turned into this creature. In the cracks of the quotes. A great node to the familiar and alienating nature of the bathhouse comes purely through animation storytelling as many employees of the bathhouse display varying degrees of modification, from human to toads, hinting at a systemic warping of identities, happening in this truly ill place.
Something that took time to articulate for me was how much the idea and the design of the No-Face haunted me, and brought me back to my own, and familiar, uncanny feelings from the first time I saw Alien.
Another watch showed to me how eerily similar the No-Face seemed to the creature from Giger and Ridley Scott's nightmarish visions. It’s not just that its color is primarily black and that it ends up devouring people: The No-Face mimics its prey characteristics, straying even further from its origin. The infamous alien from the eponymous movie works in an interestingly similar fashion: The face-hugger jumps from its egg to its victim, and depending on what species the victim is, the result will end up being a hybrid. The No-Face, when devouring the frog in the realm of spirits is given its voice and its ability to leap. There is something really scary about a creature that voraciously devours your essence, creating an uncanny copy of you, even going as far as mimicking one of the employee’s voice, once it absorbed it. As you disappear, the Void sucks up your energy, your history, your culture, and spits out a demonized version of it. And in this concept, Spirited Away and Alien, might have spawned some of the most political versions of the uncanny.
The way the uncanny ends up alienating, not only the objects you gaze at, but also yourself, directly derives from the place people are trapped in. Chihiro and Ripley both have to progress in a terrifyingly big and hostile environment disconnected from nature, homes away from home. The Bathhouse is a place made of fake traditional Japanese architecture, quite like the Casablanca café in Hiroshima, my love. The bridge on which Chihiro gaze at the spirits, coming to rest thanks to the steam boat, is not just made of wood, it’s reinforced with metal. The back of the Bathhouse is a nightmarish construction of a mazelike factory that can’t be older than the XIXth century. In a similar fashion The Nostromo, and its great establishing shot are momentous and intimidating. The place is not really made for people, it is made primarily for merchandize, and it ends up turning the people it carries into merchandise, thanks to Ash, the company android whose plan is to use the crew as living vessels for the alien. The Nostromo and the Bathhouse are both symptomatic of an unhinged capitalistic economy. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation and Yubaba the witch are kindred spirits, the first one is a faceless ghost, the second is an allegory, but they both portray a similar view of capitalism where the love for profit outweighs the interest in people, but more importantly, their culture.
The Alien and No-Face chillingly epitomize the absolute black void of a cultureless environment. They represent not only the void of space, and the existential dread of our ultimate comeuppance, but the fact that this hopeless and infinite void is actually looking back at us with a judging glare. No Face mimics whatever he absorbs, and in this business-minded world, he absorbs human greed, and that is why it becomes such a disturbing, all ingurgitating, power. The same way, people theorize that the Alien becomes predatory, not just a parasite, because it mimics mankind.
In any case, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Chihiro being chased by No-Face in the corridors or the alienating Bath-house without seeing the Alien chasing Ripley in the buzzing and alarm-blaring of the Nostromo. Ripley and Chihiro both knew the place was not right, both anticipated something truly wicked in their environment, both have to defeat the odds.
Where Alien and Spirited Away truly part ways is in the fact that Chihiro can see through the alienated creatures of the bath-house into their original selves. She delivers the God of the River from its trash, shell, Haku the dragon from his curse, and the No-Face from his man-made hunger. What ultimately makes Spirited Away a hopeful movie is that Chihiro reinvest familiarity, culture and hope in what seems lost and long gone. It’s also what makes this movie such a poignant plea for honesty, hard work, simplicity and meditation around our own selves. When Ripley unmasks Ash, there’s only more artificiality, deception and control. When Chihiro discovers the truth behind Yubaba, her baby and Haku, there’s loss, anger and sorrow, yes, but there’s also well of untapped kindness, patience, and reserve.
Alien of course, is making a much bleaker statement. What was alienated stays destroyed, the transformed can’t get back to its former self. Its cosmic horror is a statement of constant mutability, and of the void that will ultimately devour us. And even if those movies make the never-ending attempt at delaying the inevitable inspiring, the characters’ ultimate demise is bound to happen two movies down the line. (Looking at you, Alien 3)
The world around Chihiro is the farthest you can get from the heartwarming eye-popping world of Super Mario. The core design of a Nintendo video game works as follows: first, the developers assign the movements to the character, they decide what new ability they will give the character then everything, every platform, branch, and creatures are designed around those abilities. The world is literally tailor made for the character, and is made to go from cute oddity to natural familiarity, as the purpose of playing the game is to familiarize with the universe and the mechanics. The design of the characters, superficially bizarre at first, work as game design cues about how the player is supposed to play with them. As level design and control get more refined in our time, playing Mario is less a challenge, especially in newer iterations of the game. It’s an act of pure joy that keeps on rewarding you without opposing real challenge. That’s the main difference between a cute albeit shallow plumber of a character and Chihiro. That and the very different media they exist within. Her strength lies in her being true to who she is, not to her changing.
In a way, Mario is akin to Dorothy, who was given the shoes, and the yellow brick road to trot on. Those are not tales of overcoming the odds, those are tales of privilege and rewards. Following the steps is all Dorothy and Mario have to do. There’s nothing about the wicked witch Dorothy can’t undo. The bucket of water is right there. This is the genial kid’s story, something shiny and heartwarming.
As Chihiro must progress in the bath-house, at the beginning of the movie, she has to run down stairs that are way too big for her. As a self-contained episode, this moment is great because of how relatable it is. Of course, as children, we all have experiences stairs in a house or an apartment block that were too wide and far apart and felt, albeit for a moment, estranged in our own homes. This episode is really important for Chihiro, because this is the moment she is proving herself and to the audience that she will actually be up to the task that lies ahead, and not end up as the very creature that pursues her during her adventure. In a direct opposition to Mario’s character, Chihiro is evolving in a world that is decisively not built for her or around her. Ultimately, she runs down, head on, eyes closed and manages to make her way to the next step. It's only the first trial in a long series. She has to run a lot to remain the smart and caring little girl she is, and not turn into Yubaba or the No-Face.
Which is why Spirited Away doesn’t cheat with its happy end. What makes Spirited Away truly stand out, is in the way it addresses the fear of alienation, of the constant uncanny the loss of our own selves and others under the corruptive nature of society and our man-made destruction. In its payoff, Chihiro gives Haku his essence back. This comes from a true work of moral fortitude and strength on her part.
What makes Spirited Away a truly special and inspiring tale for children and adult, resides in the right balance of wonderment and danger, of foreign and recognizable. Of uncanny, this troubling familiarity that makes you miss a step and sweat, and bring your heartbeat to a momentary stop, but also tenderness, buried under the detracted and the macabre. Chihiro runs constantly inside the hellish wonder of the bath-house, just to be able to breathe and not be erased, just to survive even though her own name was taken away from her. In a world where the vacuum of death, memory loss and unhinged capitalism can consume you at every turn, Chihiro not only works within the rules that were clearly designed to fail her in the first place, but she also challenges those rules for the release of her fellow employees and to restore balance and equilibrium. As a depiction of the uncanny feeling one feels as a kid, this movie is both a haunting and a wonderful experience. As an argument for resilience and fighting against a system that's designed to oppress and change you, it is as timely as it is timeless.