POP HAZMAT-RETRO presents CAMPY CARTOON VILLAIN-OF-THE-WEEK by JONATHAN KIERAN
TODAY’S HONOREE: “Yubaba” (Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, 2001 Studio Ghibli)
RUDIMENTARY ANALYSIS: “Yubaba” is the name-stealing, scene-stealing, chain-smoking witch who oversees a bathhouse for Japanese spirits and other magical entities in Hayao Miyazaki’s classic animated feature Spirited Away. Yubaba possesses a number of garden-variety magical powers as well as many unlikely characteristics, but just how many Japanese bathhouse-witches do we actually encounter in daily life for purposes of knowing what a Japanese bathhouse witch should or shouldn’t look like and what she should or shouldn’t do?
My hunch is that the great animator/storyteller Hayao Miyazaki patterned his “Yubaba” not after some greedy old harridan who operates a mystical bathhouse for immortals, but after a cranky old bag running some seedy Soaplands brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara red light district. Uh huh, Miyazaki-sama, you’re not fooling me. Bathhouse for the river-spirits, my well-licked eyeball! Ha! Anyhow, Yubaba seems to be a world-weary and short-tempered “Madam” who is angry at society because she’s always had the torso of a dwarf and a head the size of one of those award-winning 1,500-lb. pumpkins that farmers grow with astonishing frequency and enthusiasm in places like Ohio or Indiana. Yes, Yubaba strikes me as a woman who is bitter because she’s never been as comely as her staff of highly trained baishunfu “cherry blossoms,” so she has over-compensated by doing what all squat, large-headed hags with ambition must do: she has honed her skills in black magic, extortion, and all-around shrewd business management in order to claw her way to the top!
Of course, since we are dealing with a Japanese fairy-tale, Yubaba exhibits considerable eccentricities in Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning feature … even for a wacky sorceress. For example, she commands a bird-like familiar spirit that looks exactly like her (very “Mini-Me” when you think about it), three grunting blue heads that bounce around aimlessly in her lavish penthouse like lobotomized nightmare-versions of Larry, Moe and Curly and she has somehow managed to give birth to (or conjure-up) a sumo wrestler-type infant that stands twenty-feet tall and suffers from germophobia. Like I said, this is Japanese fantasy up at the sharp end. Nothing is ever quite linear. Yubaba even has a magical houseboy named “Haku” who is really a river-spirit with amnesia and the ability to turn himself into a dragon. Everybody ought to have one of those hanging around the joint. Otherwise, Yubaba loves to cackle malevolently, turn human beings into pigs, count her gold nuggets and one gets the distinct sense that she puts away an inordinate amount of sake every night just to deal with the demands of her job and the gathering of delightful weirdoes around her, to say nothing of her goody two-shoes twin sister, Zeniba, who despises her.
Bottom line: It ain’t easy being an overworked single-mother responsible for pampering filthy monsters. Just ask any exhausted house-madam on the Yoshiwara “stroll.” For this reason, Pop HazMat is thrilled to honor Yubaba as our Cartoon Villain of the Week. Watch the movie, when you get a chance. It’s great for adults and kids and still stands as the maestro Miyazaki’s masterpiece in an already truly exceptional body of animated work.
DEFINITIVE DIALOGUE: “What … have you done … with my … BABY?!?”
EXPERIENCE THE MAGIC: The Official Trailer for the North American release of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
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