“The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.”― Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away is the most popular anime feature film of all time and a lot of people might even argue, the best. It is a Studio Ghibli production, undoubtedly the most prolific and accomplished anime studio famous for brilliant films like Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997).
Director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 work is a spectacular journey through an infinitely nuanced, mystical world, one that we experience through the eyes of its strong-willed protagonist, Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl. Miyazaki introduces us to the familiarity of moving to another town as a child and the heartbreak of losing friends but he immediately disrupts the nostalgia by placing the viewer in, what appears to be, a mysteriously abandoned theme park. We feel exactly what Chihiro feels when she sets foot inside, a sense of foreboding and fear that somehow we are going to get lost in it.
Right from the beginning of Spirited Away, there is a constant conflict between the old Japan and the new. The car that Chihiro’s family travels in seems out of place in the magical forest that alludes to the rich spiritual history of the country. A strong sense of morality also operates throughout the film. When Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs kept for slaughter because they gorge on unattended food, it’s almost as if Miyazaki is reprimanding us for our gluttonous instincts. Her parents do offer to pay, stating: “I’ve got credit cards and cash”, but they don’t realise that a spiritual world has an economy of its own. Over the course of the film, we observe the generation of a lot of corrupt economies. Chihiro is offered gold by a spirit called ‘No-Face’, something that all the other workers are scrambling for but she refuses because she “has no use for it”. Miyazaki shows us that Chihiro exists outside the operation of these economies, she is innocent and she has the right priorities: to save her parents, to save Haku, her protector, and to get back home.
It is a heterotopia that Chihiro and her family enter, a space that lures you in but unsettles you with its distinctive absurdity. Chihiro finds herself in the absolute centre of that space, a building that looks like a castle and is described as “a bathhouse where 8 million gods can rest their weary bones”. This is yet another reference to the spiritual beliefs of Japan because there are actually eight million kami, the divine spirits that are recognised in Shinto, the native religion of Japan. However, an interesting phenomenon can be observed in the architecture of this supposedly divine bathhouse. The front of the castle has a decadent appearance which looks majestic yet old, with peeling wallpapers and traditional Japanese designs. Beyond that facade, we are shown the paradoxical idea of a “mechanical castle”, punctured by metallic pipes, exhaust vents and valves. It resembles something straight out of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 cult classic sci-fi film, Brazil. This also serves as an allegorical class commentary, differentiating between the aristocratic gods who are treated as valued “customers” rather than divine figures and the working class who maintain the bathhouse, from sentient soot particles to someone like Chihiro, continuously begging for employment.
Like Brazil, a strange bureaucratic structure appears to stabilise the bathhouse that immediately eliminates any remnants of personal identity in order to create perfect workers. It has the efficiency of an Orwellian management and the absurdity of a Kafkaesque establishment. The transformation of Chihiro to Sen is one of the more tragic parts of the story. She forgets who she is and that is how Yubaba, the primary antagonist of Spirited Away maintains control over her employees. Even though Orwell and Kafka never managed to escape their pessimistic perspectives, Miyazaki is defiant in his belief that memories are meaningful, they have the power to reunite us with what we have lost and that is exactly why memory becomes a focal point of the story. It is Miyazaki’s insistence that our individual identities can never be forgotten, no matter how hard someone tries to erase them.
There are many layers of interpretations that a viewer can explore in Spirited Away, speaking to the quality of the film. One of the most significant perspectives that it posits is an ecocritical view of the Anthropocene, a recurring trope in many Studio Ghibli films. Miyazaki masterfully makes the audience aware of pertinent issues like rising sea levels and pollution through beautiful and surreal visuals. We see a train running on water and a ‘Stink God’ who turns out to be infected with the trash left behind by humans, rusty bicycles and other metallic garbage. Miyazaki presents us with a powerful lamentation, one that shakes until we open our eyes to the corrupting influence of modernity on the spiritual world.
Although Miyazaki’s approach to filmmaking was completely different from standard Hollywood procedures, Spirited Away became immensely popular in the US and even managed to strike a distribution deal with Disney. Miyazaki chose to work on the animations before the script was finalised, allowing the story to develop through the visuals instead. His unique methods helped establish Spirited Away as the highest-grossing anime film of all time, only overtaken by Your Name in 2016. It was the first anime feature film to ever win an Academy Away for Best Animated Feature, in 2003.
The influence of Spirited Away on animated films in popular culture is a very dominant one, most easily observed in Disney productions like Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) which feature strong female protagonists and mystical worlds. John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar had been friends with Miyazaki since the 1980s because they really admired each other’s works. It was because of Lasseter’s incessant efforts that Spirited Away was introduced to an American audience and gained the cult status that it has today.
It is safe to say that Spirited Away will remain one of the most iconic works of animated filmmaking for a long, long time. Miyazaki and his wonderful world of quirky, vibrant characters will be fondly remembered by the innumerable individuals, children and adults alike, who entered the mysterious world of Spirited Away and never really made it out.