Spirited Away ★★★★★

Years ago, I took my first steps into my college dormitory. It was beige, undecorated, and musty, one of the many dorms that stood side-by-side in the repurposed theatre building. I felt numb, barely recalling the goodbye I uttered to my parent’s moments ago. A nervous mother, a proud father, an anxious grandmother, each face ushering me into a new world, one without their support. I remembered my previous graduating class of seven students and how poorly my high school prepared me for my new class of hundreds. I remembered how familiar everything felt, and how comfortable I was just last night.

Chihiro is similar to me, to all of us, really. She’s uprooted from her past, her school, her comfort, and thrust into a new town, new people, new expectations. Her parents offer consoling thoughts, ones which are echoed by every parent. The banal, trite notions of betterment; the cascading compliments and reassuring nods that would seemingly work on a child, but ultimately do nothing but stoke the flames of anxiety. They’re excited, yet you aren’t, and she isn’t. And so, the parent’s vapid confidence and false encouragement is annihilated at the hands of the new world. Chihiro’s father takes a detour and they stumble upon an old, decrepit tunnel, one which he declares as a path they should take.

Through the darkness they trot, Chihiro clutching helplessly at her mother’s sleeve, begging to turn back. They continue, figuratively leaving their child behind, and lurching to the exit which leads them into a gargantuan field of green. An old amusement park, the father remarks and points them to a nearby town. A towering building at its edge acts as the climax to the settlement, however, for all its ageing beauty, it seems to house no one and nothing beyond some freshly cooked food. Food, which in the parent’s gluttonous assuredness, is there to be consumed by them. After her pleading does her no good, Chihiro decides to explore, as any child would. It doesn’t take long until a boy, Haku, greets her, but the greeting is short-lived, as he remarks on the sunset and orders her to run before night time. Chihiro, blinded by confusion and fear, attempts to find her parents. The sun sets, the dilapidated buildings begin coming to life, as their lights flicker on and spirits shimmer into existence. She shouts for her family, yet they are nowhere to be seen. It isn’t until she stumbles upon that same food stand that she notices her parents have become pigs, engorged by their food, not recognizing her.

Chihiro is spirited away, wisped and torn from comfort twice, an otherworldly experience being the catalyst for her anxiety and discomfort manifesting into dread and horror. She cowers, away from the spirits, the fantastical creatures that just sprung to life, and does her best not to be seen. It isn’t until that same boy, Haku, finds her, that she’s given her first sense of motivation and assuredness that isn’t stooped in well-intentioned but fraudulent optimism. She’s in danger, but she can succeed.

Miyazaki is a god in the medium. Beyond simply being the one to disseminate anime across the world, Miyazaki has a certain dogmatic, old-school appreciation of art and animation. He dislikes computers, the complexity they remove, prompting instead to express himself through naturalism as seen through the spectrum of computer generation versus hand drawn. Through this specific, touted approach, Miyazaki makes immensely personal films. Personal not only in ideas, but in presentation, as the art is often granular, sharp, and intertwined seamlessly with the fantasy world. He pulls from museums, which he often visited during his creation process, as the pseudo-western style often depicted in Meiji-era architecture influenced him heavily. That towering, Meiji-era building at the edge of town, connected by a lone bridge which leads its inhabitants there, is a bathhouse owned by the greedy witch, Yubaba.

Beyond his visual intention, Miyazaki’s personalization was established before creation even began. He remarked about how he spent many summers in a mountain cabin with his family and five girls, and how they influenced him. Their wishes for growth, not physically, but from the inner-spirit, were beliefs which stemmed from certain situations, such as Chihiro’s, that draw from something that’s already within you. The irony being that Chihiro’s alien experience, so different from the rest of her life, is what causes her to grow spiritually.

The trials she faces are reflections of what being lost is. The will not to be seen in crowds, for example; as Haku tells her to hold her breath on the bridge to the bathhouse so she isn’t spotted. Of course, her anxiety gives way and her fears become palpable. Her journey is inner as much as it is outer, as reflected by her inching her way down a steep staircase to reach the boiler room. Her fear prevents her from making any progress, just one step down proving to be far too daunting. It isn’t until the staircase begins crumbling, splintering underneath her that she is sent screaming down, running for her life, yet making it out without as much as a scratch. Her inner growth persists through a scene-by-scene basis, as the moments after involve a similar trial. She observes the dust sprites throwing coal into the boiler as an initially frightening spider-man, Kamaji, makes his usual rounds. Chihiro is forced to make an introduction, one step, as proven visually, is not enough.

This is how Miyazaki mastered his narrative craft, as he finds ways to show the coming of age story which speaks to kids, not down to them. There is no abrasive comedic relief character thrust into scenes simply to have someone lighten the mood through stilted remarks or the usual self-aware pandering which plague so many modern animated films. There’s only the Chihiro, her story, and the world at our eye line. His willingness to let his scenes breath, giving them space to exist beyond simply serving an expository or comedic purpose, is exactly what grounds his fantastical narratives. When there is drama and trepidation, it isn’t bookended by a gag.

It is no coincidence Miyazaki chose a bathhouse as the central force of his narrative, as spiritual healing is directly related to ablution. As read by the Japanese myth of the Buddha and the Bathwater, where a Japanese monk encounters a Bodhisattva and, through his own trial, becomes “the holy man of the hot springs”. Hot springs and, tangentially, bathhouses are linked to physical and mental cleansing, as there is a conscious transformation of mind and soul which comes from the earth. They act as reagents for change, a change which in Chihiro’s case, is initially unintentional and bred from fear. Fear giving access to formative experiences isn’t a new concept, as the majority of character-building drama and, more realistically, mentality-changing experiences within the real world, are birthed off the backs of great stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. Formative experiences must hinge on moments of weakness facilitating new-found strength.

As Chihiro is faced with the most frightening trials of all, she finds that same inner strength and spirit that Miyazaki comments on, and uses it to spur spiritual growth. She’s still a ten-year-old girl by the end of the Spirited away, but one more capable of self-sustaining. While Spirited Away is palatable for all, what Miyazaki does, once again, is personal. A coming of age story that depends on overcoming the fear of the unknown. The notion that even in a situation where there is nothing to recognize, you can find something in yourself to succeed through.

I reflect on Spirited Away the same way I reflect on myself years ago, taking that first step into a dormitory. I was left alone in a city I’ve never been to, around people I’ve never seen. The first year felt like Chihiro’s descent down the fracturing staircase, and similar to her, once I landed on solid ground I realized just how little I’ve been hurt in the process. As she did, the future steps forward I took more confidently, with more vigour and determination, reaching inward to grow spiritually. So, looking back, I remember the doubt, the anxiety, and the unease. I remember my first friends and how rigorous my studies were. I remember how familiar everything came to feel, and how comfortable I was just last night.