Miyazaki Marathon: Spirited Away


With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!

When Peter and I began the Miyazaki Marathon, there was a brief debate over who would cover which film. Since there were 12 movies that we needed to each cover, the smartest idea was to break it down into two groups of six. It made sense to go in an alternating chronological order, but the toughest choice we had to make was who would take each set. Not to diminish the impact and the quality of the other Ghibli films, but in my eyes, it mostly came down to which I wanted to talk about more; Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away?

Both films are regarded as some of Miyazaki’s best and are often cited as being some of the most important animated films of all time, they’re that good. And when push comes to shove, for as much as I enjoy Princess Mononoke as a perfected amalgamation of all of Miyazaki’s tropes that date all the way back to Nausicaa, I would argue that Spirited Away is his best film. Not my personal favorite (I will always have a soft spot for Kiki’s Delivery Service), but it is his best film bar none.

Like most of Miyazaki’s early library, I remember watching it first in the late-night anime block Toonami’s A Month of Miyazaki in 2006, wherein they showed Spirited Away, Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Castle in the SkyWhen I first saw the movie, I honestly could only get ten minutes into the film as I was petrified of the scene where our main character, Chihiro/Sen, watched her parents slowly turn into giant pigs. I can’t explain why I found that scene so disturbing, but it was probably the same reason I found the scene in Pinocchio where a small child violently turns into a donkey equally disturbing.

Spirited Away - Official Trailer

In fact, when looking at it through the eyes of a child, a lot of Spirited Away can be seen as disturbing, which is interesting given that like a lot of his earlier films, Miyazaki had originally targeted this film for children, specifically young girls. In his own words, while Totoro was aimed at young children, Castle in the Sky was for young adventure-seeking boys, and Kiki’s was for teenage girls, Spirited Away is meant to be for girls around the age of 10. Chihiro is meant to be an ordinary girl thrust into a strange bathhouse filled with all sorts of Japanese spirits (yokai) and has to use her own wits and skills to make ends meet. The film is meant to be simultaneously down to earth with its protagonist, yet foreign in just how fanciful and magical the world of the bathhouse is.

To make a direct comparison, at least in terms of premise, Spirited Away almost serves as a Japanese alternative to Alice in Wonderland, albeit a more focused one. In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice is mostly motivated by her curiosity to explore the strange world of Wonderland, encountering the various strange creatures within it and just taking in the world one step at a time. Spirited Away is a lot more focused, with Chihiro’s goal being to turn her parent’s back into humans. In order to do so, she agrees to work for the head of the bathhouse, a witch named Yubaba. However, both stories share similarities insomuch as they’re experiences that we’re meant to let wash over us.

I’ll admit it, when I think about Spirited Away, its themes are not the first thing that comes to mind. The film does touch upon themes like identity, with those in the bathhouse becoming permanent residents if they forget their true names that Yubaba takes away. Chihiro tries her best to remember her true name and not the one that Yubaba gives her, Sen, with the theme also shown through the overarching goal of getting her parents to regain their identities. Then you also have criticisms of consumerism thanks to the actions of Chihiro’s parents (taking what isn’t theirs and being punished for it) and creatures like No-Face who continue to consume and become more violent and monstrous as they do. And of course, there are brief snippets of environmentalism because it can’t be a Miyazaki movie without some message on the subject. But all of those feel like background elements to a film that is more about just exploring this world and letting it present itself as naturally as possible.

Miyazaki Marathon: Spirited Away

© Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away is a film that just happens. Moments flow into each other seamlessly and we’re just meant to take them in stride. It’s almost the exact opposite of how Princess Mononoke structured itself. That film had every single scene serve to drive its plot and themes forward about the conflict between nature and man and how if left unresolved, the world would be destroyed and life itself would end. Here, while the central goal is present, it never feels like the focus. The focus is more on the stage inhabitants of the bathhouse and the weird situations that Chihiro finds herself in.

The bathhouse is a place of relaxation for the spirits. This is where they go to unwind and given the number of spirits and deities present in Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism, there are an extensive amount of creatures that show up for some R&R. Despite Miyazaki trying not to make the film have any elaborate animation setpieces, I would argue that just by featuring a cornucopia of unique creatures on screen at a single time, the film is his most impressive film visually to date. Outside of the No-Face bathhouse chase, a lot of the animation is more humble and simple. There is no jaw-dropping spectacle within the film. In fact, the most iconic scene in the film, and arguably its best, is completely devoid of spectacle: the train scene.

The scene takes place towards the end of the film and has us leave the chaos of the bathhouse in favor of a quiet train ride across the ocean. In it, Chihiro, a now meek No-Face, and Yubaba’s son Boh ride the train to see Yubaba’s sister Zeniba. In it, there’s no dialogue. We watch shadowy passengers board the train, then leave. We watch the scenery pass by, and we engage in complete and utter silence. Then, they reach their destination and get off the train. Nothing more, nothing less.

Miyazaki Marathon: Spirited Away

© Studio Ghibli

In an interview with Roger Ebert in the lead-up to the film’s release, Miyazaki said that there was a concept that he likes to insert into his film; the concept of ma, or emptiness. These are moments that don’t contribute to the overall story, or even to any major character beats, but rather to just let the world be the world. Miyazaki uses the silence it establishes to not only let his work just exist but also to intentionally lower the temperature of certain scenes. The train scene follows the chaos of No-Face’s rampage of the bathhouse and allows us to decompress afterward. So here we are, just sitting on a train, watching the horizon pass by, just as we would if we were to take a train ride. Some may call the scene boring since, again, nothing happens in it, but movies need a chance to let the audiences breathe, and Miyazaki trusted the audience that they won’t find it boring, but rather serene.

Spirited Away would also serve as a pretty fundamental turning point in the localization efforts of Ghibli films, with it being the first film to have been localized entirely by Disney. Up until that point, most Ghibli films were handled by Streamline Pictures, who also produced dubs for Akira, First of the North Star, and Vampire Hunter D among many others. Their dubs were not exactly of high quality, so when Princess Mononoke was set to release in the West, Disney was selected to begin producing dubs for the film, which was a bit tumultuous at the beginning. Famously, the release for Mononoke was being handled by one of their subsidiaries, Miramax, led by Harvey Weinstein. He had wanted to cut Mononoke to fit a 90-minute run time, only to be denied by producer Toshio Suzuki, who sent the criminal a katana with the message “no cuts” alongside it. To say that their first relationship with Disney was rocky would be an understatement.

Afterward, Ghibli found a much more cooperative partner in the form of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was a fan of the early Streamline dubs and what Ghibli had been doing since their inception. He championed and campaigned for Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki to receive all of the support possible for Spirited Away, which Disney did, providing them a dub that was authentic to the original script, kept in a lot of the Japanese terminology, and gave them access to a plethora of talented voice actors to read for the characters. They wouldn’t exactly help out with marketing, something that will become an issue later on down the road for all of their films, but thanks to the relationship that was established here, new dubs were produced for virtually all of Ghibli’s earlier films and each was given new releases, with some of their films being released for the first time thanks to Disney and Lassetter’s support for the studio.

Miyazaki Marathon: Spirited Away

© Studio Ghibli

When the film released in the West, it was met with critical acclaim, going on to be the second film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and would serve as the only anime feature film as of this writing to ever win that prize. In Japan, it held the record for being the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time at the box office, a record that it held until 2020 when Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train overtook it. Even to this day, it is still considered by many anime aficionados to be one of the best anime feature films of all time, with many critics outside of the anime community even calling it one of the best films of the century. I cannot understate it enough; Spirited Away is an important film not just in the life of Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli, but for it allowing the company to finally gain a presence on the global stage.

Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, plain and simple. I did say earlier that it wasn’t my favorite title by his, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the film, rather it’s my own personal preferences. This is still a movie that I can watch at any time and find something new to marvel at in each viewing. I mean for Christ’s sake, I wrote back in 2020 how this film was one of the films you needed to watch to understand how we at Flixist operate. Just watch this movie, okay? Just do it.

Next time, Peter will take a look at one of Miyazaki’s more divisive films, Howls’ Moving Castle. 

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.