September 23, 2002 [Spirited Away]

I caught that smell today, the first whiff of rain-slick leaves dying in shadows and corners, the same smell I remember when I was at school in that passage between the school building and a high wall, its concrete shading the passage, the leaves gathering, pushed there by the wind to lie in a thick slanting pile against the building, never quite dry, getting thicker in my nose as Autumn moves on, until one day they're either gone or covered in snow.

And the smell was in the theater where I was watching Spirited Away, it came off the screen like the thin fog you used to get when the audience could smoke in the theater, I could smell it on my hand as though I'd been holding the leaves and had tossed them at the movie to join the little girl who'd gone through the tunnel with her parents and ended up alone in what Maurice Sendak calls "outside over there," the little swirl of leaves at her feet, moving as though they were alive and going with her to the strange big bath house for spirits and dragons and witches and all kinds of Miyazaki newly imagined imaginary things. 

The smell grew moist and clean when the girl and her magical companions took the train across the broad shallow water-plain--a landscape I'll never forget--to the good witch's house in the woods, all the old fairy-tales upended and shook like branches to rain down clear dew. 

The movie was over two hours long, but the children were sorry it ended--and maybe also sad because it whispered to them that childhood ends too, that the girl will go to school and never return to the bath house.  I'm not sure what good it did, but I told them about the smell of the leaves, how it's remained with me for years and years, long after I've forgotten the rest.


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