As of over a year ago, I’ve made the effort to expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and movies. I do so by devoting a least one post every other month to an overview of a TV show or movie that’s reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release/premiere, etc.). It’s been a while since I last did one of these, for I previously discussed my thoughts about the “Star Wars” saga, in honor of the newest film, “The Force Awakens.” Today, in honor of 15 years since its release, I’m going to dwell in on the magical world in Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film, “Spirited Away.”
One summer day, a family of three is on their way to their new home, and the apathetic daughter, Chihiro, is bluntly against this change of environment. However, a wrong turn quickly leads to her finding herself stuck in the spirit world and her parents transformed into pigs after eating food meant for spirits. Under the guidance of a mysterious boy named Haku, Chihiro gets a job at the local bathhouse and must summon the endurance within her to survive and find a way back to the human world.
As Miyazaki fans may know, I’m just barely scratching the surface with this simple synopsis of the film. Originally released in Japan on July 20, 2001, “Spirited Away” introduces us to a world of funny and magical spirits, as well as unique personalities colliding. There’s a lot of focus about inner strength, and how it comes about in times of need. While some may draw comparisons to works like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” (and may make many excellent points), there’s no denying that “Spirited Away” is a true original.
I remember the first time I saw this film. I was in sixth grade, where every now and then, my class would put on a movie just for the enjoyment of it. With the film being out on DVD for a little while then, a classmate recommended we all watch it, and we did. I was completely blown away by it. While I had seen Miyazaki films prior to “Spirited Away,” this one truly caught hold of me and pulled me in.
If you’ve been reading my blog, then you may be aware on how not only is Miyazaki a hero of mine, but also that “Spirited Away” is my favorite film by him, and for many reasons. One of them is the animation. 3D animation was only barely breaking out as the new norm at the time, and so despite the film being hand drawn animation, it still doesn’t hinder the incredible visuals contained throughout the story. Everything from the sight of the bathhouse to Haku’s dragon form make for a feast for the eyes without being a distraction.
This world he has created is truly incredible, but also maintains a sense of normality. Everything from the bathhouse and the nearby town run by spirits may seem extraordinary to see to us mere mortals, and yet it’s not too showy where it could catch you off guard. Even elements such as a train that leads who knows where and with enough rain water to create an ocean all around is done in a way where it shows that this is just how things are in the spirit world. That’s not to say it’s all low-key at play, for instances like the soot sprites working in the boiler room and Yubaba’s baby being turned into a mouse make for small yet firm reminders that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The characters are truly to die for, as for the development of them as well. While whiny and frightened in the beginning, Chihiro eventually becomes self assured and confident in what she’s doing, and the transition is really natural. Miyazaki makes clear how even the spirits aren’t perfect, as evident by their greed for gold and cruelty towards Chihiro. Even Yubaba, the head of the bathhouse, can’t be passed as a complete antagonist; especially when it comes to her love for her baby boy. It’s a story mechanism Miyazaki is known for, as he wants in every way possible to not have anyone be a one-dimension character.
There is also the way the film moves along; especially when it comes to the technique of quiet moments, called ma. This is another mechanism Miyazaki is known for using in his films, for unlike Western films where they’re often in constant motion, he allows for the characters (and the audience) to periodically take a moment to soak in their world, time and place. It’s techniques like these that I feel can be utilized by other storytellers if planned accordingly.
There is just so much to say about this film, that to go on would result in a much longer piece than need be. There’s a reason why it remains to be the only Japanese animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and how even 15 years later, it’s still watched by many. “Spirited Away” is the kind of film that should be seen at all ages in life, as you pick up little details and different kind of messages within time, but with the heart of the film remaining ever so infectious for its burst of originality.
If you want to read more of my thoughts about “Spirited Away,” then feel free to check out my analysis on four strangely satisfying moments from the film I posted earlier this week on YOMYOMF.