20 Years Later, 'Spirited Away' Is Still a Perfect Film
Never pandering to its young audience, Hayao Miyazaki used space and stillness to let his gorgeous movie breathe.
It’s been 20 years this week since Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous rite-of-passage saga Spirited Away was first released in theaters in Japan. The winner of the 2003 Academy Award for animated feature and, up until just recently, the highest grossing film in Japanese history, it’s the story of Chihiro, a young girl who becomes stranded in the world of spirits, forced to work in an otherworldly bathhouse to free her gluttonous parents from a bizarre and ghastly punishment. With detailed, breathtaking animation and a rousing, all-time great score from Studio Ghibli mainstay Joe Hisaishi, it remains a genuinely striking and complex children’s film, not only because of its visual splendor, but because of its commitment to serenity, a conscious counterpoint to the overstimulation of the present.
In an interview published in the January 2002 issue of Voice, Miyazaki commented “young people today get jobs without being at all ready… when they’re employed, they suddenly have to confront society,” which directly speaks to Chihiro's journey via the bathhouse, facing the greed and complacency encouraged by a capitalist lifestyle from the eyes of a child. Perhaps more than his other films, Spirited Away removes its protagonist from the business of modern life so as to teach Chihiro how to cope with reality as an anxious child, unlike many of the precocious kids of Miyazaki's other films. In response to the fantasy world she’s drawn into, she cries and trembles with fear, and the bathhouse's manager witch Yubaba speaks with ruthless frankness, calling her a crybaby, maybe sharing in Miyazaki’s frequent musings on whether the younger generation is in need of being taught social responsibility. But despite that, the film itself still shows a deep empathy for Chihiro, never truly chastising her for being overwhelmed, viewing it as natural.
Though this world is beyond our own, so much of it is designed to hold a sense of normalcy, to reflect Japan as Miyazaki sees or remembers it; it takes place almost entirely within a commercial bathhouse, after all. Masashi Ando’s character designs—with some notable exceptions, of course, in the bathhouse's delightfully strange guests (my favorites are the giant ducks)—feel down-to-earth even when the characters are sporting eight limbs, Chihiro herself being the very image of a regular, gangly little girl. This world of spirits deals in the same kind of mundanities and petty grievances of the human world. It reflects how Chihiro yearns for the familiar, already uprooted from her life before being… spirited away.
One of the most frequently discussed elements of the film, and one of the more unique ways Miyazaki connects the world of Spirited Away to ours, is through its embodiment of Shinto perspective. An indigenous, polytheistic Japanese faith without saint nor scripture, Shinto (“the way of kami” or “the way of the gods”) is merely present in Japanese life. In simple terms, Shinto gods, called kami, are spirits embodying every natural thing, including human-made concepts, on Earth, each with their own god or guardian spirit. As such, see kami everywhere in and around Spirited Away’s bathhouse, though leaving us to only guess at what the vast variety of beings might represent.
Shintoism is woven into the film in other ways as well, in its highlighting of human responsibility to the natural world, in its refusal to determine absolute right and wrong in its characters, in its optimistic willingness to see them as capable of change. Chihiro is one example of this. No-Face is another—greedy and consumptive until it learns peace and contentment through Chihiro. The surprisingly gross Stink Spirit sequence—inspired by Miyazaki’s time cleaning up a local river—is at once creepy and affecting, the River Spirit emerging from the filth to reveal a weird disembodied mask croaking out the voice of a kindly, elderly man.
Beyond such set pieces, Spirited Away embraces the spatial concept of “ma,” or “the space between”—an idea that parallels Shinto's emphasis on harmonious relationships and one of the film’s most frequently discussed formal elements. In numerous styles of traditional Japanese art, such as in Sumi-e brush painting or ikebana flower arrangement, the empty space referred to as ma is of equal value to the art itself. Interpreted in the West as negative space, it’s mainly a blank area where different things can coexist, an interruption designed to create awareness. It’s a concept that extends to the perception of space and time—as Miyazaki highlights, in a famous and oft-quoted interview with Roger Ebert, by clapping his hands, describing ma as being the interval between each clap.
Where other children’s films might feel the need to fill space to keep a hold of its audience’s attention, Miyazaki consciously keeps away from sensory bombardment. Not to say the film is slow—Miyazaki’s eye for exuberant motion is as exciting as ever here, and when his characters move, they move, racing through the environment so fast the background blurs into a smear of color. The director mused in the aforementioned interview, “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” It’s the director’s trust in the intelligence of his young audience that they don’t need to be appeased with noise nor talked down to.
Spirited Away is full of instances that serve no obvious narrative purpose. A gentle breeze blowing leaves across ancient rocks, lingering shots of moss on stone steps—these specific and sublime little observations keep the film at an even keel, pillow shots that break up its bombastic action sequences. Every part of the world of the film feels alive and with its own voice—that use of “the space between” further emphasizes the film's attention paid towards the spirits living in all the natural elements. One of the most talked-about sequences in Spirited Away concerning these ideas is the train—which appears as yet another mystical boundary, but where Chihiro's arrival in the spirit world was almost instantaneous, this journey is decompressed. Chihiro, and the now-calm No Face, quietly sit amongst faceless commuters. The film simply rests in the wordlessness of the journey, Hisiashi’s score swelling in the background as different places pass by, the sun sets, and we get further and further away from the chaos of the bathhouse.
It’s rhythmic, full of intervals where Miyazaki simply allows Chihiro to sit with her own feelings for a moment. It’s not just for the audience; those moments of contemplation are important for Chihiro to grow as a character. Miyazaki gently affirms Chihiro’s viewpoint, both through giving her room to express what she’s feeling, but also in how those pillow shots from the opening suggest a supernatural presence, one that makes her uneasy, and displays an attentiveness that her parents, well, don’t. Later, it gives her the time to process all that’s happened to her, and she begins to cry while eating the rice balls given to her by her mysterious spirit guide Haku. It all builds up to a memorably naturalistic performance, and these in-between moments allow a gradual change in demeanor rather than something immediately resolved toward the film’s end.
Spirited Away sticks in our memory not just because of its gorgeous fantasy action, but because of those moments of calm and its dedication to the inner life of its young protagonist, leaving room for both her and us to contemplate the nuances of her struggle. That a children’s film is so meditative and trusting in the patience and emotional intelligence of its audience feels miraculous, its moments of stillness preventing Chihiro's confusing feelings becoming lost in a flood of sensation. As so many animated films prioritize business, Spirited Away’s greatest strength is how often it knows just to take a minute—and breathe.