This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. One of the most famous anime movies ever created by Hayao Miyazaki during the 21st century has to be his Oscar-winning title, Spirited Away. Even to those who aren’t familiar with his full repertoire of works, the distinctive style is enough to get the ball rolling for them to recognize it. To no one’s surprise, due to the way it was written, involving a young girl traveling to a fantasy world by a tunnel and encountering lots of ethereal characters, such has garnered it a lot of comparisons to an English literary classic with the same premise: Lewis Caroll’s Alice In Wonderland. In this post, I will lay out the various ways in which the two stories are similar to one another, and evaluate them.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #13: SPIRITED AWAY
To make my point regarding its similarity with Carroll’s famous novel, I’ll let this following section explain things, and leave you to decide. Released in July of 2001, this story involves 10-year-old Chihiro, a girl who moves to a new town with her parents, and is in the mud about it. While on the way to their new house, they take a wrong turn and land in front of the gates of what appears to be an old railway station. Having already caught their curiosity, they wander through it and are surprised to discover that a marketplace stands on the other side of it. Chihiro is understandably anxious at first, but this turns into terror as soon as her parents transform into pigs after consuming too much food, and she flees to the shadow of a tall bathhouse, where she meets Haku, a boy her age who shows her around the place, and gets her to work at the place where she encounters various creatures and humans that show her the ropes in this foreign land. Chihiro’s journey across the spirit world sees her explore the hustle-and-bustle of the bathhouse, and its surrounding world while also uncovering some of the secrets that lie about it, as well as those pertaining to herself.
As previously stated, Spirited Away is perhaps Miyazaki’s most iconic modern work, and some of its characters like the mysterious No-Face can be found at conventions, for example, as a testament to its widespread acclaim. It has been listed among the greatest animated films by outlets such as Rotten Tomatoes and the New York Times, won multiple awards internationally including the Oscar Award for Best Animated Film, and features an ensemble of memorable musical themes by renowned musician Joe Hisaishi, especially its iconic opening theme; it’s a must-watch, in my opinion, for anyone who’s into either anime or just wants to jump into Studio Ghibli.
WESTERN COMPETITOR #13: ALICE’S IN WONDERLAND
Alice In Wonderland, the first of two book series involving the character was composed by Lewis Carroll in 1865 during a boating trip one typical English summer day three years prior. He wrote this story based on one of the daughters of his friends who went on the trip, Alice Liddell, though historians to this day question how much of her original personality made it into the book. The story begins with Alice’s mind wandering about in daydream from being bored at an educational excursion with her sister; it is here she meets a white rabbit springing along the plains, apparently late for some important matter. Her curiosity treads her to follow the figure, and she falls through a hole that leads her to Wonderland – a world where nothing makes sense and reality doesn’t matter. The majority of the book sees her travelling through the unknown lands, stumbling upon both human and anthropomorphic characters with various levels of personalities ranging from stoned out of their minds, utter buffoons and insufferable rulers. Like your average slice-of-life anime, there’s no discernable plot or call to heroic adventure that Alice has to take on.
The book is cited as one of the best examples of Victorian English literature among the many in the list, and like those, it has seen itself adapted to multiple screenplays, theatrical productions and cinematic appearances – most notably being Disney’s 1951 rendition of it, albeit with slight deviations from the original book. Upon its initial release the book was a smashing success, and even managed to reach the eyes of Queen Victoria herself. Following this successful venture Lewis Carroll wrote a sequel in 1871, titled Through The Looking Glass, which more or less features the same kind of premise but with different nonsensical characters.
Unlike the last year’s editions, I have decided to change up the prelude, and not announce the categories that will be used to judge the stories’ qualities. However, in the same manner as I did with my eleventh edition of the East Meets West series (My Neighbor Totoro .vs. Wind In The Willows), I will only be comparing the stories using their literary elements, and although I will be using stills from Disney’s Alice In Wonderland I will not make any reference to any of it or Spirited Away‘s musical plus visual elements.
CATEGORY #1: BEST WORLD
With regards to the world-building aspect of both stories, they’re alike in the sense that they’re filled with numerous strange creatures, have attributes that go largely unexplained and are generally peaceful; but as to the details of how they work, differences are abound. The aptly-named Wonderland of Carroll’s masterpiece thrives on its inexplicably random nature. From the moment Alice falls down the rabbit hole she enters the zany world; though she tries to reason with what’s going on by thinking back to what she’s learned from school, that charade is dropped as soon as she travels through places like the White Rabbit’s house, filled with size-changing cakes; mushroom plains (Super Mario, don’t get your hopes up), and thick-layered woods. As to how it looks, one can suspect that it’s rural, though that will probably be best left to the imagination of the reader.
The exact opposite is seen with the Spirit Realm in Spirited Away, where order and constancy are key to its structure. From the laid-out market stalls and the clean plains that Chihiro first sees, to the bathhouse where, amidst the thousands of multi-sized inhabitants working there, operates sparklingly, and has much in resemblance with our reality. The only time disorder shows up is when No-Face wreaks havoc, sucking up everyone who gives into their greed and making a mess everywhere or when Chihiro’s first customer, a Jabba-The-Hutt-like spirit, goes in for a bath, disrupting the normally clean environment. Where Wonderland largely seems to please visually thanks to its inconstant depictions which have to be made up through the director’s subjective interpretation, here the Spirit Realm sees objectivity through the incredible artistic work of the Studio Ghibli team.
One thing that I found was lacking with Spirited Away‘s world however is the world-building is not as expansive compared to Wonderland, since for a large part we only deal with the bathhouse which is kind of boring for a Spirit World, and how things work there aren’t well-touched upon. Things like what caused Chihiro’s parents to become pigs, Boh’s genealogy, and how the time difference between this world and the human world work are vaguely covered, and can be a source of confusion. At least with Wonderland, it’s already hinted from the outset that its framework is supposed to be based on a suspension of belief in reality. Even then, I found myself more impressed with Wonderland’s composition: even if it does get all-over-the-place, it’s well-mapped and full of fascinating things to set about there.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND 1-0 SPIRITED AWAY
CATEGORY #2: BEST FEMALE LEAD
Both Chihiro and Alice’s personalities are reflective of the type of story we’re dealing with; by looking at them, we get an insight as to what characterization means to the story. Alice is depicted as aloof, with a curious spark and is quite sociable, easily getting along with Wonderland’s inhabitants like the Cheshire Cat or the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. In addition, she’s headstrong enough to stand her ground and not let others push her around, and is independently capable of travelling across Wonderland without fear. Her adventure is exactly just that – an ordinary walk-in-the-park type of story; something that’s told just for the sake of telling something. When it comes to Chihiro, we see something that Alice doesn’t have: an arc. Alice starts off a daydreamer, and ends a daydreamer even to the last line of the book, where she vows to tell her tale to the next generation. Not so the case with the former.
Chihiro is the exact opposite of Alice: introverted, shy and for all means and intents, close-minded. She’s seen clinging to her parents when they first enter the Spirit Realm, and shows disinterest for her surroundings. When she comes out at the end of the film, she’s a different person – responsible, fearless and confident. What changed her? Her adventure. Being left alone in the Spirit World and having underwent a traumatic experience raised up her drive to survive, she basically learned, to quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, to realize “The game is only over when you say it’s over”. Only by trusting her instincts and growing in courage to face her unknown journey, she eventually grows out of the tight shell she was at in the beginning, and thanks to folks like Haku, Kamaji, Lin and Zeniba she obtains a sense of self-worth. Her gazing back at the now-decrepit gate at the end of the film shows her renewed conviction towards her future: one which welcomes it with open arms, shaped by her experiences. That aspect is what won me over towards her role as the superior female lead.
SPIRITED AWAY 1-1 ALICE IN WONDERLAND
CATEGORY #3: BEST SUPPORTING CAST
The supporting cast serves nicely as ambassadors of their respective worlds. Alice In Wonderland on one instance contains quirky characters of differing abilities, viewpoints and lifestyles. Some examples include the neurotic White Rabbit, the gatekeeper to Alice’s Wonderland; the mischievous, frequently-disappearing Cheshire Cat; the perpetually intoxicated Mr. Caterpillar; the rhetorical March Hare and Mad Hatter, and my personal favourites, the tyrannical Queen of Hearts and her motley crew of playing cards (population equivalent to my at-home collection). Spirited Away contains the brave and loyal Haku, the sisterly-like fellow bathhouse servant Lin, friendly arachnoid boiler room specialist Kamaji, the cold-hearted bathhouse manager Yubaba with her sheltered infant child Boh, and the mysterious (and, not to mention, famous) No-Face. We also see the presence of pig, mouse and frog characters in both staples.
In my opinion, some of the characters of Spirited Away are expys of those from Alice In Wonderland. Most obviously, Yubaba and her employees are akin to the Queen of Hearts and the playing cards, and No-Face with his gold traps mimic the Cheshire Cat. For others, their personalities are comparable: Haku is the White Rabbit on account of being the first person that Chihiro sees in the world, and has the same colour motif with; Boh is Mr. Caterpillar because of their size and laid-back nature, and Zeniba is the Duchess, who is the opposite of Yubaba in everything she does. Yet, in the case of each of the latter pairs, they are relatively toned down and share more or less the same external composition with each other, making them hard to distinguish. Instead, the likes of whimsical nature of the Cheshire Cat with his playful banters, or the Mad Hatter and March Hare’s lit behaviour were much more entertaining, interesting to witness, and refreshing to the story’s flavour, even if they can be mildly infuriating at times.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND 2-1 SPIRITED AWAY
CATEGORY #4: BEST FAVOURITE MOMENT
In Spirited Away, the most memorable part of the story comes at the second half, after Chihiro discovers, and nurses a wounded Haku, recovers the seal that he stole from Zeniba, and successfully pacifies No-Face’s monstrous form. With Kamaji and Lin’s approval she and No-Face set off on a train to Zeniba’s place to return the seal and end the feud. After performing the act, and inspired by the kind-hearted woman’s gentle nature as opposed to her twin sister’s, Chihiro leaves in peace on the dragonified Haku while No-Face stays behind to work with Zeniba. It is here that the heroine remembers Haku’s significance in a past childhood memory, saving her from drowning; what follows is a magical scene where the two of them, including the latter in human form float above the sky and affirm their feelings for each other. Everything about this scene is magical – the buildup, the peaceful atmosphere, Joe Hisaishi’s triumphant theme in the background, and even long after I first saw this film two years ago, that’s the bit that stands out to me.
Alice In Wonderland, for all its nonsensical scenes, does get a part in the book which I found amusing, and contrary to what you might be thinking, it’s not the entrance of the Queen of Hearts and the croquet game that follows, but rather Alice’s meeting with Mr. Caterpillar. Everything about this scene is just so… bizarre, and extremely hilarious, even to imagine from reading the book. I found the sight of a caterpillar getting extremely coked up on a hookah (for your safety, do not try this at home or anywhere) and his way of responding to Alice’s remarks with one-liner questions (“Who are you?”, “Why?”, “I don’t know”, etc) as perfectly embodying to the true spirit of what it means to make any literary sense of whatever goes on in this book – because to understand Wonderland you’d need to be either high out of your mind or downright insane. It’s a scene that in my mind whose wonkiness no theatrical depiction could properly give justice; not even playing Snoop Dogg’s “Next Episode” in the foreground.
Ultimately though, Spirited Away takes the cake because of how solemn and majestic it was simultaneously for the purpose of conveying Chihiro and Haku’s emotional moment in the sky, as well as the way it was arranged, if not for the music and context, served as an excellent buildup to the final scene where Chihiro saves her parents and exits this fantasy land of hers. And for what it’s worth, it’s a hundred steps above what any scene with a caterpillar on blaze can tell me.
SPIRITED AWAY 2-2 ALICE IN WONDERLAND
CATEGORY #5: BEST OVERALL ADVENTURE
Now as to the question, whose adventure did I enjoy the most, I must refer back to my preferences. Alice In Wonderland is a perfect story to engage my love for characters going on random adventures, and its blend of realistic and out-of-this-world, yet memorable characters is definitely something I can take away from it. Who would have ever thought that Lewis Carroll could look at a deck of playing cards or a British Shorthair cat and decide, “Hey, I think these will be perfect characters for my story!”, thus adding to its overall bizarreness? That aside, it’s also a fairly simple story that expects nothing from you other than sheer amusement.
But I also like stories that have wonderful messages embedded within them, and in this regard Spirited Away manages to succeed at. It’s not just a standard coming-of-age story set amidst a colourful background and musical setting, but in some ways it’s a metaphor against the dangers of Western consumerism, proper use of life experiences, and the preservation of traditional Japanese values amidst the early 21st century world. In addition, Chihiro feels like a more mature version of Alice because by the end of the film, she’s grown to become a strong, independent character who is shaped into something else and becomes unafraid to take leaps.
Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if Hayao Miyazaki thought, while producing this film: “What if I took Alice In Wonderland, removed all the references to drugs and ludicrousness, and replaced it with Japanese folklore?” That idea is what makes Spirited Away to be the better choice in my mind compared to Alice In Wonderland. Like a tree grows gracefully from its roots, the latter story is advanced through the former’s implementation. Sure, the characters might not be as firm and the world not really grounded in fantasy as much compared to the latter, but the story is rewritten with more elements such as a solid character arc, a passable romance and subliminal bits of social commentary without having to fundamentally rewrite the underlying isekai structure of it; thereby solidifying its spot as the better version among the two.
FINAL SCORE: SPIRITED AWAY 3-2 ALICE IN WONDERLAND
It’s hard not to avoid comparing the two stories, whether it be through analyzing their IRL geneses (fun fact: both stories’ main female protagonists were inspired by a someone’s 10-year-old daughter who the creators were close to), the similar formats of their story, characters, settings, or how each of these works captured the hearts of millions in their home countries of Japan and the United Kingdom, and the world subsequently. One thing’s for certain though: whether you were enthused by the wacky, imaginative on-goings of Alice and the inhabitants of Wonderland or enthralled by the story of Chihiro’s growth and the inspired-by-Japanese-folklore characters of Miyazaki’s brainchild, these two will certainly be stories that I can’t see disappearing from public recognition for many generations to come.