Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is an animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The feature was released in Japan in 2001 and to the United States in 2002. Spirited Away went on to went on to win a lengthy list of awards, including Best Animated Feature at the 2003 Academy Awards.
In the film, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents become lost while on their way to their new home. They find themselves at what
appears to be an abandoned amusement park but is actually an entrance to the spirit world. Chihiro is separated from her parents after they engage in an act of gluttony and our protagonist must then find a way to survive in a world vastly different from everything she knows.
If someone asked you to think of a two-word, hyphenated phrase to describe Spirited Away, an accurate one would be “awe-inspiring”. The film is visually stunning and is, unquestionably, a work of art. While it deals in the fantastic, it grounds itself to reality through attention to detail to the character designs and in the animation, backgrounds and use of color. This can be seen in practically every scene and we’re going to touch on a few that do a particularly good job of drawing you into the world of the film.
While attempting to take a short cut to their new home, Chihiro’s father has gotten the family lost and instead taken them to front of an abandoned building. A small statue forces him to bring his car to a sudden halt and the family gets out of the car to explore. They walk through a corridor, a large waiting area and to the other side.
This sequence does a good job of making the viewer feel just as wary of the situation as Chihiro. The film catches you off-guard initially in that it is the mother and not the young girl who does not wish to leave the car. That changes quickly as Chihiro, clinging to her father’s arm gazes into the dark tunnel ahead notices the wind drawing leaves on the ground into the tunnel. In an act of defiance, she runs next to the statue that forced their car to stop and refuses to go forward. The statue sits there motionless, with its moldy exterior and unsettling smile that’s gathering leaves. Chihiro observes her companion for a moment and quickly decides it’d be safer to catch up to her parents.
This scene does not use any music. It instead relies on environment sounds, character animation, and backgrounds. Colors and textures used in the background help convey disuse. The animation of Chihiro establishes her as being perceptive and hesitant. The only sounds are the birds in the forest and the moaning of the wind as it draws Chihiro and her family in.
As they walk through the tunnel, the moaning of the wind is still prominent and they begin to work in some sparse piano and strings. The tunnel is dark, with only some reds seeping through. Cracks in the edifice are made more prominent by light from the entrance. The tunnel opens into a waiting room that relies heavily on yellows, browns and grays. The floor is littered with leaves. The pillars that hold the building up are only beginning to show signs of wear. There are patches on the wall that appear to be areas where paint has peeled away. Clean, empty benches line the room. A pile of broken benches sits off to the side. A water fountain sits in the middle of the room, with water dripping from it and onto a puddle on the ground. The only light in this room filters in through the tiny stained-glass windows. With this as the only source of vivid blues, greens, yellows and red, it serves to further cement the unusual nature of this building that does not seem to have been abandoned for all that long. Chihiro gives one last glance back at the room before moving on to the other side. She leaves behind her last chance back to safety and her only way home.
As the family walks out to the other side, we’re treated complete change in color scheme with a field of vibrant green grass. Her parents walk up ahead and the building gives one last loud moan and a powerful gust of wind pushes Chihiro ahead to catch up with them.
This sequence accomplishes something unique: it causes the viewer to physically react to an odor that does not actually exist through character animation and use of color. A stink god has come to a bath house and will not heed the employees request to turn away. Yubaba has charged Sen (Chihiro) with tending to him.
The animators were very thorough in making sure every character during this sequence reacted to the presence of the stink god’s stench. Some react more actively by covering their nose and taking a step back. Others, already prepared for the god’s arrival, have handkerchiefs tied around their faces. Sen’s reflex reaction to the stench consists of widened eyes, pinched nose, cheeks puffed, tense posture, jerky motions and her hair is literally raised off of her head. At one point, shivers run up her body. Yubaba, barely managing to maintain her composure in front of the customer has widened eyes and speaks through clenched teeth. Lin comes into the sequence shortly after the god’s arrival and reacts by bending over slightly and closing her eyes while the rice in the bowls she is holding rots on the spot. Purple discolorations on her cheeks indicate nausea.
The stink god himself is a sight to behold. He’s a large amorphous object with tiny tendrils and boils that occasionally pop and emit gas. His coloring can only be described as “poo” brown and as he moves, a purple mucous is left in his wake. As he makes his way into the bath house, he passes through a curtain which becomes soaked at all points of contact with his body. After he slithers into the bath, the water overflows and the room becomes covered in another muddy yellow-brown color. It’s about as pleasant looking as it sounds. Sen, from that point until about two minutes later in the sequence, is covered in this muck. The animators help convey how viscous and disgusting this muddy substance is by having Sen pull up her pants legs and wade slowly through it. To tend to the god, she must climb the large bath. As she moves up it, mud fills the void left by each hand and foot print.
The rest of the sequence involves the cleansing of the creature, which it turns out is not actually a stink god. Sen discovers the handlebar of a bike sticking out from his side. Yubaba orders the entire bath house staff to participate in its removal. The trash, as it’s being extracted from his being, causes puncture holes through which mud spurts out. An impressive amount of mud-colored debris (including a refrigerator, a toilet and an oven) spills out and onto the floor. At the climax of his cleansing, the room is flooded by much more appealing sea foam green and light brown colors, letting the viewer know the ordeal has come to a close.
Earlier in the film, the scope of the spirit world is hinted at. The bath house is situated as the highest point for miles around. You can see greens and browns well off into the horizon. A train periodically runs off to parts unknown. Towards the middle of the movie, a severe rain storm floods the land and surrounds the bath house with water on three sides. The flooding is so extensive, only pockets of land can be seen above water. This allows for some spectacular visuals to be taken in during the most serene portion of the film.
Chihiro has made the decision to leave the bath house and visit Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba. Haku had stolen a seal from the sister and was badly injured during his escape. Chihiro hopes that by returning the stolen seal and apologizing, Zeniba will help her save Haku’s life. Lin has helped her travel to a location near the train station from the bath house via a floating wooden tub. Lin and Chihiro part ways.
The road next to the train tracks is submerged by a foot at best. All that’s to be seen in the distance are water, clouds and the reflection of those clouds in the water. It makes for a spectacular shot as Chihiro heads off towards the station and appears to be walking on water for a moment. The train which Chihiro boards is seated with faceless, translucent beings. There’s almost a sense of melancholy as they sit there, heads hung low, occasionally filing in and out of the train.
While the train sequence is slow, this helps convey the distance Chihiro is traveling. Up until this point, the vastness of the spirit world has been a vague idea planted in the back of our minds. We’re treated to shots of light dancing on the water as the train speeds over the barely submerged tracks. We pass by a house on an island surrounded by water with gorgeous, billowing clouds as its backdrop.
Further into the trip, the train speeds past a traffic signal. Off in the distance, you can see some land dotted by round trees. As day turns into evening, floating neon signs begin to speed by. By the end of the sequence you’ll find yourself wondering how much more there is to this spirit world Chihiro has stumbled onto and how fantastic it’d be to explore it.