Welcome back to Ghibli Month where we take a look at one Ghibli movie each weekend in December. This weekend, we’re taking a look at a classic that I’m sure most of you have seen: Spirited Away. A huge hit in both Japan and America, it held the number one grossing spot on Ghibli’s list for a long time, which is understandable as I believe this is one of the best examples of what this studio and the vision of Hayao Miyazaki can do.
For those of you who haven’t seen Spirited Away yet, here is a quick synopsis:
Chihiro is a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. While trying to find their new house, her father takes a wrong turn and winds up driving down a dirt path that leads to an abandoned amusement park. But once the sun goes down, the park becomes populated with spirits of all shapes and sizes coming to take advantage of the herbal waters of the bath house. After her parents eat the food that was supposed to be for the spirits, they are cursed to take the shape of pigs. Now, to prevent them from being eaten and to find a way back to the human world, Chihiro must take a job at the bath house under the rule of the powerful witch Yubaba. However, her job comes with a price: she must give up her name and consequently watch her memories of her human life slowly fade. With the support of the dragon Haku and other spirits she helps along the way, she must work to recall who she is in order to return to her previous life.
Spirited Away is, I think, one of the best examples of what Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are capable of in terms of world building, animation, and character design. It captivated so many people’s imaginations, and is one of the first movies from this studio to be imported to the US. For good reason too considering it hit number one in the box office for Japan and became the highest grossing film in Japanese history (earning 30.4 billion Yen and $289 million worldwide). It was the first and only hand drawn, Japanese film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and it won the Golden Bear award at the International Film Festival. In 2016, it was voted the #4 best film of the 21st century by 177 film critics from around the world. All of the awards and recognition is well-deserved. This movie combines the folklore of Japanese mythology and culture with universal lessons about childhood to create something that is able to connect with a variety of different people around the globe.
Animation is one of the first aspects that is readily noticeable in this movie as Miyazaki seems to pull out all the stops in this area. The movements and detail put into each character adds a layer of realism that speaks to Miyazaki’s level of observation skills. Many people have recounted that the character of Chihiro is based off of the daughter of one of his friends that used to come over his house every summer to visit. All of her movements and personality traits reflected his view of young girls in general, from their tendency towards laziness to their smallest movements of habit. One of the best scenes that displays this is one that many people have pointed out before but still holds strong: the scene where Chihiro puts on her shoes when she leaves the boiler room to meet Haku. It’s in these few moments that we see this attention to detail I was talking about. Not only does she put on her shoes and leave, she stoops down to pull the back up over her heal and takes a few seconds to tap her toe to make sure the shoe fits okay. Many animators would gloss over these few seconds of detail, but here they add a sense of realism that sticks with us in the back of our minds.
But it’s not just the details his team puts into their animations, it’s the vast amount of detail put into the world and backgrounds that really hammers home the feeling that this is a real world Miyazaki is taking us through. Like with Castle in the Sky, we see him use the same technique to guide the viewer through his world by stringing together shots that have the characters moving through the area in linear ways as to not lose the viewer in the world and action that’s taking place. I’m sure many of you can recall the path Chihiro takes from the bridge to Yubaba’s rooms at the top floor of the bathhouse, and this is mostly from Miyazaki’s expert guidance. Not just that, but I have an easy time recalling the details of the boiler room, with its walls of drawers filled with herbs, the giant furnace, and the little holes in the wall where the soot spirits live and carry coal from. This is partly from the time he has us spend in that room and also the vast amount of detail added that draws your eyes around it. These details were helped along by all of the research the staff put into this world. By visiting real bath houses around Japan, they were able to incorporate some of those more realistic aspects into the detail of Yubaba’s bath house. I am so happy Disney’s deal with Ghibli included the provision they would not change any of the content in their dub.
Doing these reviews has given me a lot of chances to reexamine some of my favorite series in a new more critical light, and that didn’t change when it came to watching Spirited Away. Even though I’ve watched this movie more than a dozen times before, I’ve never really looked deeper into the meanings behind some of these scenes. Watching it now, I’m seeing that a core element behind most of the story is the element of identity. In the beginning of the movie, Chihiro and her family are moving to a new town away from all of her friends. Part of anyone’s identity is tied to the place that they live and the people they share their time with. For her, moving to a new place is tantamount to losing her identity. We then see this fact manifest literally when she makes the deal with Yubaba that steals her name and replaces it with Sen. She basically becomes a different person while at the bath house and struggles to remember who she was before. I think we can relate this back to this feeling of a new start that comes with changing towns and friends, but with that comes this lessening of our sense of who were were before when we still lived with our old friends. Ultimately, it is only through the support of her old friends (through the goodbye card) and her new friends (the rat, bird, and No Face) that she reclaims some of who she was while learning who she can be.
We also see some of this idea of the loss of identity in the spirits she encounters, namely No Face, Haku, and the first river spirit she meets. For No Face, his identity depends on the people and creatures he consumes. In some ways he was looking for acceptance and a sense of self when he came to the bath house. It was Chihiro who first showed him any sort of kindness and treated him like a guest when she left the door open for him. His need for acceptance manifests as his tendency to offer people the things they most want, but he lacks the skills to really relate to people, settling on consuming their identities in order to fill his own lack-there-of. It’s only through Chihiro’s rejection of his offerings (something that probably not many people have done) that he begins to change. He sees that Chihiro accepts him without the gaudy presents and different personalities, which causes him to join them on the journey to Zeniba’s house. For Haku and the first river spirit she meets, their identities are also tied to their homes, their homes just happen to be rivers. They both live in those rivers and are the embodiment of them, so when they get filled in or polluted, their identities are radically affected. Haku loses his home and thus his identity. It is only through Chihiro’s memories that he regains the knowledge of who he was. The river spirit was transformed into a giant stink spirit by pollution, something that is completely different than what he was originally. It is again only through Chihiro’s efforts that the pollution is removed and he returns to his normal self. I think because of her own predicament, she has more of an understanding of what each of these three are going through.
In those last two characters we see another of Miyazaki’s key inclusions in pretty much all his movies: an environmental message. Haku and the river spirit both suffered from the effects of industrialization and humanity. Haku had his river built over and turned into condos, forcing him out of his home. The river spirit has his river filled with trash and pollution to the point where he was almost irreversibly changed. Many of these events, especially the polluted river, came from Miyazaki’s own experiences. There’s an interview I saw with him where he talks about cleaning up a river when he was younger and seeing a bike sticking out. They tied a rope around it and all of them worked together to pull it out. This scene was included in the movie to great effect. It may be a little in your face with its message, but I think the way the animation team handled it made for some pretty good drama and a chance for Chihiro to learn more about what she’s capable of.
Chihiro goes through a significant amount of growth from start to end. She starts off as a semi-lazy girl who looks as if she hasn’t done any work in her life to someone who is comfortable journeying through an unknown world and helping those who need it. It’s a universal story of a child going through adolescence, developing her own sense of identity, and finding her place in the world. A lot of this growth was helped along by her relationship with Haku, the first person to help her in the spirit world. While I don’t think the romance between them is in any way central to the plot except for the small part about breaking the curse of the seal on Haku, it is the kind of relationship that captivates imaginations. Scenes of them flying together through the sky or the feeling that is created when you realize the sounds outside of Zeniba’s cottage are Haku who has come to bring her back creates a sense of pure romance between two people who aren’t entirely sure who they are yet. He becomes the support and the driving force she needs to take on the grueling tasks in the bath house and journey out along the tracks deeper into a world she knows nothing about.
There’s so much more I can talk about with this movie, from the mythology surrounding the characters and her entrance into the Spirit World to more traits of Miyazaki movies found throughout, but there are definitely a lot more people who have talked about these aspects. This was one of the first movies from Studio Ghibli I saw, and it stuck with me for good reason. There is so many details to unpack in this movie, I highly encourage you to take another watch through this season. From great direction, to a world that has captured so many people’s imaginations, to characters and a story that will last for many more years to come, Spirited Away is in my eyes one of the best Ghibli movies so far. Come join me next weekend when we take a look at another movie from this studio!