I desperately wanted each frame to draw itself a moment longer as I stared with unblinking eyes. Each click of the pause button was minutes spent admiring the detail in the fantastical dreamscape before me. One watching turned into two, and then three, and so it went as I fell helplessly into Spirited Away, and the imagination of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
As director, artist, and screenwriter, Miyazaki is the mastermind of Studio Ghibli, and has breathed life into some of the greatest animated films of all time. Love and creativity permeate all his movies, creating exquisitely drawn worlds filled with compelling characters. However, the clear pinnacle of Miyazaki’s achievement is Spirited Away, a seemingly unassuming film about a 10-year-old girl’s coming-of-age experience while trying to rescue her parents. While the story may not seem particularly interesting at face value, few movies ever produced form as powerful an emotional connection as Spirited Away, and none of Miyazaki’s films achieve the same level of feeling. The source of this personal impact in the movie is Chihiro, the most sympathetic protagonist anywhere in Miyazaki’s filmography.
Chihiro, the aforementioned 10-year-old girl, is moving to a new town with her parents. Along the way, her father makes a wrong turn into a forest and they reach a dead-end with a tunnel. On the other side is an abandoned theme park filled with empty restaurants. Food inexplicably appears at one counter and the parents immediately begin to gorge themselves. Chihiro wants to leave but she can’t convince her parents to move, so she decides to walk around the town. Night is falling and the park’s paper lanterns begin to light. Shadows deepen and dark figures start to mull around. Chihiro is terrified and runs back to find her parents, who are still eating. As she approaches the counter they turn to face her, but they have been transformed into pigs. After running away and finding herself trapped in a bizarre spirit world, Chihiro must now singlehandedly rescue her parents so they can all escape.
Following these opening scenes, you first feel nervous, then suspenseful, followed by afraid, shocked, and confused. If you spend a moment thinking, these are the exact emotions that Chihiro experiences through the first ten minutes of the film. This effect is neither accident nor coincidence, but directly intended by Miyazaki. Chihiro plays such a powerful character, that she becomes a piece of cinematography herself. Miyazaki can simply mold the story of Chihiro, scare and amaze her, draw out tears, or paint a beaming smile, and the audience will stare on, engrossed. It seems amazing that a character could hold so much sway with an audience, but of course this is no accident either.
Although Spirited Away is an animated film, cinematography is just as important as in a live-action movie. In fact, animation can achieve many things a traditional movie cannot, such as angles that would be impossible to capture with a camera, or landscapes and characters that exist nowhere outside the mind. Size is an important factor that is exploited by Miyazaki in the film. Chihiro is often portrayed as small and feeble to dramatize her peril and sorrow, forcing the audience to sympathize more with her struggle. As the film progresses, she appears stronger and more confident, which eventually allows the movie to switch gears towards the end to a more optimistic view of her situation. Additionally, water is used to convey a sense of both entrapment and freedom, increasing the feeling of the film. Chihiro stares off into the distance towards the pen where her parents are being kept and towards the human world on numerous occasions. Each time, there is a large body of water between where Chihiro stands and where she longs to reach, making the distance feel larger and more inaccessible than it would otherwise.
Music also plays an absolutely crucial role in the development and tone of the film. Joe Hisaishi composed the soundtrack for Spirited Away and did a remarkable job. For example, in the opening scene in the abandoned town, “The Dragon Boy” plays and fills the mood with suspense as Chihiro runs while the shadows grow ominously.
The main theme of the movie is “One Summer’s Day,” which is a slow, sad song that is often inserted during Chihiro’s episodes of longing for her old life.
Music is always crucial in any serious film, and Spirited Away would not evoke the same emotions without the award-winning beauty created by Hisaishi. However, Miyazaki understands the value of silence, and there are many moments where the movie is still and quiet, and you are just left with your feelings for Chihiro and her fantastical story.
The imaginative world of Miyazaki is lovable and beautiful, but also necessary. Spirited Away would flop in any other setting because the normal world no longer creates the emotions we felt when we were children. Chihiro is constantly filled with fear and awe, and so are the viewers. The primary purpose of Miyazaki’s imagination is to separate his audience from familiarity, and allow them to feel the sense of discovery from their youth. Miyazaki’s skillful animation is key to creating a “believable” setting for Chihiro’s story. His creativity and skill places everyone in the same place as Chihiro: confused, awestruck, and in the unknown. Tim Brayton, a movie critic, perfectly explains the point of Miyazaki’s animation and world.
That’s the great achievement of this great animated film: it understands that the true meaning of fantastic worlds is not what they show us, but how they make us feel in doing so.
Late in the film, Chihiro must travel on a train to save her friend, which seems to be the only way to leave the bathhouse where she works. She must take a small boat to the station, a small platform raised above miles of water. The tracks run about a foot under the surface, and stretch out into the distance. Chihiro is traveling with a baby-turned-mouse named Boh, and the spirit No Face, neither of who can talk. As the train approaches, “The Sixth Stop” begins to play in the background.
When Chihiro boards the train, a faceless trainmaster shreds her tickets and disappears into a different cabin. She doesn’t know where she’s going, she only knows she must take the sixth stop. The train is full of more faceless figures, shadowy humans who are stuck in the spirit realm. They don’t talk either. The music is mysterious yet serene, and seems to hang a wondering silence over the scene. Who are these people? What are their stories? As the stops go by the train becomes emptier. At one stop the camera is shown from Chihiro’s point of view looking behind to a shadowy girl who looks about her age. Did she stumble into this world like Chihiro did, and is now stuck? Could this be her future? Chihiro looks determined, but the entire sequence is somewhat unsettling, and mysterious. Eventually the train is empty except for Chihiro and her company, and they reach the sixth stop.
Miyazaki does beautiful work by effectively placing the viewer into his world and relating them to Chihiro’s situation, but this still doesn’t explain why the audience cares, not only for Chihiro but also for then complete cast of misfit characters. Roger Ebert, a famous movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has his own idea of how Miyazaki’s creations inspire so much feeling.
The story of Spirited Away has been populated with limitless creativity. Has any film ever contained more different kinds of beings that we have never seen anywhere before? Miyazaki’s imagination never rests. There is a scene where the heroine and her companion get off a train in the middle of a swamp. In the distant forest they see a light approaching. This turns out to be an old-fashioned light pole that is hopping along on one foot. It bows to them, turns, and lights the way on the path they must take. When they arrive at a cottage, it dutifully hangs itself above the gate. The living light pole is not necessary. It is a gift from Miyazaki.
Small stories of complex characters are everywhere in Spirited Away. Boh is the sheltered child of Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse and the villain of the film. Zeniba, Yubaba’s sister, transforms Boh into a mouse, who follows Chihiro on her adventure and sees the world for the first time with wide eyes. Boh’s excitement and awe serve to fill viewers with a renewed sense of wonder at the amazing sights of Miyazaki’s world, and remind us how strange it all really is.
There are tiny soot balls that populate the boiler room of the bathhouse. These soot cannot talk, or move beyond a little square on the floor where they carry coal to the furnace, yet they convey complex emotions and are engaging characters. At first Chihiro is afraid of them, then she tries to help them, and they help hide her human clothes so she can remember her old self.
Spirited Away may be a coming-of-age story about a sullen 10-year-old girl, but for viewers it is an impactful emotional journey. Miyazaki gives this film as a gift to the world, so everyone can remember what it once felt like to be afraid and amazed as a child. Some critics, such as David Nusair, believe that the film is “unwatchable strange.” However, these people are the minority and fail to understand the true purpose of Miyazaki’s animated world, and are unreceptive to the imagination of a genius. I could tell you to watch Spirited Away because it grossed more than any other film in Japan, ever. I could tell you it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture, the only foreign film to do so. But instead I’ll tell you this: watch Spirited Away because when its over and the credits roll, you will remember the wonder of being a child, and smile.
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