Lessons In Animation

What is it about stories of little kids going on some kind of life-changing journey that seems to garner attention every time? Even better, it’s the story of a girl on an adventure that resonates well within the audience. Everyone knows The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows Alice in Wonderland. In Spirited Away, the famed Hayao Miyazaki launches a young girl named Chihiro from an otherwise mundane and quotidian life into a realm of spirits and magic. The Japanese have coined this sort of adolescent female protagonist stories as “shōjo”, and although Miyazaki’s does not follow the romance subplot template his peers have adopted, he places emphasis on Chihiro’s adventure, something that allows for self-discovery in the most incredulous of circumstances. And like his other films, Miyazaki makes magic seem more possible than it ever has been, creating magical worlds both distant and snuggly. In turn, he puts his characters in this crockpot to simmer, until those characters and his audiences grow like bean sprouts from these pots. 

Indeed, Spirited Away is more than just a film dedicated to making kids smile. There is a distinct taste to any Miyazaki film; as a director, he is indulgent with his audiences, made even better by the fact he specializes in warm and cuddly films. His portfolio of artistic expressions include the likes of Howl’s Moving CastleMy Neighbour Totoro and so much more. It requires someone meticulous to thrive in the field of animation, which Miyazaki excels in. He does not simplify the visual elements onscreen. Moreover, he provides depth and intricacy like no one else. Perhaps it should apply to Japanese animation as a whole, their pen strokes seizing so liberally and their picturesque backgrounds so vivid. It is true. Nobody ever pays much attention to the small little details of every frame, not to mention the minor pen strokes in each manga panel. However, they are there. The fantastical can only become the fantastical through the work of imaginative individuals, and Miyazaki never disappoints.

Back to Spirited Away, Chihiro is again at the forefront of “discovering” herself. It is like one of those coming of age films and Chihiro must learn to be more confident. True, similar to many helpless female protagonists, she is thrown into an unknown world meant for exploration. Obviously, she is not some damsel in distress. On the part of Miyazaki, he molds Chihiro with the utmost respect and empathy, grabbing every opportunity to show her perspective. This is after all, a film about her. 

In the beginning, Chihiro and her family are heading to their new home, where they happen to stumble upon an old amusement park. The park is battered enough, and looking closer, Chihiro and Co. discover that the discarded amusement park is brimming with food. Possessing such voracious appetites, her parents begin chomping away at the feast, eating and eating until they become pigs, literally. It is at this moment when Chihiro discovers that she is suddenly alone with nobody to help her and her piggish parents. Wandering around the park, she realizes that she has entered some sort of spirit realm. (Spirited Away) She sees a bathhouse. In front of the bathhouse is Haku, a little boy who helps Chihiro hide from danger and gives directions around. She also has to earn money, which means begging for work from the bathhouse’s manager, Yubaba. The terrifying old witch smokes more than any doctor would dare to remedy and features a cackling laugh. After much conciliation, she lands a job filling baths and scrubbing floors. Yes, Chihiro begins to experience life as an adult, learning about the responsibilities and commitments that come with adulthood. Essentially, Yubaba takes the young girl’s childhood and name away. 

In order to leave this spirited world and return to her parents, Chihiro must reclaim her name. Her adventure in this world makes her question her own identity as well, since the same adventure forces her to change. Nostalgia of her culture’s past runs wild while Chihiro interacts with the other characters, all the intensity of a strange new world seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. Funny enough, Miyazaki almost exclusively targets this demographic. Then why the appeal to even his adult audiences? The reality of filmmaking is that no film caters to everybody. There is no universal genre that can rile up every viewer’s heart, but Spirited Away is specific in detailing its characters, daring to be its playful self. 

The animators at Pixar or any American company can learn a lot from Miyazaki, especially in terms of serenity. Imagine gazing out the window and into the pitter patter of raindrops, or perhaps just gently swaying about the house doing nothing. Miyazaki, in fact all of Studio Ghibli, knows how to provide rhythm in the form of emptiness. Unlike most of American animation, Spirited Away feels less hyperactive, but still more absorbing. Just because a film does not contain all the bang does not mean that it cannot entice. To prevent their films from being too dull and quiet, filmmakers plaster stuff all over it (though it should be maintained that some good comes out of it). Emotions make up half of the roller coaster ride that is a good film, comprehension of their mechanisms will get any filmmaker far; those emotions stay with you for a long time. 

What more makes Spirited Away feel so engrossing? More as a commentary on his own country’s affairs, Chihiro represents Japan and how Miyazaki views its society. Japan is an island constantly in abeyance, difficult to reconcile history with contemporaneity. Like everyone else, Chihiro has to eventually grow up, or mature, all while admitting to her cultural past. 

The most difficult thing in the world is to know yourself. 

— Thales

Call it nostalgia. Call it old-fashioned. Or even call it nationalistic. Miyazaki confronts the economic-driven of today’s Japan with criticism, opting instead for more ancient ways. This, he reveals the significance of combining the past with the present, to slow down progressivism and find peace with oneself. From a child impossibly lost and uncertain about her surroundings, Chihiro submerges herself into an unknown world full of faraway lands and spirits. She emerges with more wisdom, and becomes more at peace with her environment, consequently her cultural identity. Whatever happens around is not important. It is maintaining one’s self-assurance that is supreme, so Chihiro learns. 

Take the spirit, Okutaresama, for example. At first, it is drenched in debris. Then, Chihiro washes him down to reveal the river spirit that has been polluted. It is worth noting that much of the garbage found on the spirit are found in modern-day households.

That said, Miyazaki does not intend on completely cutting Japan off from her outside influences. As Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian writes, “There are actually many Western influences and resemblances: Homer’s Odyssey, Lewis Carroll, L Frank Baum and maybe even The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. But it’s undoubtedly in a class and genre of its own: its alien, exotic qualities, all the more intense for a non-Japanese audience, are part of how extraordinarily pleasurable it is to watch.” 

So what does a good animation film require? A whole Japanese backdrop? The guys at Toy Story certainly do not seem Japanese… Miyazaki’s films will always enamour audiences with their magic, as long as the audiences themselves are willing to open their imaginations to him. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki shows the sober condition of reality, then proceeds to fly Chihiro away into the clouds. In real life, action leads to reaction. That means that there are consequences. The film feels sweeter to the touch. It wants to enchant and indoctrinate in an impossible dream, and although that is practically every film in Miyazaki’s portfolio, Spirited Away will stay embedded in people’s memories for as long as their narrative imaginations can hold. 

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