Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fool's Gold: Abstract Economy in Miyazaki's Spirited Away

Miyazaki's films, particularly those produced by Studio Ghibli, have for a long time been a source of joy and inspiration for me. And I do not use joy lightly. Joy, as a facet of the human experience, is distinct from happiness in that Joy is not circumstantial, per se. Happiness can be chemically replicated. Endorphins, dopamine, tryptophan and oxytocin are just a few of the naturally occurring hormones and neurotransmitters the body produces that elicit feelings of happiness, well-being, comfort and love. In essence, happiness can (and has been) produced for general consumption. Joy, on the other hand, is innate/internal and does not necessarily have a mode of expression or replication. Joy is spiritual. Or, more concretely, Joy is the positive manifestation of a healthy relationship with one's memory. 

It is in this sense that I relate to Miyazaki's films. Of his Studio Ghibli films, I think most often of "Spirited Away". I remember thinking that the music moved so elegantly through and between each scene. It was my first Miyazaki film, and from outset to conclusion I was rapt in the Bizet-esque* (cf. Nietzsche's Der Fall Wagner) presentation of the real beside the spiritual. The color palette was so stimulating and vibrant, without being garish (cf. Spongebob) and the various depictions of light, natural and otherwise, were hauntingly beautiful (cf. Picasso's Le Moulin de la Galette). But what has truly captured my imagination, since I first saw the film several years ago, is the uniquely accessible semiotic woven through the fibers of the film's narrative.

"Spirited Away" is a Derridean archive--a discursive matrix of representations. As night begins to fall on the mysterious netherworld and the spirits begin to articulate their forms, Miyazaki calls for the viewer's embarkation.

At this point, always, I begin to feel as though I'm tangibly reacquainted with the curious mystery of youth, my youth, and its tender evaporation. It's not necessarily a negotiation/hermeneutic of life and death. It's not nostalgia per se. I think it's a joyful embarkation on the ferry of a master storyteller--the excitation of suspending reality in favor of the imaginary that I equate with my young mind (or the young part of my mind) It is a new world, not of my own imagination, but like the experience of deja vu, Miyazaki's imagined world bears a strange resemblance to my own. This elicits desire--a desire to explore and discover his world and its spirits. Returning to this notion of the film as archive, my recent preoccupation has been with the quiet, creeping wraith called No-Face.

No-Face is a sort of ethereal creature, more so than the other spirits in that he has no full form, wears no expression, and serves no knowable purpose--hence No-Face. He is masked at all times and from the start of our protagonist's (Chihiro/Sen) journey across the bridge into the spirit world, No-Face, who seems to see through her temporary invisibility, is aware of her presence. Shortly after settling into her new world, Chihiro (who is now called Sen) encounters for the first time the foreboding presence of No-Face on the bridge. It isn't until later that evening, when Sen allows No-Face to enter the bathhouse, that No-Face presents his unique ability. He can materialize gold in the palm of his ghostly hands. He also intervenes on her behalf during her first bath task, bringing her an excess of bath tokens (which are required to initiate specific bath water combinations for soiled spirits). No-Face's character, for the majority of the film, operates within this unusual economy. His multifarious lack--lack of identity, lack of purpose, lack of voice--is channeled into his excessive desire to create and then give, a sort of philanthropic impulse with questionable intention. His silence, for much of the film (until he begins eating other characters), further underscores No-Face's questionable character.

Sen, who he's taken a liking too, often refuses his excessive gifts, finding that they serve her no purpose. Feeling rebuffed by her, No-Face begins to produce tremendous quantities of gold, drawing the greedy attentions of the bath house workers who try to appease his unseemly appetite. He begins to consume ravenously and with no regard for the lives of the bathhouse inhabitants. He is transformed from a quiet figure of longing, into a monster of consumption. This is a major thematic thread in the film. Each of the characters in the film, with the exception of our protagonist, is at some point tempted and transformed (or nearly transformed) by the anti-promise of material wealth and sensual satisfaction. In this sense, No-Face is the embodiment of the film's central preoccupation. 

How then do we, can we read No-Face? The deceptively generous wraith is, in many ways, a Jungian dream archetype that we've all encountered--the joyless manifestation of an unrequited desire. No-Face is a sort of haunting or hauntedness. Have you ever been courted by someone whose desire, you both knew, was not in the right place? Rational communication breaks down (between self and self [denial], between self and other) and the gesture of generosity, with the intention of possessing the object of desire, becomes a vacuum of consumption where notions of wholeness are lost, collapsed. No-Face, we begin to realize, is sick. Of course, Sen's solution to his illness in the film works through a great deal of magic. Perhaps it takes a little magic to fill the no-face void in each of us--the void that haunts us in the middle of the night and motivates us to move, to create, to consume or be consumed. And perhaps it takes some faith to know that this void is not necessarily a malign force operating within the self. 


from The Perforator God
by Ariana Reines
(Mercury, Fence Books, 2011)


A silver corsair

In a violet distance

That I am capable of imagining

Inside a world

In which the cashew-colored sky

Emits a musk

Of snow

Is the zone in which

I will lay down what's most harassed in me

And make it die.