I made it through college without ever locking down an answer to the most softball icebreaker question there is: “what’s your favorite movie?” In this IC-exclusive series, I’ll write about five of my favorite movies in an attempt to arrive at a definitive conclusion. That being said, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future, and it might take me six months to get around to writing about all the movies I want to write about. This is part 1/5: Spirited Away.
Spirited Away is an animated movie nominally for children. From legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away was originally released in Japan in 2001, and was distributed in North America by Disney in 2003. I saw it for the first time when I was 19 or 20, and no doubt would have found it terrifying in 2003, at the age of 11.
This is a movie that you watch and ponder for days after. You might Google “why is Spirited Away so weird,” but mostly, you just have to think about it and let it sink in. Because of that, I’m going to devote a decent portion of this post to explaining how I interpret the film, and in doing that I hope it will be apparent why it’s worthy of consideration as my favorite movie.
Spirited Away is the story of 10-year-old Chihiro stumbling into a bathhouse for spirits and growing up quickly as she’s forced to deal with ever-escalating problems. The movie has the rough outline of a coming-of-age story, but it’s more concerned with how growing up feels than what it looks like. It’s a collection of moments that elicit strong feelings and articulate a coherent philosophy about childhood; it’s not a movie for nitpicking plot points. Spirited Away is a series of lessons about growing up, and everything in the movie makes sense through that lens. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Spirited Away is a lot of things in quick succession, and it can be overwhelming at first. This is by design; everything in the movie is deliberate, and its structure forces the audience to confront the world the way Chihiro does at first: as a scared kid wishing for a return to normalcy. As the audience watches Chihiro’s journey, we also watch several foundational lessons about growing up, some through Chihiro’s eyes and some through only our own.
There are a lot of interesting lessons in the movie, and most of them are presented subtly enough to blend into the film as a whole but clearly enough to have an impact. Here’s a quick (visual) list of moments from the film and associated themes, some more obvious than others, and some that also pervade Studio Ghibli’s other movies:
All of these themes are interesting, and all of them could probably sustain further discussion, but I want to dig into a couple that resonate with me and push Spirited Away into the favorite-movie discussion. Conveniently, these couple of themes are central to the movie’s structure.
Almost all the characters in Spirited Away are just passing through. Chihiro is only working in the bathhouse until she can save her parents and go home; it’s implied that Lin is also looking for an escape plan. Haku needs to remember his name so he, too, can find a way out. Throughout the movie, we see trains weaving through the landscape below the bathhouse, undeterred by high water, indifferent to time. A bathhouse is the perfect setting for this coming and going – the spirits passing through come together for a night and go their separate ways in the morning. Through the eyes of Chihiro and Lin, the bathhouse is a place in constant transition that never changes, like a river or a grassy field on a windy day. Spirited Away knows that the world changes without or without our consent. Whether we notice it or not, every moment is liminal, every experience is fleeting.
Spirited Away is constantly telling us that situation shapes identity. Chihiro goes from frightened child to brave hero as the movie wears on and her situation morphs around her; No-Face is a horrifying villain in the bathhouse and a timid friend outside of it; Yubaba and Zeniba each act according to their surroundings and roles, despite being essentially the same character. But the movie also insists that there is something innate to each of us that we must hold on to as we grow up – in Spirited Away, names represent this essential quality. At the beginning of the film, Haku tells Chihiro that Yubaba controls people by taking away their names, and that Chihiro must not forget hers. As surroundings swirl and situations change, Chihiro’s name is something to hold on to.
Kamaji is an interesting case for the movie’s treatment of identity and situation. At first glance, he’s defined by his job as boilerman, and his station doesn’t change throughout the movie. It turns out that he’s had coveted train tickets for a long time, but has never used them to engineer his own escape. On the surface, this makes no sense, but the movie is reinforcing the power of situation – Kamaji can’t leave, because he’s the boilerman. His own desires are subordinate to his role as a cog in the machine.
But how Chihiro and the audience see Kamaji does change throughout the course of the movie. When we first encounter him, he’s gruff and scary and kind of gross. As Chihiro grows up a little and runs into Kamaji later, when she needs help tending to Haku, Kamaji is like an old friend. He gives comfort and help, and Chihiro and the audience learn to appreciate his steadying presence.
I love how the design of Spirited Away reflects Chihiro’s journey. The experience of watching it for the first time is a lot like what Chihiro experiences on screen – this is what I mean about the movie caring more about what growing up feels like than what it looks like. Kamaji is a little too much on first viewing, but as we get more familiar with him through the eyes of Chihiro, we realize he’s nothing to be afraid of. And on subsequent viewings, he’s still weird, but he’s weirdly endearing. No-Face is hideous in the bathhouse, wreaking havoc and talking in that stolen voice. But in the aftermath, Chihiro trusts him again, and it turns out fine. On subsequent viewings, we feel sorry for No-Face, twisted by surroundings he didn’t understand. Watching Spirited Away, we grow up a little bit alongside Chihiro.
Part of my system for determining my favorite movie has to take into account each movie’s best moment, and there are a lot of great ones in Spirited Away. Like all Studio Ghibli films, this movie delights in the mundane in a way that never gets boring. Some of my favorite moments that aren’t the film’s best: Chihiro slowly walking up the steps at the beginning of the movie; Haku leading Chihiro through the flowers; Chihiro kicking on her shoe as she leaves the soot minions in Kamaji’s room; Zeniba’s paper soldier opening the window for Chihiro; Chihiro inching down the steps to the boiler room.
Those are all wonderful, and that’s certainly not a complete list of every great moment in the movie. But my favorite moment in Spirited Away is the short beat right after the last faded passenger gets off the train, leaving only Chihiro and No-Face. It’s quiet, small, and beautiful. It’s a perfect end to Chihiro’s journey, and everything that happens after is just icing. There are a million theories about what’s going on in the train scene, but given how I watch the rest of this movie, I think it’s about identity and growing up.
Kamaji warns that the train ride is a one-way trip. Lin longs to board the train and leave the bathhouse behind. As Chihiro and No-Face travel, the sun goes down and, one by one, the other passengers get off. Chihiro leaves childhood behind, looking out the window at a shadowy figure that looks a lot like her. Growing up is hard, and the shadows that disembark the train find themselves on tiny islands in a vast ocean – maybe longing for the past, or forgetting their names as they rush to embrace roles that consume their identities? Earlier, I said that the characters in this movie are just passing through, and that moments and places change and disappear right before our eyes. Growing up is hard, but it’s the only thing to do.
Spirited Away is a bunch of lessons about growing up elegantly told in two beautifully-animated hours. It’s easy to explain why this is a good movie, but I’ve had a harder time explaining why I love it so much. It was difficult to write about, and I think that’s partly why I like it – everything I’ve written about here took some effort to articulate, but it’s easy to feel when you’re watching. Spirited Away resonates powerfully and sticks with you long after you watch it for the first time, and it changes a little each time you watch it again. It’s a strong contender for the favorite.