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Spirited Away with Sam Shepard
Stream of consciousness into other worlds and a heightened awareness of this one
It’s hard to explain, but here goes. After my interview with John Mese and subsequent opus, I opened up my Libby app to check the digital Sam Shepard holdings at the East Baton Rouge Public Library. There, I found instant access to his final work, a novel published posthumously in 2017, the year he died. It seems that the lifelong playwright actually had two novels bursting out of him as he declined from ALS. His main character in Spy of the First Person is “dying” too—declining or detaching from this world, looking inward but also outward. Paradoxically, while he’s retreating more within himself, he’s also becoming more aware of what’s outside of him. There’s a curious detachment of the mind and body. At times, it feels like his mind is leaving his body. He talks of being another person entirely—the Watcher, the one who is watching “him,” or the “spy.” Sometimes, the narrative is in the first person of the one, sometimes of the other. They are the same, but not exactly one, but in the last pages, there’s a sense that they’ve come together at last, or again. The narrative is all stream of consciousness—he’s thinking about change or sameness and suddenly hones in on a butterfly that lands on a purple plant. It’s similar to what Virginia Woolf did, but, obviously, it’s all Sam Shepard—American, masculine, straightforward. It was quite an experience, almost psychedelic, to read these words at interludes between my rewatch of Spirited Away. (It was made in 2001 and I’ve seen it dozens of times. What’s one more time?) As I watched the mesmerizing moving images of Miyazaki, I thought of Sam’s words; and as I read Sam’s words, I thought of Miyazaki’s allusions. Shepard’s detachment of body and mind, the loss of form and connection with being is fantastically illustrated by the film with the idea of human transparency in the spirit world. Human form is disconnected and see-through in that world that goes on forever, for all space, as far as the eye can see. Chihiro looks out over the water and says, “It really is like a sea.” She is bewildered as she watches the underwater train rush by. She’s not even Chihiro in that world; she is Sen, worker at the bathhouse for the spirits. Chihiro could not exist there; she has to be Sen. She had to eat the substance Haku (her soulmate?) gave her to become substantial. She had to declare a want of work to have any relevance in the spirit world. She had to take a new name and grow up very fast—immediately, in fact! With cynical Lin as a her guide, Sen had to stop being a spoiled child and just buck up and start behaving as an adult. She had to lay aside her fears and focus on the task at hand—saving her parents from their gluttony and getting them all back to the world of human form.
Sam Shepard wrote of an old man looking with some fear but also some longing toward the world of conscious being. Miyazaki drew the world of a child dissatisfied in her human world. Her parents are taking her to live in a new place and she’s sad to leave behind the old place, which to her is the known and, therefore, safe. Her parents have less fear, but they are very materialistic. Her dad loves his four-wheel-drive Audi. He brags about having lots of credit cards. Her mom doesn’t understand why Chihiro is sad about her flowers dying—the flowers her friend from her old school gave her. “We’ll get new ones,” her mom says dismissively. Chihiro and her parents end up in between….in between human world and spirit world. Her parents are excited, feeling adventurous, but they are hungry, and greedy. “Look at all this food,” they say as they binge on nauseating amounts of meat. Human forms feasting on other life forms with no end in sight. The feast keeps refilling as their greed grows. But Chihiro does not want it. She’s afraid and she wants to go back where it’s safe. That’s the one thing that saves her. Her utter lack of gluttony spares her and, instead of being transformed into a pig, she is spirited away into a world of adventure where innocence and pure heart save her at every juncture. With her pure heart, and without even trying, she wins over the heartsick, the cynical, the lost and the wandering. She feels lost too, but she has no wish to take anything from anyone. She wants only to go home, to save her parents, to save injured Haku, to be a good person. And so even in the daunting world of the spirit bathhouse, she will always be ok because she has a pure heart. I love the scene where Chihiro takes on the task of bathing that horrifyingly dirty spirit and, even when plunged underwater or caked in mud, she doesn’t back down. When Lin rushes to her aid, she remains hellbent on helping the spirit. She found a thorn in its side. The spirit was injured and Chihiro insisted on pulling the thorn out. In gratitude, the recovered spirit gave Chihiro a ball of something which she later uses as a restorative agent to heal Haku’s wounded dragon body. It’s quite a story! Spoiler: It ends with Chihiro helping not only herself and her parents but Haku as well—by breaking the spell that bound him to this odd, in-between dimension. “True love” broke the spell, and both Chihiro and Haku (a river spirit) were able to go forward—not without fear, but in spite of fear, confident in the knowledge of their true natures. Chihiro has been transformed by the plot into a courageous, mature person, wise beyond her human form years. Sam Shepard’s character, too, feels content at the end of the novel—amid his “little troupe” of a family, under the Strawberry Moon, never without fear but ready for what’s coming…for being.
Miyazaki was greatly moved by the idea of an old, abandoned train station. The train is passing between places, just like Chihiro passed between human and spirit worlds. The abandoned train station in Spirited Away was a passage for Chihiro and her parents into a place where the spirits go to get clean. There was too much humanness (humanity?) about her parents, however, to make it possible for them to coexist with beings in that realm. The materialism, the gluttony. They were fit only for the pigsty. Spirited Away ends on a split note, somewhat hopeful, somewhat sad. We’re hopeful about Chihiro and Haku, but her parents seem as lost as ever. They spent the movie as pigs in a pigsty, just playing in dirt and eating whatever. Chihiro spent it in struggle—a human struggle in a spirit world, growing, expanding, learning. “Don’t look back,” Haku implored in his parting words to her. Will we see each other again, she longed to know. He said, “Yes.” Of course. Always.