The battle between order and chaos in narrative film is sadly one-sided. Audiences thrive on formula – understandably, it’s safe – and studios are only too happy to appease them. Order provides comfort and goes down naturally, while chaos gets labeled as weird, confusing and pretentious, all for having the gall to, god-forbid, challenge viewers’ precious conceptions. But chaos, or instability, holds the keys to amazement, and too few films seek to surprise us anymore. The ultimate example in narrative chaos is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its cinematic equivalent is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Miyazaki had always played from a different rulebook than his Disney counterparts, and more than any of his other film, Spirited Away unfolds with the stipulation that the rules can always change. Characters regularly take on different forms; the very shape of their bodies physiological impossibilities; villains quite suddenly become friends; and the plot itself refuses to settle into a groove, redefining the boundaries the moment we become aware of them. The first half hour is an unforgettable plunge down a rabbit hole, and no sooner than our heroine Chihiro lands on her feet do all the problems of this magical world suddenly concern her. Something’s very peculiar about the Yubaba, the disproportioned governess of the bathhouse, and Haku the dragon-boy has been acting in secret as well, and of course there’s the spectral No-Face, whose part in the story temporarily takes us into horror movie territory. And lest we think the world of Spirited Away is confined to the vibrant bathhouse at the center of it, the final chapter sees Chihiro on a journey deeper into the realm of the spirits. The film, like any great imagination, has no bounds.