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Spirited Away

Spirited Away

By Arpad Lukacs • December 9th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: July 20th, 2001
Running time: 123 minutes

Country of origin Japan
Original language Japanese

Writer and director: Hayao Miyazaki

English voice cast: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, Lauren Holly

Spirited Away

When it comes to the idea of a “home”, my childhood was quite different from other kids’ in that we moved around frequently in my early years. I used to think this was something of a ‘childhood issue’, but it really wasn’t a big deal as we always moved within the same town. When we did, my friends remained the same and I was in touch with the rest of the family all the same. There never was a major change; I never had to start from scratch.

Several years later, however, I saw my sister experiencing just that, in her childhood. I’m the oldest sibling with three younger ones, and my youngest sister who’s now twelve, found herself in a completely new world few years ago when the family moved to Ireland from Hungary. The total immersion she experienced as a child is the first thing that comes to mind when watching Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) trying to adapt to a world that’s as alien to her as she is to it, in Hayao Myazaki’s animated feature Spirited Away.

My relation to this film is therefore a very personal one; its young protagonist’s uncanny resemblance to my sister in so many ways dominates over all other possible interpretations. This is of course one of those strange coincidences life has in store for us every once in a while, but it’s worth noting that Miyazaki didn’t create Chihiro out of thin air; she’s life-like because she was real to begin with:

“It is common for Miyazaki to base his characters on real-life models whom he has had the opportunity to observe closely and assiduously, which is instrumental to the director’s ability to conjure up fully rounded personalities. Thus, Chihiro’s mother was inspired by a Ghibli employee. The conception of the girl herself, more importantly, was based on the director’s close observation of one of his best friend’s ten year old daughter in the course of one of his customary summer retreats to a mountain cabin in Shinshu. Looking at the girl, the director reflected: “sure she is happy and high-spirited now, but growing up in a world like this, will she be able to maintain that disposition for the rest of her life?” Using this musing as his point of departure, Miyazaki decided to make a film about a ten year old girl – something he had never attempted before.” ¹

Spirited Away

The realistic nature of this animated character – that many have noted before – is as visceral as it is because Miyazaki found inspiration in real life and worked that truth into a story and onto the screen. But for me, the character isn’t just realistic; Chihiro’s looks, mannerisms and her overall predicament in Spirited Away strikes me as my sister and her having to adapt to an environment that was as curious to her as the spirit world is to Chihiro. Her journey into the spirit world begins just like this sort of journey begins for many children; her parents decided to move and they take grumpy Chihiro with them to submerge in a brand new life.

Their subsequent detour and Chihiro’s various encounters with strange creatures are more than similar to enrolling in school in a foreign country, not knowing the rules, not understanding the customs and the language. With absolutely no idea what to expect from around the next corner, she has no choice but to trust the first person she meets and hope that this random direction will be the right one.

We can always trust Miyazaki to make an adventure like this delightful and full of humour, but Spirited Away at its core is actually the story of a difficult journey. This becomes evident when we’re looking for scenes where Chihiro is shown smiling. Until the film’s climax, I can only recall her smiling once, when she’s waving at the tiny black creatures (returning from My Neighbor Totoro) called “Susuwatari-s”. She’s solemn with great stoicism and patience throughout; learning about a new, sometimes hostile environment taking small and careful steps. We, along with Chihiro, simply don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong in this world and this is how Miyazaki enables anybody of any age in his audience to completely identify with a child having to adapt to new rules without prior knowledge of what those rules are.


  • [1] Cavallaro, Dani The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki (2006), McFarland & Co Inc

Much like the little-more-grown-up Chihiro by the end of Spirited Away, my sister is now bilingual and is confidently running around amongst her new friends in Ireland. At the end of her difficult journey, what first must have seemed no different from the strange spirit world from this Miyazaki classic, she took her own careful steps and successfully extrapolated a new environment in order to take control – and then smiled a bit. This is what Spirited Away means to me, but I’m fairly certain that in spite of the many interpretations, taking politics and society into account, this is also – by and large – what Miyazaki wanted to say with the film. The closing dialogue between Chihiro and her father is probably there to underline what the overall theme of Spirited Away is meant to be:

Father – “A new home and a new school? It is a bit scary.”
Chihiro – “I think I can handle it.”

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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