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Last Night I Watched: Spirited Away

With isolation making many of us feel as if the world is out of control – and with Netflix recently adding to their collection of Studio Ghibli films – I decided to seek solace in a film that I haven’t seen in a long time: Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away.

I have seen numerous odes in the form of video essays, and think-pieces galore on the subject matter and mythos behind certain scenes of the film. Spirited Away is undoubtedly a masterpiece upon watching it. It exemplifies storytelling in a way that only Ghibli movies can. The immersive visuals, artwork, score, storyline and plot all come together to create a once-in-a-lifetime watching experience. This film makes a reality of its own, and invites the viewer along with its protagonist to explore its conventions, rules, morals and array of strange characters on a blissful journey in a spiritual realm.

Though in Japanese, the film goes to great lengths to tell the story visually without the need to understand every word of dialogue

The film’s premise is a seemingly simple one: Chihiro, our protagonist, is a young girl that finds herself in a mystical spiritual world trying to turn her parents back into humans instead of greedy pigs.

Spirited Away is a film that manages to juggle the perspective of Chihiro as small child, and the audience’s reception of the world she sees. Though in Japanese, the film goes to great lengths to tell the story visually without the need to understand every word of dialogue – which is great for all of you ‘dub over sub’ watchers.

Animation can be tricky for some to get into as a genre and animated films for many are seen to be for children. Anime as a genre in Japan encompasses a large amount of the media present, and in the West is becoming more and more of an openly-embraced style to see film through. Spirited Away, I would argue, was one of the first to pave that path and it does so through its intelligent thematic discussions and breathtaking visual art.

In regards to the wider footprint this film has made in entertainment is at its core Spirited Away distinguishes animation as a medium of which we view art instead of simply a genre. The characters are developed as the plot unfolds in an organic way, and while they do not have backstories or virtually any montages, their personalities, motivations and collective journeys are all entwined with the messages of the film; family, friendship and growth. Everyone is progressing Chihiro’s story, and while her ownership of the narrative, direction of the plot and her actions are the focal point for the story’s main beats, no character feels rushed to fit into her progress.

While I also don’t agree that Chihiro is a “spoilt” girl as some critics do – as Vice points out in praise of her, her intuition and determined instinct are what lead us through the film. The story at large involves every character to allow Chihiro and the viewer access to the wide breadth and depth of the magical world she is thrust into.

The ambient music featured within the film also allows Spirited Away to tell its story even in scenes without speech. Music carries the viewer through picturesque scenes without obstructing the important moments of plot. From the delicate score courtesy of Joe Hisaishi, the distinct ambiance that settles within a Ghibli movie becomes a character in itself.

My favourite thing about his movie is the details. The characters all have traits and actions that are imperative to describing them alongside the tonal changes in music and visual framing when we see them interact. The working life in the bathhouse seems realistic with many different jobs and conventions shown in glimpses to justify its reality and an intricate system. The smallest actions act as ways to mark Chihiro’s journey as a character, like tapping her feet in her shoes after putting her socks inside them on the ground. It is through minute details, such as this where she is timid and respectful, that Miyazaki humanises her and convinces the viewer she is real.

Silence is used to demonstrate moments of serenity and calm that make the pacing of the two-hour length movie feel realistic as a slow unfolding journey

Miyazaki has a knack for bringing life to everything in the world he creates. The trick with animation is to present illusion as reality. The illusion of physics in the way hair flows in the wind while characters run, to flowing trees. Even silence is used to demonstrate moments of serenity and calm that make the pacing of the two-hour length movie feel realistic as a slow unfolding journey too.

Each character remains grounded and real in their subtle changes of expression, without the need for incredibly relatable dialogue. Every action is animated to show how real they are in motion. The run cycles, and other animated movements display this well. The classic Ghibli hair-poofing of Chihiro, Yubaba and the other bath house characters when the “stink monster” (No-Face) approaches. The analogous approach to animation over emulating real life is what Spirited Away achieves in its familiar presentation of characters.

Down to the name itself, Spirited Away is a journey

This brings me to talk about the train scene. Perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes I have witnessed. Upon reading a piece of trivia that the film was created without a script, this scene makes a lot more structural sense. On top of it being the most profound part of the film, and my favourite, this scene also shows what Spirited Away is without words. Down to the name itself, Spirited Away is a journey. A transportation of the viewer into a spiritual reality not far from one we are accustomed to. The realm of myth and wonder engulfs the viewer without being overwhelming. Ridiculous and nonsensical things happen throughout – but it all seamlessly works, especially in this scene to provide calm to the viewer and a moment to take in the beautiful world after the height of action where we are lost in the story.

One of the reasons why Spirited Away is timeless and watchable even after years of animation growing as a genre and medium, is Ghibli’s ability to create a story that transcends parameters. The perfect blend of animated scenes, Japanese-influenced myth, art style and the lack of exposition of every detail, allow the viewer at any age to perceive and immerse themselves within the world that Chihiro finds herself in.

As students, we are between the bridge of adulthood and pathways to futures that seem daunting. Our ability to think curiously and imaginatively is challenged by the foreboding future that awaits us when we leave university. Other films by Ghibli to watch, including The Cat Returns, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle also achieve this as well as many other films by Ghibli. However, it is in this film that we can find comfort, as it not only cultivates a nostalgic home – one that we are not necessarily from or connected to – but a place that presents new worlds as exciting. And the experiences of Chihiro chronicled in Spirited Away show us we should fully dive into them with open arms and wide eyes.

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