Animation icon Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 fantasy film Spirited Away is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Given the powerful legacy that this relatively recent film has created within the film world since its debut and the sheer wonder of Miyazaki’s film, it’s a celebration that is greatly deserved. Just one of the many acclaimed films created by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away is one of the animation studio’s crowning achievements. A masterpiece of stunning visuals, moving music, and unforgettable characters, Miyazaki’s 2001 feature film is a master class in fantasy storytelling.
That is thanks to its use of classic fantasy storytelling techniques like The Hero’s Journey, the enrapturing nature of the unique fantasy world seen throughout the film, and the tender human heart that informs its storytelling decisions and character arcs.
Following the 10-year-old Chihiro, who is moving to a new city with her parents, Spirited Away finds the young girl quickly transported to the spirit world after her parents accidentally find an entrance to the other side and are transformed into pigs. Caught in a strange and sometimes dangerous world where she doesn’t belong, Chihiro must depend on her wits and the wisdom of a few unexpected friends in order to survive and save her parents. But the spirit world of Spirited Away isn’t some mystical afterlife or gloomy purgatory. It’s an intricate and busy home to countless wild and colorful spirits who walk among humans unseen, a place that captures the imagination and lingers in the minds of viewers long after the film has come to a close.
Growing Up in a Mystical World
At its core, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl growing up and finding her own inner strength, which betters her life and many of the lives around her. Following the classic Hero’s Journey, Chihiro crosses into a new world, where she must face new challenges and be aided by new allies in order to achieve success (the rescue of her parents) before returning to her normal world as a stronger person.
We first see Chihiro distraught in the back of her parents’ car as they move to a new town, unable to cope with losing her friends and refusing to see the change in a mature light. However, her faults feel authentic to a 10-year-old girl and give a strong contrast to her growth in the spiritual world, where she must mature in order to survive.
But a memorable hero’s journey is only as good as the world that it takes place in. And what a world that is.
Chihiro finds herself in an area of the spirit world where a bathhouse run by the often cruel Yubaba (a giant-headed witch) brings in spirit guests to bathe, relax, and reenergize. It’s a workmanlike, capitalism-centered take on the spirit world, where the mystical mingles with the financial for all manner of allegorical results. Trapped in this fantasy world, Chihiro must fend for herself, quickly growing up as she runs through the iconic stages of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Along the way, Chihiro learns valuable lessons concerning maturity and must embrace a form of responsible adulthood in order to save herself and her parents, as well as an unselfish form of love that allows others to grow and better understand themselves. It’s that journey and emotional investment into the main character that gives greater meaning and power to the fantasy world of the film, making it even more than a wonderfully-crafted series of visuals.
Within this world of beasts, spells, and spirits, Miyazki finds relevance to the reality of growing up, working, and better understanding the people around you.
“Joining an organization, finding your own place, and being recognized there requires a lot of effort,” said Miyazaki concerning the story being told in Spirited Away. “In many instances, you must use your own strength. But that’s a matter of course, that’s living in the world. So, I am making the film with the idea that it is the world, rather than bad guys or good guys.”
At each turn, Spirited Away bucks convention in order to accomplish something bracingly unique. From seemingly evil characters that have unexpectedly vulnerable sides to allies whose true natures beautifully unfold on screen, the narrative of Spirited Away often takes unexpected yet constantly satisfying turns on its way to fulfilling its classic storytelling structure. And it’s the original, beautiful idea of the spirt world that allows it all to play out as such.
For Miyazaki, the creation of a film is a far more emotional, organic experience than one might expect with the amount of planning that must go into every stage of animating a film. Miyazaki has stated that most of his films begin production before he has created the entire story and that he storyboards the film without a script as they go along, allowing the narrative to come to life and lead him in the direction that it wants to go, almost as if the film itself were alive and being formed under its own will. While that may lead to disaster in most other cases, it’s clear that Miyazaki is a master in his craft with his own technique at creating a film.
Like his other films, the world of Spirited Away feel organic and alive beyond the borders of the film, almost as if the viewer has suddenly stumbled upon the world and is allowed to live within it for a few hours. The buildings feel fully realized, the myriad creatures that inhabit it feel tangible, and the imagination on display seems to effortlessly move past the sort of clichéd and overexposed tropes that define much of fantasy fiction today.
The seeming reality of such a heightened world is due in large part to Miyazaki pulling from the real world and his own personal experiences. Chihiro is based on a real life 10-year-old girl who he knew prior to the creation of the film, the bathhouse setting due to his own trips to bathhouses as a young boy, the layout of the buildings based on places such as downtown Juifen in Taiwan, and small scenes like the purification of a river spirit based on his own experience cleaning a river, complete with yanking a bicycle out by a rope with the help of others.
In large part, this is why a world filled with talking animals, massive gods and spirits, and flying dragons feels so tactile and real. Miyazaki’s fully realized characters and the insane amounts of detail put into every frame by Studio Ghibli push past the boundary between human viewers and animated characters until they become living, breathing people.
Beyond the spectacle of fantasy, Miyazaki also allows his story to breathe. Like many other Ghibli films, there are numerous breaks in the flow of the story where characters are given quiet moments of reflection, such as Chihiro looking out onto the vast ocean from her room or sitting quietly on the train with No-Face, contemplating the many faceless spirits that pass her by. These subtle, wordless phases are allowed the time they need to sink in for both character and audience while being filled out by composer Joe Hisaishi’s gorgeous score. Unlike many other modern animated films, Miyazaki isn’t interested in packing every moment of his film with exposition or plot. Instead, his characters are given rich interior lives that make the film a far more emotional experience.
“What really matters is the underlying emotions,” said Miyazaki when interviewed about Spirited Away, “that you never let go of those.”
It’s clear that such a philosophy was applied to every moment of Spirited Away, as Miyazaki’s film is a truly emotional, cathartic, and wholly honest experience. Its transcendence was readily apparent in its debut in 2001 and will only grow in the decades to come.