Lonely Aesthetic of Spirited Away

Context & Filmmaker edit

Spirited Away (2001) is a japanese fantasy animated film written and directed by co-founder of Studio Ghibli: Miyazaki Hayao. He is known for his uniquely dynamic characters, colorful backdrops, and moving stories that bring the viewer along for the journey visually, as well as internally. Some of the studio’s more popular works are My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008).

Plot edit

Spirited Away follows a 10 year old girl, named Chihiro, whose life has just been uprooted by her parents in a move to a new city. She is spoiled and whines constantly with hardly any courage of her own to speak of, but when she and her parent’s stumble into the spirit world and her mother and father find themselves turned into pigs, Chihiro has no choice but to stand on her own feet and face this strange world to get them back. The film has captured many hearts over the years for the beloved characters, like most of Miyazaki’s films, but what sets Spirited Away so far apart from others is the emotions that the movie as a whole makes the audience feel.

Loneliness as a Process edit

Ma edit

Miyazaki’s use of the Japanese concept, “Ma”-meaning “the philosophical concept of the space between the edges, between the beginning and end” has left audiences with a nostalgic sense of longing and loneliness. For Miyazaki, “Ma” means long, thoughtful stretches of time in his films where there is no talking, just nature or people passing by, maybe accompanied by gentle instrumentals, where the main characters, as well as the audience are forced to take a pause and breathe in the vast loneliness of life with calm Long Takes. In Spirited Away, Ma is depicted in Chihiro’s train ride where the audience is allowed to sit still with her and take in the world around her and the different guests. Given her forced separation with her parents and the unwilling employment she finds herself in as a child, this use of Ma has a context of great loss, existential fear, and yet dazzling wonder at the world around her. Featured in this train scene is a now iconic character in pop culture, No-Face.

Music edit

Music is a large piece of the emotional appeal in Miyazaki films and often a direct reflection of the emotional beats in their narratives. The songs tell the audience how to feel. Berthold Hoeckner wrote that “Film Music has powerful aesthetic effects on the perception and understanding of screen content… thus film music may be regarded as modulating antecedents of empathetic concern and empathic accuracy”. In proper fashion, Spirited Away’s soundtrack received awards at the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2001 Best Music Award in the Theater Movie category, the 17th Japan Gold Disk Award for Animation Album of the Year, and the 56th Mainichi Film Competition Award for Best Music. In combination with the use of Ma, the score encompasses the feeling of a child fitting into a large passive world filled with whimsical strangeness.

Character Isolation edit

Many characters Chihiro meets within the spirit realm are there against their will, are directly oppressed, or have been forgotten and outcast. No-Face, for example, “is a representation of what being abandoned and lonely can do to someone”. A black sheep in the spirit world, he latches onto Chihiro after she validates his existence by showing him kindness. He manipulates the staff of the bath house where Chihiro is forced to work by fabricating a fool's gold substance to pay for pampering services and leaves chaos in his wake. When swarmed with care, No-Face inflates his body to show his gorging of attention. Having somewhat compensated for the neglect No-Face suffered as a pariah in the spirit world, he renders himself small and harmless and rests in the newfound care of Zeniba. Haku is a character that appears as a normal boy but possesses the ability to turn into a blue dragon. He is responsible for Chihiro finding safety at the bathhouse and protection in the world’s labor hierarchy. An Indentured servant to Zeniba, Haku proves his willingness to protect and care for a stranger like Chihiro and is revealed in the end of the film to be the spirit of a river taken over and forgotten by humans in the real world. His plot depicts the concept of a force of nature being denied the acknowledgement and respect of those around it to such a degree that its identity is forgotten; a process of neglect, isolation, and oblivion. This visual tale reflects loneliness as a process which is best suited for a narrative in this media as “Cinema deals with processes, not states” (Voela 2017).

Nature edit

Nature is a key aspect in Miyazaki’s films. In Spirited Away, nature encloses Chihiro and her family into this strange land when their means of escape is flooded by water. When Chihiro is working in the bath house, a polluted river spirit provides the roughest cleaning the establishment has provided in quite some time, alerting the audience that something is amiss with the ecosystem. This is reinforced with Haku remembering his identity as a separate river spirit that had been suppressed by the presence and actions of humans. Coupled with his use of “Ma”, Miyazaki paints nature as a living stage filled with creatures. When humans neglect nature’s health and fail to respect what they take from the land, Miyazaki paints nature as hurting from those actions. Perhaps this hurt is meant to personify and inspire better care for nature.

References edit

[1] [2]

  1. Loneliness in cinema: A pharmacological approach
  2. Film music influences how viewers relate to movie characters