Hey Kings and Kweens!
Today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite movies of all-time: Spirited Away.
Spirited Away is a 2001 fantasy adventure film directed by Hayao Miyazaki — the creative genius at Studio Ghibli. I trust everyone watching this has heard of Studio Ghibli, but if not: Studio Ghibli is arguably the most notable animation studio of the past century — with movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and many others.
Spirited Away is now 20 years old and it remains one of the most spellbinding adventures in film. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, now is a good time. The entire Ghibli catalog — including Spirited Away — is available on HBO Now. You can also purchase it from all the usual places.
There are a lot of things I want to talk about in this video, but I’ve broken them up into three overarching categories. I want to talk about how the film immerses you in its world. I want to talk about the treatment of its villains. And finally I want to talk about the music.
- Immersion in its fantastical world
- Treatment of villains
- Musical score
1985 – 1999
Studio Ghibli’s films are renowned in the West because their work is so different from what has been available in western markets. In recent years, the Ghibli name seems ubiquitous with the animation industry, but the studio’s global success happened more than a decade into their existence, many years after they had produced some of their best work. The journey this studio had to take from being a regional entity to a global phenomenon was a significant factor in ensuring the quality of Spirited Away.
Studio Ghibli was officially formed in 1985 by a trio of creative producers including Isao Tahakata, Toshio Suzuki, and Hayao Miyazaki. They had previously worked at Topcraft. Topcraft was the studio that released Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1985, only to go bankrupt later that same year. However, Ghibli’s popularity in the West began a decade later in 1996 when the studio signed a deal with Disney. According to Suzuki, Disney was not the first company to court Ghibli for a redistribution deal but Disney’s offer was unique for two key reasons. The first reason was Disney wanted to redistribute the entirety of Ghibli’s catalog on VHS. This wasn’t a one-and-done theatrical partnership — which they already tried while at Topcraft and had a bad experience. More on that in a moment. The second reason was Disney promised any localization efforts of Ghibli’s work would not compromise the original vision of the film. Or as it was stated in the contract, Disney promised “no cuts.”
The redistribution of Ghibli’s work on VHS was attractive because in the late 90s, home video was actually more reliably successful than theatrical releases. Disney re-released the majority of Ghibli’s past titles as direct-to-video in western markets where many people — including myself — stumbled upon one of their films in Blockbusters or other video rental services. I personally remember renting My Neighbor Totoro as a 10-year-old kid and falling in love with the sense of wonder and whimsical portrayal of the supernatural. It was a movie unlike anything I had seen at the time. Adult Western critics were also intrigued by Ghibli’s emerging popularity because Disney was exiting its golden age of animated films. The late 90s was when Disney began to be associated with box office bombs like Fantasia 2000 or Atlantis, rather than genre classics such as The Little Mermaid or The Lion King.
Studio Ghibli’s deal with Disney also meant new Ghibli films would be — for the first time — released theatrically in western markets. The first Ghibli film to receive a theatrical release in the West was Princess Mononoke — the fantasy epic Ghibli produced right before Spirited Away. The release of Princess Mononoke was contentious because the creative leadership at Ghibli had previously been burned by a Western theatrical release. In 1985 — when the Ghibli creative team was still at Topcraft — they released Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. That film was localized for Western markets by a production company called Manson International. The localization made a significant number of creative changes. Manson International changed the name of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to Warriors of the Wind. They also changed a lot of dialogue, and cut roughly 22 minutes of content to reduce it to 90 minutes. The motivation behind these changes was to make the film more palatable to younger audiences which they did by removing all the complexity of the film. All the environmentalism themes were removed and the edited version downplayed the moral ambiguity of the “villains.” These changes proved to be fruitless because in the west the film was a box office failure anyway — in addition to compromising the original vision.
It was for this reason Studio Ghibli was happy to sign the deal with Disney. It ensured their work would reach audiences globally without any compromises, but they did have to remind localization partners of this agreement in the lead-up to Princess Mononoke’s release. In 1997, Mononoke was already a hit in Asian markets, but it wouldn’t be localized in the west until more than two years later in 1999. Part of the hold-up was due to creative interference from the localization partner Miramax. The head of the studio wanted to trim the film down to 90 minutes — arguing American audiences wouldn’t want to watch a 2-hour epic. Fun fact, this is the same producer who argued Lord of the Rings would only be successful if it was a single film no longer than 2 hours. Studio Ghibli had been here before and didn’t want to get burned again.
To make the point, one creative Ghibli producer packaged a katana and sent it to the head at Miramax with a handwritten note that quoted the contract Ghibli signed with Disney: “no cuts.” The Miramax producer was none other than Harvey Weinstein — who Miyazaki had multiple arguments with in relation to proposed cuts to Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki ultimately proved successful. He later recalled his encounter with Weinstein in an interview with The Guardian in 2005. He summarized the encounter by saying “I defeated him.” Mononoke was released untouched. Unsurprisingly, the film was a critical and commercial success — sometimes referred to as the studio’s best film.
I included this lengthy background, because I think it expresses the creative authority Studio Ghibli has maintained for their films. Throughout the studio’s history, they have resisted interference from people who claimed they were trying to help their work succeed. It is this unrelenting confidence in their own work that protects the studio’s ability to be creative. It is often the case truly novel ideas are rejected by mainstream audiences for being too different. For art to be successful you need to risk offending knee-jerk sentiments, and you need to be willing to send a sword to someone when they’re giving you a hard time. Studio Ghibli has a family-friendly reputation, but when it came to defending their artistry they have always been fearless and uncompromising.
This set the stage for Ghibli’s next project — Spirited Away — which would be their first simultaneous international release. Miyazaki and his studio knew going into the project they would have a significantly larger market and full authorial control — which may have provided the combination of stakes and confidence that can result in a great work.
Lead Up to Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli had established their process over two decades of consistently successful films and they stuck to their established process for Spirited Away. Miyazaki has said many of his films begin with creating a character that does not exist in the film landscape and wrapping a story around them. It’s why many Ghibli characters tend to be strong female protagonists even though that trope wasn’t very common at the time of their release. The choice of protagonist wasn’t necessarily a political statement, but rather the studio chasing the opportunity to tell stories about people who were ignored in mainstream filmmaking. This approach is at the core of Ghibli’s creative process and it is why all their films are so unique.
Choosing to pursue unrepresented characters is a great approach if you want a unique main character, but it’s also inherently rebellious against the status quo — which I would say is a defining characteristic of Ghibli films that is often overlooked. Much of the central conflict in Ghibli stories is a rebel who exists on the outskirts of society and their struggle to integrate their individualism with the culture that surrounds them on all sides. The inherent rebellion at the heart of Ghibli stories is why their films received so much pushback from Western producers. Hollywood once had a period of artist-orientated filmmaking, but for a variety of good and bad reasons the industry is largely guided by middlemen producers who prioritize market trends, established tropes, and likability over honest storytelling. It is easy to miss the rebellious nature of Ghibli’s work because times have changed.
Many progressive themes such as strong female protagonists are now mainstream. Studio Ghibli films are not seen as transgressive or challenging, but rather unifying and wholesome. It is interesting to see Ghibli embraced by young people who like the films for going against the status quo, because — beyond the surface-level novelties like the identity of its main characters — Ghibli films could be described as deeply conservative. What I mean by conservative is Ghibli films have an undeniable appreciation for preserving how things used to be rather than embracing what is new. It may be more accurate to say these films are “anarcho primitive.” Ghibli films are almost entirely about the intersection between the old spiritual world and the new industrial world. The heroes of these stories are often individuals who exist outside the modern world and struggle to integrate within it — in some instances they choose to reject the new world in its entirety. These themes had been apparent in all of Studio Ghibli’s work. I would argue, the themes evolve to be even more pronounced in Spirited Away — which is why I consider it to be their best work.
The lead up to this project ensured the studio would perform at their highest level since they had achieved both creative autonomy and personal confidence in their process. It’s no surprise this film is the amalgamation of everything great about Studio Ghibli. This is the dream project where decades of experience crescendo into a creative magnum opus. It’s why Spirited Away is often hailed as one of the greatest films of all time.
Spirited Away follows the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who is moving to the countryside with her family. The family takes a detour and discovers what they believe is an abandoned theme park that failed after the recession in Japan during the early 90s. Chihiro’s father wants to explore the abandoned park, but she is apprehensive and scared. Her parents disregard her protests and venture inside anyway. They soon discover a food court that doesn’t appear to have any attendants, so they gorge themselves on the free food. Chihiro wanders off from her family but runs into a mysterious guy who tells her to leave as soon as possible. She’s spooked by the encounter and runs back to her parents who have now been transformed into literal pigs. This scene has one of my favorite shots in the movie where the vulgarity of Chihiro’s transformed parents is put right in the audience’s face.
Chihiro runs away screaming and becomes overwhelmed by the terrifying circumstances she’s found herself in. The mysterious guy shows up again and introduces himself as Haku. He promises to help Chihiro return to her family, but Haku explains she will have to submit herself to work at the bathhouse — a spiritual getaway servicing Gods and spirits. It is at this bathhouse where the bulk of Spirited Away takes place as Chihiro faces various obstacles in her attempt to return her parents to normal and finally go home.
As referenced in the background, Studio Ghibli movies begin production with a unique character unrepresented in film. For Spirited Away, that character was Chihiro. Chihiro’s character came about because Miyazaki realized there was a hole in the studio’s work to appeal to children of all ages. Despite Ghibli films often handling mature themes, Miyazaki has always maintained the studio’s movies are intended for children. When he began work on Spirited Away, he noticed there were no Ghibli films focusing on pre-teen young girls. Very young children were covered in My Neighbor Totoro, teenagers were covered in Kiki’s Delivery Service, and various young women starred in other Ghibli films — but there was no story for the age when kids begin to explore their own personality.
Spirited Away was meant to be a story of a young child forming the bedrock of their personality, while also serving as an adventure film more fantastical than anything Ghibli had made so far. The film accomplishes both of these goals by establishing a relatable protagonist who becomes the guide for immersing the audience into the world of the bathhouse.
Immersion in fantastical world
Chihiro as a main character
With any fantasy adventure film, it is integral for some character to act as a stand-in for the audience — a person who can guide the audience into a world we have no knowledge of without breaking our immersion. In Spirited Away, the stand-in for the audience is Chihiro — who is easily one of the best protagonists in a Studio Ghibli film because of her unique connection with the audience. Audience stand-ins are very commonly main characters who are newcomers to fantasy worlds, therefore allowing explicit exposition since the character has a reason to ask questions about what’s going on. Chihiro is one such newcomer, but what makes her a unique guide to the fantastical world of the bathhouse is her believability as a ten-year-old girl. That believability reinforces how Spirited Away is a film only Ghibli could have made.
From the perspective of an old-school western producer, Spirited Away opens with a protagonist that seemingly has no “likable” personality traits. At the beginning of the film, Chihiro is in her most petulant adolescence. She’s hesitant to explore the park, repeatedly resists the family’s curiosity, and when the exciting supernatural elements begin — she’s frightened and runs away. A producer obsessed with audience testing scores might be concerned the audience would not root for a little kid who complains and cries all the time. This is the kind of “marketability” argument that has become conventional wisdom for Western filmmaking — and thankfully something Studio Ghibli has never been inhibited by. Chihiro was not a character conceived with audience expectations in mind — or what producers might believe audiences would want to expect — but rather what is literally true about actual ten-year-old girls.
Miyazaki said when he was creating the character who became Chihiro, he used his young nieces as a comparison point for Chihiro’s ability. Whenever the film would require Chihiro to perform an action, Miyazaki would ask himself: Could my niece do what Chihiro is asked to do in this scene? If the answer was no, then the story had to change. That might mean our main character does not respond to a potential adventure with unfailing confidence to explore the unknown, but instead with genuine fear for her life. Why would an audience want to see a kid crying and scared for their life? Because it makes the character relatable. As hard as it might be to believe, audiences do know some intuitive truths about the world and one of them is kids can be scared of things they don’t understand. We know this because we’ve all been ten-years-old at some point in our life. And unless you were born into some child actor puppy mill, you probably weren’t an infallibly confident ten-year-old. When we see Chihiro act like a human, we relate to her. She doesn’t need to be explicitly “likable” to connect with the audience. We see her as an honest depiction of a real person and we believe her story is true.
The connection formed between Chihiro and the audience is through empathizing with her circumstance and seeing ourselves in her character. We relate to her childlike inability to comprehend her circumstance, but she does not stay in this state of helplessness for long. Chihiro is practically in an onslaught of character-building challenges even before she steps foot into the bathhouse. The way she surmounts these challenges are often sloppy or defined by a kind of half-failure — such as when she can’t hold her breath across the bridge or becomes a hinderance to the boiler room’s operations when she was attempting to help. Chihiro’s perseverance through these challenges lets the audience see her naturally grow as a character. We see her begin as a petulant kid but slowly become a person with competence and ability. She never does something out of character or out of convenience for the plot. We see her find success with more reliability and fewer complications simply through persistence. The movie never tells us Chihiro has traits we admire such as perseverance, dedication, or competency. We see her develop those values through her actions.
Chihiro’s development throughout the film is paced so well, it is practically invisible to the audience. One contrast I liked in Chihiro’s development is her approach to traversing stairs. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she is faced with a daunting exterior staircase that leaves nothing to the imagination on how far she could plummet to her death. In this sequence she struggles to take a single step and overcoming this staircase is a major early victory for her character — though again it is mostly accomplished as a kind of failure since she practically falls down them toward her goal. Compare this to later in the film, where she has to make her way to a window and takes it upon herself to balance on a loose pipe to reach her destination. If these scenes were closer together, it would be unbelievable to imagine the skittish girl from one scene is capable of the gymnastics of the other, but this contrast is not detected by the audience. By the time Chihiro chooses to balance on that pipe, it is believable to her character’s growth.
I tend refer to this steady development of a character as “escalation.” Our character needs more and more difficult challenges to keep the drama engaging and if it’s done well, you never feel like the character has taken a leap in their ability. Another movie that is very good at escalation is Alita Battle Angel, but that’s a video for another day. No matter the challenges she faces, Chihiro’s increasing bravery and ability to overcome challenges in her path is always grounded in a kind of obtainable reality we can connect with. Even as Chihiro’s story becomes more fantastical as she becomes more engaged with the magical elements of the bathhouse, the film never forgets our connection to the story is from feeling empathy for her character. This is also why it was a great decision not to give Chihiro any supernatural abilities — which is quite common in Japanese animated films in general, but not always the case in Studio Ghibli’s work. She doesn’t possess any capabilities beyond a typical ten-year-old. Even as the audience discovers the magic throughout the bathhouse, we are grounded by Chihiro’s very ordinary ability as a regular person in an otherwise magical world. That grounding is key for our ability to connect to the film through her and we get frequent reminders of her human flaws in this world.
There is a scene roughly an hour into this movie that I think reminds us of this connection. I’ve come to appreciate this scene more on rewatches as I’ve realized how it contributes to the film. The scene in question is when Haku takes Chihiro to see her parents in the pig pens, but she realizes she can’t even recognize them in their pig form anymore. At this point in the movie, a lot has happened to Chihiro. She has seen her parents turn into pigs, she’s almost disappeared, she’s been accosted for being a dirty human, she’s been forced into hard labor, she’s been screamed at by a crazy large lady, she’s had her name stolen from her and she is now looking at a lifetime of work with no family or friends. She’s finally given a moment to take this all in and she just starts crying. In this moment, we can look at Chihiro and compare who she is in this scene to who she was at the beginning of the movie. In one very real sense, she may appear to have made no progress. She started the movie as a scared crying girl and now we see her scared and crying once again, but we relate to her differently because we can now empathize with her situation on a deeper level.
Chihiro’s terror of losing her parents, struggling at the bathhouse, and being overwhelmed by what to do next is not unlike the grueling day-to-day of modern life. We often experience our life disconnected from our loved ones, surviving daily stress, and uncertain of our future. All Studio Ghibli films are about this intersection between traditional sources of value such as family and how they can be upended by the realities of the modern world. Seeing the main character go through these challenges makes us associate Chihiro with ourselves. That connection with her character — and by extension our connection to the film — is more impactful than making her traditionally likable by being witty or charismatic or whatever. Most people are not witty and charismatic, but we do share these common concerns. The audience forms its connection to Spirited Away’s main character through a deep sense of empathy with her story, which is what makes Chihiro such a uniquely powerful main character who can anchor us throughout this fantasy film.
The audience needs that grounding, because the world of Spirited Away is more fantastical than anything Studio Ghibli has made in the past, but just like prior films, much of those fantasy elements are delivered at the margins of the frame. This is because of a defining characteristic of Ghibli’s creative process referred to as “ma” or “emptiness.” Ma is the result of allowing animators to have more control over the creative process from the very beginning. Miyazaki has said every Ghibli film begins production without a script. He starts with a character and storyboards pivotal scenes that he then gives to animators and encourages them to embellish what’s happening on screen. This is what’s known as “ma.” This technique is evident in all of Ghibli’s films even the ones that are not fantasy films with eye-catching backgrounds.
For example, a lot of Studio Ghibli fans have noticed all Ghibli films are very good at making food look delicious. This is because the animators are given the freedom to highlight ordinary slice of life moments such as eating food. It is a unique strength of the animated format. In live-action film, there are a lot of practical reasons to never show a character eating food. From a storytelling perspective, there is an unending desire to strip film of everything that doesn’t service the plot. There’s a term in television writing called “shoe leather,” which is used to describe actions that do not service the plot such as traveling between locations or partaking in social norms. This is why you never see anyone in film end a phone call by saying goodbye. It doesn’t add anything, and if you’re writing for a format with a limited time frame you’re incentivized to trim away any incidental actions made by your characters. Although the term is unique to television, it has infected filmmaking because producers generally doubt an audience’s willingness to watch long films. The ritual of eating food is one of the main casualties of subscribing to this approach.
There are good practical reasons for not including live action characters eating food. Eating is a continuity nightmare for editing a scene. It can be needlessly expensive to have a lot of freshly cooked food — especially if you’re in a single camera setup. Not to mention, actors don’t even eat the food, they spit it out between lines which can be kind of annoying. You may have noticed, even when film characters meet for lunch they often don’t actually eat anything. For most movies, you can’t make a strong argument for how having a character eat food on camera benefits the film.
Ghibli’s animated films do not have any of these practical restrictions. Animators are free to depict whatever they want and it’s not surprising they so frequently choose to animate something we all do at least once a day. It’s actually a little bizarre how the ritual of eating food is so integral to everyday human life but largely invisible in most movies. Ghibli’s creative process provides the freedom for animators to depict these everyday moments of “emptiness.” These moments are not insignificant to creating the atmosphere of Ghibli films. There is a wholesome serenity to all of their work, even when they are set in worlds thrown into conflict. It is this creative process that makes Ghibli films unique and why the world of Spirited Away is so enchanting.
“Ma” effectively implements the tenet of “show, don’t tell” into the doctrine of Studio Ghibli storytelling and it is why we know so much about the world just by looking at it. When Chihiro first observes the customers of the bathhouse, we see them arrive by boat as invisible shapeless things that gain a corporeal form when they reach land. We can see these beings are airy low-opacity ghosts or fantastical creatures like the cabbage spirit that shows up pretty early in the film. We’re not told what to think about the appearance of these beings, but later when we discover the bathhouse is made up of spirits it doesn’t feel like new information. We have already guessed the spiritual nature of this world by watching what was happening on screen. This is also true for setting expectations when we meet new characters.
When Chihiro is close to meeting the owner of the bathhouse, we see the hallways are full of ornate designs and metallic jewelry. The environment conveys a sense of regal authority, fitting for a wealthy individual in charge of a prestigious bathhouse. This is enforced more explicitly when Chihiro meets this owner face-to-face and we see she has a massive head. This is our first impression of the character known as Yubaba and it is immediately clear she is someone with a commanding ego of self-importance. We know so much about Yubaba just by seeing how she looks and where she lives.
These three examples are actually three different techniques. “Ma” is Ghibli’s willingness to show quieter moments with no real purpose; the larger-than-life appearance of characters like Yubaba or the spirits are a mix of character and costume design; and the information we intuit from Yubaba’s office is environmental storytelling. They are all present in this film, because the studio values visual storytelling more highly than anything else — and I believe that’s derived from their unique approach to “ma.”
The boiler room sequence
Chihiro’s experience in the boiler room is an early example of how her strength as a main character — combined with Studio Ghibli’s focus on visual storytelling — can coalesce into an unforgettable sequence.
Chihiro is tasked with finding Kamaji the boiler man and her only instruction is to repeatedly ask him for a job and not to take no for an answer. We learn a lot about Chihiro through this boiler room sequence and it is all through watching the animation — the dialogue is minimal. Chihiro asks Kamaji for a job and he dismisses her, saying she should stop bothering him. Chihiro is undeterred. She maintains a sense of resiliency to go on, despite not receiving any encouragement from the adult she is tasked to engage with. This is an important lesson for any ten-year-old. Life often will not help you get what you need. You need to learn to advocate for yourself. We also see Chihiro’s motivation to act is based in compassion. Her call to act in this scene is after seeing a soot ball collapse under the weight of a piece of ore. Chihiro finds success in her actions, but — much like all her success so far — it is in the context of a kind of failure since she hasn’t reached her full potential at this point in the story. By observing these events, we learn a lot about Chihiro’s personality through her actions. The broad stroke of this sequence is to provide Chihiro with a challenge before getting into the bathhouse. There are a lot of ways the animators could have depicted this challenge, but they chose a challenge, call to action, and solution that puts Chihiro in a situation we can relate to while emphasizing her most admirable traits as she continues to figure things out.
We also learn a lot about the bathhouse through this sequence. Kamaji is clearly a magical creature given his six arms that can travel long distances, but he is unlike the other magical creatures we’ve seen so far. Many of the spirits we’ve seen seem to be whimsically floating through life with few cares in the world. In contrast, Kamaji’s existence is defined by his labor-intensive job. It is clear he exists in a humanlike corporate hierarchy. He seems disgruntled at the amount of work he has to perform, but has no recourse to change his situation. As frustrated as Kamaji might be about his own circumstance, he serves the same purpose for the soot workers who appear to report to him. This is an important distinction because it removes the assumption the bathhouse is akin to Disneyland. It is not as if everyone there is having a grand time and the only reason Chihiro is not is because she is a human in a spiritual world. In this world, there are managers and servants. Everything accomplished at the bathhouse is the result of a class of people performing grueling labor all day. The soot workers exist at the bottom of this hierarchy. These little guys are not the result of magical spell or specialty being designed to enjoy work. They have sentience and even they — apparently — don’t like working, which will come up again later.
Kamaji is initially presented as an obstacle blocking Chihiro’s progress, but by the end of the sequence he reveals himself to be more complex. As I mentioned before, he initially dismisses Chihiro and sees her as a nuisance, but by the end of the sequence he chooses to cover for her.
We don’t necessarily know the reason Kamaji changes his mind, but it suggests Kamaji — and other characters in this story — are not one-dimensional entities. Kamaji is not an autonomous drone dedicated to servicing his work. He is an individual capable of his own thoughts and motivations. This is also true for the soot workers. Despite being literal carbon copies of each other, they have the opportunity to express their individual dissatisfaction with their work when they attempt to offload their responsibility to Chihiro after she helps one of them. The complexity of characters is a theme both in Spirited Away and across Studio Ghibli’s body of work.
Again, none of these creative decisions necessarily needed to happen for the sequence to be successful. Kamaji did not need to have magical capabilities. The soot workers did not need to have their own personality. Chihiro did not need to fail first then fail slightly less on her way to success. These decisions are intentional. The boiler room sequence gets us to relate to Chihiro, it coneys the realities of the bathhouse, and it shows the complexity of the characters we meet in this world. Everything great about Ghibli’s visual storytelling is in this boiler room sequence.
All of this is accomplished before Chihiro ever sets foot in the bathhouse proper where the majority of the story takes place. By the time we get a proper introduction to the actual setting, we already have a strong connection to this world through our relationship with Chihiro. We’ve also learned a bit about what’s to come based on the visual storytelling so far. This leaves the audience well-equipped to engage with the film on its most fundamental level, allowing the story to delve into more sophisticated complexity with its characters.
Treatment of Villains
Spirited Away has an obvious appeal for young children, but I believe the lasting appeal of this film comes from its nuanced portrayal of its adult villains. In my eyes, Ghibli has always outdone Disney when it comes to the timelessness of their work because of the strength of their villains. Disney animation films have almost always portrayed characters in clearly defined concepts of “good” and “evil.” This dynamic was common in western media for the past 100 years as an influence of “modernism,” a cultural movement that prevailed following the end of World War II.
A key tenet of modernism was the belief in “grand narratives” such as “history is progress” and “good defeats evil.” Disney — being an American company — can be forgiven for subscribing to this reductionist viewpoint of history since the United States was considered the good guys of World War II. Studio Ghibli — being a Japanese company — did not have access to that type of narrative. I think this is a significant factor for why Ghibli stories do not reduce themselves to moralizing. Every character is nuanced and believable, never veering into the comically evil. I think this is a good thing. There is a reason modernism is being rejected in in the current cultural movement known as “postmodernism.” The world is more complicated than good fighting against evil and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise even in children’s films. There is also a functional use for having a story without blatant malice within it.
By choosing not to vilify any character in a story, you reduce the discomfort for the audience. Let me explain what I mean. I sometimes describe my favorite films as the movies that have all my favorite scenes next to each other. Spirited Away is a good example, but other movies I consider my favorites include Goodfellas, Cloud Atlas, or The Social Network. I have this experience with all of these movies where I’m sitting there thinking: “Oh I love this scene! Oh I love this scene too. Oh this is a great scene.” I love movies where every scene is something to cherish and it is really difficult to accomplish that if you need to moralize one of the characters as “evil.”
If you’re telling a story with moralizing in it, at some point you have to make the audience dislike the antagonist. This is most commonly accomplished by having bad things happen to characters we like. This is the art of manipulation at the core of Hollywood screenwriting and what feeds tiresome cliches like “fridging.” It goes without saying, these moments where we’re told what to think about the villain are generally not anyone’s favorite. Ghibli movies don’t have those types of scenes. It is no accident Ghibli movies are renowned for their unrelenting earnestness and serene atmosphere while also rarely vilifying any of the characters. Instead, the conflict that arises from characters you could call “the villains” are the result of their background and motivations. Not because they are explicitly evil, but because they were placed in a situation that makes them act against our protagonist. Let’s look at three different examples.
Spirited Away has two identifiable villains but the first entity that acts as an antagonist is actually neither of these characters. Instead, it is a bathhouse attendant referred to as a “stink spirit.” This lumbering mammoth enters the bathhouse with a putrid smell, leaving sludge wherever it goes. It would be very easy to apply an intent of malice to this spirit. Afterall, it is literally referred to as a “stink spirit.” Its name suggests the spirit’s only purpose is to smell terrible and ruin everyone else’s day. If there was ever a pure distillation of malintent, it would certainly be a spirit that’s sole purpose is to stink. This assumption is challenged by the film because Chihiro figures out what’s causing the spirit’s ailment. It turns out the spirit is not meant to be a stink spirit, but rather a river spirit of a river that had been badly polluted over many years. With this context, we see the spirit is not a villain but the result of its circumstance.
Spirited Away — and Ghibli films in general — presents the viewpoint villains may not be evil, but the result of forces larger than them. The spirit did not choose to become polluted to such an extent it became corrupted and unrecognizable. In fact, the spirit is actually seeking help for its ailment at the bathhouse, but its intent doesn’t change how people view it. The river spirit is received as an antagonist. It is a nuisance for hundreds of workers merely because of its existence. Of course, the spirit is only like this because of the ugliness inflicted upon it by its environment. Can we reasonably vilify this spirit for being the victim of its circumstance? If you think no — you can’t blame the spirit for its circumstance — then you immediately touch upon a fairly contentious philosophical argument about the nature of evil and how it might interact with the concept of freewill.
I’ll admit the stink spirit is too reductive of an example to serve as a jumping off point about the nature of morality and freewill. A river does not have freewill. Therefore, pollution is so obviously the result of bad actors inflicting a bad action upon a non-sentient entity. It is easy to condemn the actor rather than the acted upon — because you can’t argue a river has the ability to change its circumstance. This is simply a cause-and-effect. Bad actions result in a bad environment. However, the presence of the stink spirit suggests a person’s badness may not be the result of something nefarious in their character, but rather the result of bad behavior among their peers.
There is no better example of this argument than the first obvious villain of Spirited Away, No-Face. No-Face has an incredibly simple character design that is both immediately recognizable and communicates the most important information about the character — his lack of character. He is a faint wisp of a being that only exists in the context of others. No-Face’s lack of expression and his pathetic sounding grunts give the impression he is a lonely individual that lacks conviction. He is a lost soul looking for some meaning and purpose in his existence.
Our first exposure to No-Face is a brief interaction with Chihiro early in the film, when she gives him a reprieve from the rain by letting him into the bathhouse. Actually we see him before that, but it’s just in passing. It’s not hard to imagine Chihiro’s politeness is the only kindness No-Face has received in his entire spiritual existence. You could say the experience of receiving validation from Chihiro becomes No-Face’s literal sole purpose. He begins to seek out that validation again by showering Chihiro with gifts whenever possible. The gifts are practical at first — they’re tokens for her work at the bathhouse — but his need to be validated becomes a toxic obsession. Chihiro feels uncomfortable by No-Face’s behavior and refuses his appeals to greed. This is the beginning of his transformation into one of the film’s villains.
No-Face reacts badly to Chihiro’s rejection and his obsession becomes violent. I think his turn from pathetic to violent could be viewed in two different ways. Either he is attempting to drown himself in dopamine to distract himself from the feeling of rejection, or he is amassing power to convince himself he can supersede the judgement of his peers. Perhaps unintentionally, the latter defense mechanism is identical to how immature males respond to being rejected romantically. I doubt that was the intent, but it is interesting. The nature of No-Face’s bad reaction is ambiguous but what matters is his response is a clear influence of the bathhouse. He is surrounded by power-hungry, greedy people all around him, so he becomes the uber powerful embodiment of greed. For this accomplishment, he is celebrated by the bathhouse as an honored guest in the community. He gorges on more food and showers everyone in gold, but no matter the extent of his pleasure-seeking it is never enough. Even as he becomes a terrifying monster of sloth, gluttony, and wrath, he is always pursuing a sense of contentment that never comes.
I don’t think it’s obvious at first, but I believe part of the reason so many people love Spirited Away is because they relate to No-FaceN. We can relate to No-Face despite all his flaws, just like how we can relate to Chihiro at the beginning of the film when she was a scared little kid. It is worth mentioning, one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli believed No-Face was an autobiographical character created by Miyazaki. No-Face’s flaws are apparent just by looking at him. He is the only character in the film made-up of a darker color palette in the bathhouse full of bright colors. He is inelegant and solemn in a place with fantastical personalities. He is literally isolated from the rest of the film in every way possible. He embodies a loneliness we’re all familiar with. It is the loneliness found in constant pleasure-seeking from toxic influences during a prolonged isolation from our peers. This film aims its criticism at what’s causing this to happen to us and it is not any one individual or villain, but the culture.
The implication of No-Face’s character arc is anyone who is submerged in this culture will undoubtedly become something like a gluttonous monster consuming everything in sight. When you’re in this world, the only value that’s rewarded is hard work, consumption, and collection of wealth. Any concept of family or spirituality is absent in this world and that’s done on purpose. The reason Yubaba attempts to steal Chihiro’s name at the beginning of her work contract is so she has no connection to anything but her work. Her connection to her name and her family provides a sense of purpose beyond the goals of the bathhouse, so it becomes necessary to take them away. This is what this environment is designed to do. It takes what makes you unique and molds your sense of meaning and purpose to serve the bathhouse. It may be easy to condemn the actions of an individual like No-Face for all the bad traits he embodies, but we understand he is only this way because of what the environment did to him.
No-Face’s story is a unique twist in the lore of Studio Ghibli. As I mentioned in the background, Ghibli films often criticize the industrial world but this is typically through a character who exists outside of that world and pushes back against it. Characters like Nausicaa, Howl, Kiki, or Ashitaka. By comparison, No-Face is a blank slate. He has no backstory or personality when we find him at the bathhouse. We see him go from nothing to mirroring the culture around him. By seeing what happens to No-Face at the bathhouse, he becomes an articulation of a critique on that culture by starting as nothing and becoming the film’s villain.
Let me be clear. I don’t think Studio Ghibli films ever intend to articulate exact allegories or “messages.” I don’t think Miyazaki sat down and said “Today, I will criticize capitalism.” In fact, at the end of this video I’ll share a quote from Miyazaki that basically confirms he doesn’t write movies to make a point. But I’ll get to that later. I have always viewed the corruption of No-Face within the bathhouse as a metaphor for the modern world’s obsession with work. In the real world, we’ve seen the realities of industry have resulted in the exploitation of nature, and devaluing the family unit in favor of increasing worker productivity. Studio Ghibli has made this critique repeatedly in all of their films. I think Spirited Away is the strongest expression of this critique because their deal with Disney shortly before this film’s production basically guaranteed they would have complete creative control and autonomy.
Ghibli’s willingness to critique the modern day is a defining aspect of how the studio distinguishes itself from Western storytelling. You don’t see Ghibli films about an ambitious person dissolving into their work where the only conflict is if an individual can successfully surrender themselves to their job — movies like Whiplash or Heat. Instead, Ghibli movies are almost always about the dynamic between an individual’s desire for a simple traditional life and how it might be at odds with the direction of the modern industrial world. No-Face’s corruption is part of this reoccurring theme in Ghibli’s work, but from the perspective of what might happen if a person didn’t pushback against modern influences. This is what makes him such a unique villain in this story, and a standout in Ghibli’s body of work.
No-Face’s redemption comes from Chihiro — who plays the role of the outsider pushing back against the modern world’s expectations. She frees No-Face from himself. Chihiro feeds No-Face a piece of the gift given to her by the river spirit after he’s cleansed of pollution. Perhaps this suggests a small piece of good can overcome the bad, even if it becomes a massive monstrosity. No-Face initiates his violent withdrawal from his toxic tendencies and it is not an immediate transformation. He launches a final desperate attempt to wreck as much havoc as possible — once again, the comparison to how immature males handle romantic rejection is obvious here — but eventually he tires and returns to his original form. I think this is another moment of intuitive genius about human nature’s rejection of better life paths. We often find ourselves kicking and screaming to avoid doing what’s best for our own good.
From the moment No-Face begins his transformation to the end of the movie, he redeems himself as a companion for Chihiro. This is a fitting end because ultimately all No-Face really wanted was acceptance and a friend. He gets both of these not from amassing wealth or power but by simply being a pleasant being. He later has one of my favorite “ma” moments in the film. Towards the end of the story, you can see No-Face silently enjoying tea and biscuits with his new friends. It’s a pretty wholesome moment, especially compared to where he was just an hour prior. In fact, this scene is one of the more interesting creative decisions made by Studio Ghibli in Spirited Away because it is the bedrock for establishing empathy with the other primary villain — Yubaba.
Yubaba is the administrator of the bathhouse. It’s never clarified if she’s the owner or created the bathhouse in the first place, but she’s clearly the one who feels responsible for whatever happens there. As I’ve mentioned before, Yubaba never acts as a friend to Chihiro. She bullies her, steals her name, and is generally an intimidating personality — though it’s worth noting she doesn’t appear to do anything out of pure malice. Yubaba only ever gives us reason to dislike her, but the film manages to inspire sympathy for her character by connecting us to her family.
Chihiro gains an ally in her quest to fix her parents when she discovers Yubaba has a sister named Zeniba and they’re apparently not on good term. Zeniba is actively working against her sister and so she shares some of her secrets with Chihiro. It is through Zeniba that Chihiro finds out about the curse on Haku and resolves to seek out Zeniba to assist with her situation. What is bizarre about Zeniba is she is not just Yubaba’s sister, but her identical twin sister. She even dresses the same and has the same manner of speech. The only difference is their personality. At first, Zeniba appears to be just as mean-spirited as her sister, but by the time Chihiro visits Zeniba at the end of the movie she proves kind-hearted and willing to help.
It is interesting Studio Ghibli chose to portray Zeniba as Yubaba’s twin sister, because I think it inherently humanizes Yubaba’s character. Without the connection to her sister, Yubaba is the archetypal domineering force of order. She is the exact kind of unpleasant authoritarian you might suspect would be in charge of a massive bathhouse. Those types of personalities feel so natural that it is easy to assume someone like Yubaba was destined for her position in life. However, the presence of Zeniba makes us wonder if Yubaba may have turned out differently if she wasn’t so attached to her work.
We can see a lot of similarities between the two sisters but in different contexts. Zeniba is protective of Chihiro the same way Yubaba is protective of her own child. The only difference is one of these children is a massive bratty baby and the other is our beloved main character. The personality trait in both characters is the same but we feel differently about it due to the context. Both Zeniba and Yubaba are short with Chihiro at different points in the story, but you can see how this same personality trait makes Yubaba such an effective bully while it makes Zeniba a fearless advocate. You get the impression both characters are basically the same person. This is reinforced by cleverly playing off the human psyche by making them twin sisters. We can’t separate one from the other in our mind. Without Zeniba’s involvement in this story it is unlikely the audience would feel anything for Yubaba but contempt. By including Zeniba, Yubaba is able to serve her purpose as the film’s “villain” for Chihiro’s story, but we don’t feel any lasting ill will toward her character.
In fact, the final scenes of the film give Yubaba a kind of absolution. At Zeniba’s house, Chihiro comes to appreciate the twin sister so much she gives her the affectionate nickname “granny.” It is interesting when Chihiro returns to the bathhouse, she uses this same nickname for Yubaba. Even as Yubaba attempts to enslave our heroine to the bathhouse forever, Chihiro thanks “granny” for everything she did for her. We no longer feel contempt for Yubaba because we view her personality from a different perspective — one with the knowledge that Yubaba may not have turned out this way if she were in a different environment.
The perspective we now view Yubaba in is the conclusion point for Studio Ghibli’s complex view on passing moral judgement onto others. Good and evil can exist in every individual and which part of them they choose to embrace is largely driven by what benefits them in their environment. For one twin, she found herself in a place where her biting wit and aggressive personality was best used to domineer others and rise in a corporate hierarchy. For the other twin, she is a stalwart defender of people she cares about and provides support for the disenfranchised such as Chihiro or No-Face. One of these people lives to the industrial world and the other exists outside of it. Neither of them are good nor bad, they are simply the result of their circumstance. Spirited Away is not a reductionist story moralizing everyone against you as “evil” and anyone helping you as “good.” We are some combination of our environment’s influence, our intentions, and our actions. Chihiro has every reason to dislike Yubaba, but she chooses to see her as a person capable of goodness.
The treatment of Yubaba, No-Face, and the river spirit, ensures there isn’t a single moment in Spirited Away that’s a downer for the audience. This is the benefit of not moralizing the characters. It allows us to see ourselves in all of these characters — including the so-called villains. We can empathize with where they are because to recognize they are in a bad place is not to pass judgement on them, but to express our understanding of their experience. It took me a few rewatches to really understand how much of impact this treatment of villains affects my love for this film. This isn’t just a children’s adventure story in a fantastical world. There is a strong moral message to Spirited Away and I believe that’s why this film remains so beloved for so many people.
The deeper themes of Spirited Away are what make it such a beloved classic, but undoubtedly people’s lasting relationship with this film is through its musical score. Before I get to the one song everyone knows, I want to commend the score for adapting to what the film needed. A successful film soundtrack is not necessarily one you can listen to on repeat by yourself. I think film soundtracks should be experienced at their best in combination with the film they are servicing and that is definitely true for Spirited Away.
You can tell the score is a servant to the film because the style of music throughout this soundtrack is varied depending on what was needed for the scene. For example, I mentioned previously Chihiro’s development from scared kid to capable young girl is understood through her relationship with traversing stairs. Part of the reason her first encounter with a steep staircase is so memorable is because of the musical score. For this scene, it takes on a technique referred to as “mickey mousing,” where the music appears to react to the movements in the frame. Each time Chihiro takes a step, a bright note is played in the soundtrack. When the scene becomes more intense, the music becomes more intense.
In today’s context, mickey mousing generally has a bad reputation and that was true even in 2001 when Spirited Away was released. It has the association of a corny gimmick that should only be used in cartoons. It doesn’t help there were a string of romantic comedies in the 90s that exhaustively used this technique to spruce up their movies without relying on any real filmmaking skill. It works in this scene because it comes so early in the story and at that point our experience with the film has been not unlike a children’s cartoon. Chihiro is still very immature at this point in the story and she’s running away from ghosts and monsters. The music fits the tone of the film at that point in time. There is also not much drama in this sequence on its own so the musical accentuation is a needed addition. Other than this one scene — and arguably a brief moment in the very first scene — there is not another instance of mickey mousing in the whole movie.
The majority of Spirited Away’s score is the whimsical fantasy-setting music you might expect, but I don’t mean to discount its quality. Most of the music fits the description I just gave but all of it is effective. The music played during the boiler room sequence maintains a tempo that seems fitting for a working class chant. The deep horns and overall rhythm evokes the visual of a group of coal miners heaving their way to or from work. All the music played inside the bathhouse is great at assisting the visual of a very busy workplace. The layered melodies resemble an assembly line, often beginning with once instrument and finishing with another. You get the impression the creation of this music was the result of a symphony that acts just like a well-oiled machine, which is of course fitting for this setting. Even with these varied melodies, the soundtrack manages to set aside a progression of notes specifically for No Face that is immediately recognizable. This brief flourish of notes fits within the scope of the established soundscape, but it is just alien-sounding enough to pick out from any song in the film.
Spirited Away proves its competency at traditional fantasy music, which is why its deviations are so impressive. The first glimpse we get of this is when Chihiro enters the floor dedicated to Yubaba and you get that really unnerving piano chord played octaves apart. The rest of the song goes in a more traditional direction, but that opener is so different from everything else you’ve heard in the film at that point. It takes you off guard as if your fight-or-flight sense is going off, which it should because you’re about to meet a crazy old lady.
The best example of Spirited Away’s music servicing the film is when Chihiro rides the train to Zeniba’s house in what may be one of the most popular sequences in Studio Ghibli’s body of work. It’s a track that sounds like something you’d play in a noir film, or maybe request at the jazz bar you go to and you’re the only person there. It is miles away from the mickey mousing present at the beginning of the film. The departure is accepted because the music is to service the mood of this scene and as a result it is perhaps the most atmospheric moment in Ghibli’s history.
The train ride is the embodiment of the studio’s concept of “ma.” Having your main character take public transportation is a textbook example for what would be cut from mainstream filmmaking. It doesn’t service the plot, so the wisdom says get rid of it. By including this scene, the film is acknowledging the very powerful experience of everyday ordinary occurrences.
Miyazaki has said this scene is significant to the story because it is the first time Chihiro has taken the train alone — and it is interesting he describes it in that way. We know Chihiro is actually with three other companions, but there is a broader truth to what she accomplishes in this scene. Her character has entered the next phase of her life. She’s stronger and more independent than how we met her at the start of the film. To convey the significance of this scene, the film makes a number of creative decisions to establish the mood of taking the train alone. The visuals are focused on Chihiro’s experience inside the train cart, rather than on the expansive vistas outside the window. Her view of the other passengers shows shadowy figures who appear unthreatening but lack the warmth of a typical human character. We don’t feel like Chihiro is among other people. She has no source of strength in this environment to feel comfortable in her actions, other than in her own confidence. It’s a scene where she feels by herself and that is accentuated by the music. If I wanted to explain to someone what it’s like to ride a train by yourself, I would play for them this song. It forces you into a state of introspective because even though a train puts us in the presence of so many other people — and even if we are accompanied by friends or family — a train ride is something we always take alone. This may be the only scene in film history that conveys the full emotional weight of the seemingly insignificant experience of riding a train. I think that’s why it remains so popular in the Ghibli fandom.
I love this scene because it is so meaningful despite having no real “purpose.” It is the type of scene only Studio Ghibli could make because of their commitment to “ma.” The logic of screenplay writing would never tell you to write a scene like this one. Art is never based in logic. Art is meant to connect with others and express a truth about our experience. And it was this train sequence that convinced Miyazaki that art transcends logic. He said in an interview with Midnight Eye from 2002 the following (I’ve condensed the quote but I think his point is the same):
“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. […] I believe the human brain knows and perceives more than we ourselves realize. The front of my brain doesn’t send me any signals that I should handle a scene in a certain way for the sake of the audience. For instance, what for me constitutes the end of [Spirited Away] is the scene in which Chihiro takes the train all by herself. That’s where the film ends for me. […] It was while working on that scene that I realized that I work in a non-conscious way. There are more profound things than simply logic that guide the creation of the story.”
I think this quote really captures the genius of Studio Ghibli films. They feel guided by intuition on what is true in the world and bringing that truth to a cinematic narrative experience. That’s not something you can accomplish with logic, only with feeling.
Which brings me to the final point of praise I have for Spirited Away — which is perhaps the most illogical praise I will ever have for any film — the emotional impact of its signature melody. Anyone who has dabbled in lo-fi hip hop streams will instantly recognize the piano hook for Spirited Away’s One Summer Day. This track opens the film and is often misidentified as its main theme, but it’s easy to see why. It is the melody that defines our experience with this film.
I discovered a quote recently that says something along the lines of “music is the purest form of art.” I think that’s true because music is so subjective. Good art should make you feel something and music is all about tapping into your visceral and undeniable response to art. Music doesn’t need a narrative, or a structure, or anything. It’s unique from writing or filmmaking where there are some general rules like grammar you have to follow — most of the time. Music can be a single sound. We can have an intense emotional reaction to that single sound. Even if a music critic can explain why the music you like is bad, it never devalues your experience of reacting to it. I think that’s more true for music than any other artform. It is the one medium entirely dictated by your emotional response to it.
So much of our relationship with Spirited Away is a feeling. The opposite of logic. The feeling of watching this film is distilled in this instantly recognizable melody. I would describe the feeling of Spirited Away as a combination of complex emotions we experience during the first time we watch this film. We feel a love for nature when we’re starring out the backseat window of a car. We feel a sense of adventure when we’re exploring a new place. We feel comfort knowing we’re in a place of safety surrounded by friends. We feel the euphoria of overcoming a challenge we thought was beyond our capabilities. We feel the mix of fear and excitement when we go beyond those capabilities for the first time. We feel the faint memories of a place in time that was deeply meaningful to us. Most of all, we feel the nostalgia — bittersweet as it always is — for a past experience that changed our life, but we know we can never truly revisit. It is impossible to distinguish how much of these feelings are in the notes of this song and how much is our association with the film Spirited Away, but we intuit that all of those intense feelings are there when we hear that melody. It is an incredible accomplishment in music and a fitting legacy for Studio Ghibli’s work.
Watching the end of Spirited Away forces an undeniable sense of melancholy. It is so bittersweet because we recognize as much as we’ve come to love Chihiro and every part of this story, we now have to say goodbye to this incredible film. You can only watch Spirited Away for the first time once. After that first watch, revisiting this film will always be colored by a kind of lasting melancholy born out of your awareness that the film will inevitably end and be no more.
This is especially true for me, because I do view Spirited Away as the kind of “last” Studio Ghibli film. This is where everyone names their favorite contemporary Ghibli film as if I have forgotten about it. Before you jump to that, I’m certain you do not intend to suggest Spirited Away has the same emotional impact as Ponyo. Those other movies are good, but they’re nothing close to any of Ghibli’s work before Spirited Away. My point is not to enrage diehard Ghibli fans, but rather to acknowledge this film accomplishes a unique level of melancholy that really cannot be matched or even replicated. There is something incredibly beautiful about that accomplishment.
For one, it means Spirited Away becomes the story it depicts. It is that memory of a special time and place you can never really go back to in the same way. The reason this is beautiful and not merely tragic is because we know those experiences exist in real life but we can never truly express what they mean to others. We suffer alone in our inability to articulate these experiences that matter. But now, we have a proxy — at least in the Ghibli fandom — because it is how we all feel about our love for Spirited Away. This film studio that has worked for decades to depict the everyday beauty of life has gifted us the means to express how we feel about some of the most important moments in our life. We feel it in relation to Spirited Away and that unending melancholy we all now share together.
And what’s really beautiful, is the fact this is the emotion Studio Ghibli leaves with us in their finality. Melancholy is the only emotion that incorporates the most visceral feeling from opposite ends of the spectrum. Just like the characters we came to associate with ourselves throughout this movie. We recognize the childishness of Chihiro, but also her resiliency and strength. We understand No-Face’s insecurity and bad habits, but also his redemption and capacity to be loved. We see Yubaba and Zeniba and know they’re both different sides of the same personality. We see ourselves in all of that and feel no contradiction. Just as we can feel both happy and sad at the same time. We are melancholy. That is the human experience. That is what this masterpiece depicts, and why Spirited Away is one of the greatest films of all time.