My first experience of Hayao Miyazaki did not leave the best of impressions. Clicking through the English-language television channels as a kid in Hong Kong, I happened to switch onto My Neighbour Totoro (1988) at the exact moment when Totoro lets out a massive howl that echoes through the surrounding forest. I was baffled to say the least. And then I was confronted with something even more horrifying: the dubbed dialogue. Deciding that I had seen more than enough, it was not until around twenty years later that I voraciously consumed as many Miyazaki films as I could get my hands on. Choosing just one to write on is difficult (I would recommend almost his entire body of work); however, there is something about Spirited Away (2001) that I find consistently appealing.
Logic is using the front part of the brain, that’s all. But you can’t make a film with logic. Or if you look at it differently, everybody can make a film with logic. But my way is to not use logic. I try to dig deep into the well of my subconscious. At a certain moment in that process, the lid is opened and very different ideas and visions are liberated. With those I can start making a film.
– Hayao Miyazaki
Following the adventures of a young girl, Chihiro, who is unwittingly drawn into a parallel spirit world, Spirited Away is exemplary of the themes and motifs that run through all of Miyazaki’s films, especially the filtering of perception through a childlike perspective. However, this perspective is not only aimed at drawing in young audiences, but also adult viewers. Unlike the Disney animation films that I grew up watching, Miyazaki truly taps into the child’s psyche without relying on clichés or masking harsher aspects of life. Indeed, there are moments in Spirited Away – such as when Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and the presence of a “stink spirit” in the palatial bathhouse – that would be unnerving for some younger viewers.
The beauty within Spirited Away – as in all of Miyazaki’s films – is not only found within the narrative, but the very structure and aesthetics of the animation. In contrast to conventional animation, Miyazaki’s work adopts a flowing, painterly style that appears like a moving watercolour and particularly provides the representation of the spirit world in Spirited Away with a gorgeously vaporous quality. On another level, it also visually signals the fantasy space that Miyazaki creates in the film that serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly banal realities of the everyday life that Chihiro takes for granted.
The serious coming-of-age narrative that stems from Chihiro’s encounters in the film’s fantasy space intriguingly runs alongside environmental and moral concerns that are manifest in the sub-themes of pollution, power and greed. Thankfully, these ideas do not overwhelm the viewer or result in didactic overtones, but enhance the nostalgic thread that is woven into the film. If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, I definitely suggest that you do. Just be wary of any hideous dubbing.