Culture Trips

Why Spirited Away is Japan’s greatest animated film

I was already a young adult when Spirited Away was first released; watching it again recently, I was instantly caught up in its beautiful, poignant spell, but also struck by how unnerved it made me feel: small and stranded, like Chihiro, in a florid, unruly universe. This spell also owes something to what Miyazaki has described using the Japanese word “ma”, to denote an intentional emptiness: “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness,” Miyazaki told US film critic Roger Ebert, in a 2002 interview. “But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”

In the modern age, Spirited Away’s “ma” has inspired internet memes, including a memorable recent series with a masked Bernie Sanders seated alongside Chihiro and No-Face on their dreamy train journey. The film is also set to be adapted into a stage spectacle, created by award-winning British writer/director and honorary associate director of the RSC, John Caird, and due to premiere in Tokyo next year.

Ultimately, Spirited Away still taps into something elemental; Caird has described his belief in Miyazaki’s themes (“care for the environment, reverence for nature, a belief in the force of the good spirits within us and the empowerment of young women and men to change the world for the better”), and both its spell and earthly message remain multi-generational.

“I think that Miyazaki’s films not only caught the zeitgeist in the late 20th Century, for audiences just starting to come to term with environmental issues, but also in the 21st Century, with millennials growing up with a sense that their world has already been despoiled,” says Clements. “Makoto Shinkai said it best, about his controversial ending for Weathering With You (2019), when he said that he couldn’t bring himself to have a hero save the world, when the real world is already past saving. He said it felt dishonest for young viewers to tell them that there was any possibility beyond somehow learning to cope with the damage that humanity has already done to the world. I think Miyazaki’s works are a little bit more optimistic than that – he’s ready to start with planting a single tree, and encouraging everybody else to do the same.”

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