Spirited Away

Watching “Spirited Away” by Hiyao Miyazaki for the third time, I was struck by something between generosity and love. The only thing that struck me before was the unbridled fancy of the tale. This time I started zeroing in on any part of picture that could be done without. Animation is a painstaking process in which visual elements are often reduced to their simplest forms. By contrast, Miyazaki presents complexity. His backgrounds are full of details, his canvas generously takes up space, and they all are drawn with meticulous attention to detail and accuracy. We may not pay much conscious attention to the corners of the frame, but we know they are there, and they reinforce the remarkable precision of his fantasy worlds.

“Spirited Away” is without doubt one of the greatest animated films ever made; it is deeply rooted in animation’s traditional base – frame-by-frame drawing. Miyazaki started from here before becoming a realist who used computers for some mechanical work. But he personally draws thousands of frames by hand. “We take handmade cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look,” he told me in 2002, “but everything starts with the human hand drawing.”

For example, consider one scene from Spirited Away where his young heroine stands on a bridge that leads out over a magical bathhouse; most of the action takes place there throughout this film. All essential characters and main actions supply enough information about what is happening at this point in time but there are many more people looking through windows or standing on balconies at this moment than those required by story logic alone would dictate as necessary players even though it might have been easier just to suggest them as vague movement towards you; Not so for Miyazaki who chose to show many figures which we know well doing different things as well as jumping around like young monkeys sometimes being chased by ghosts . They all move. And this is not the repetitive movement of much animation where the only message is just to show a moving figure. What we see here is life-like, fluctuating and nuanced animation.

Most people who watch this film would describe these parts of the screen as “movement.” But if you bother to take a second look, all hell breaks loose there. That’s what I mean by generosity and love. As a matter of fact, Mikayazi and his colleagues are concerned enough even with those insignificant parts of a frame. How much of the bathhouse do you see? It would have been simpler and easier to illustrate just a bridge through which people pass into another room; but Miyazaki confers such complexity on his bathhouse that it becomes almost like a real location with its own attributes whether or not they are required for the present narration.

Spirited Away

The story in Spirited Away has no boundaries when it comes to creativity. Have you ever seen another film that was full of more different types of creatures from anywhere else? There’s never any rest for Miyazaki’s imagination. For instance, in one scene, the heroine along with her companion disembark from an electric train into some kind of swampy area out there in nowhere. In that far forest they saw light coming towards them – which on closer examination turned out to be an old-fashioned pole-light hopping about on one leg; turning around at their approach, it lights up their path ahead before settling over gate above a hut once they arrive at it . This living pole does not need to exist. It is something special from Miyazaki himself’s gift:

This story is about a little girl called Chihiro who is not like other animated movies’ kinds of dolls. She has been described by some critics using the word “sullen.” Yes, and she’s stuck in the back of a car as it crosses her parents’ route for many hours to a house which they would like to inspect. In this forest at night, Chihiro’s father loses the way which appears at an entrance leading nowhere but into a tunnel. They venture through it and realize that it ends in an abandoned amusement park. But come evening, some shops seem to have reopened especially one selling food; its smell fills the surrounding air creating steam when meeting with coldness of night. On seeing a counter piled up with food, her parents immediately rush towards it and stuff their mouths. On the other hand, Chihiro is stubborn and says she isn’t hungry while watching them eat ravenously without getting satisfied. They grow two or three times bigger after eating so much more than their fill. That was how they ate like pigs only to become pigs all over again though these were not typical American cartoon-parents who can do things that scare children.

Gigantic floating bathhouse follows from amusement park structures rising upon themselves infinitely with turrets, windowsills and ornaments intermingled together haphazardly. A boy cautions her against going any further; nevertheless she arrives late making the bathhouse begin sailing away from shore line. Inside, Chihiro finds herself in a world characterized by endless variations: “A journey through unfamiliar territory”. She cannot find any exit anymore. The boy states everyone has specific roles and sends her to Kamaji, an old man with long arms who operates the boiler room. He directs her to apply for employment under Yubaba who possesses this spa hotel. This is an ancient wicked magician who blows out smoke rings and cackles as well.

A very unique journey starts here. Chihiro will never come across another human being within the bath house. Her name is stolen by Yubaba and she is given a new one known as Sen. Unless she can get her old name back again, she can never leave. Within this bathhouse, each confusing space leads to another which contains all variety of strange life-forms. There are some small balls covered with short black hair having two eyes on each of them that rob Sen’s shoes. They are semi-transparent No Faces who carry masks over their pale shrouds slightly towering above the ground surface. There are three heads without bodies leaping around angrily and looking like satirical pictures of Marx drawn from all angles possible along with other seemingly crazy things in this fantasy land. Black slime gives off a stench while oozing from it; the river creature has been affected by a lot of dirty water. Countless variations in forms occur here just as they do in many Japanese fairy tales where the girl’s first friend turns out to be an agile sea dragon having sharp teeth.

Some people are friendly towards her others not, Yubaba threatens her and she learns along the way. She doesn’t become a “good girl,” but we nevertheless love her for her boldness and resolution. After this, she decides to return once more to mainland using daily trains (running only one-way). She wants to see her parents again!

The movie was aimed at 10-year-old girls according to Miyazaki. This is why it resonates so strongly with adults. “Movies for anybody” are movies for no one in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they have a total lack of regard for us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves. As I watched the film again, I was as caught up in it as any great film I have seen. That is how “Spirited Away” came to earn more money that “Titanic” in Japan and be the first foreign film ever released in the US when it had already made over 200 million dollars.

I was extremely lucky to meet Miyazaki at the Toronto film festival 2002. I told him that I love the way his films have unnecessary motion in them—so that sometimes a person will just sit down for a minute, or sigh, or gaze out across the water at something unseen, or slip slowly down a tree trunk and onto the grass cover below—a little fake waterfall look-see if you like – not enough to make me care about where she’s going but just enough to let me know what’s on her mind and maybe also let me know who she really is.

“That’s not an element that exists on screen naturally,” he said. “We have a word for that space between frames, it’s called ‘ma.’ Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” Then he clapped his hands three or four times. “The time between my clapping represents ‘ma’. All this busyness won’t work if there isn’t some moment during my action.”

It could be argued then that Miyazaki’s work offers more than American animation which often seems too fast moving compared to other slower ones. “The people who make the movies are scared of silence,” he said, “so they want to paper and plaster it over,” he said. “They’re worried that the audience will get bored. Just because it’s intense all the time 80 percent of the time doesn’t mean kids will sit through it. That’s not what their main focus is on; that they don’t let go of them.”

“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence, you don’t have to have action, they’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

He added that this cliché has been found in numerous animated scenes throughout live-action superhero films.” In a way, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation. Animation has become a word that encompasses so much, and my animation is just a little tiny dot over in the corner. It’s plenty for me.”

Watch Spirited Away on Kisscartoon

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