2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘Spirited Away’


“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

Journeying into a world that is not alien, post-apocalyptic nor far into the past, Hayao Miyazaki uses Spirited Away to explore a world only slightly above our own, and through a spiritual plane incongruous with the wayward normalcy of “real life.” His childlike abilities for otherworldly imagination feel stronger than ever here, bringing together the desolate frustrations of childhood and the uncanny magnetism of positivity to deliver a film quite unlike any other.

The unfortunate victim of her father’s burgeoning career, Chihiro Ogino finds herself in childhood predicament faced by many: moving to a new city and switching schools. En route, Chihiro’s neglectful parents cannot even make it to the new house before veering off course to stop a dilapidated gatehouse. Following a meandering path through a decaying tunnel and into a vast, beautiful pasture that serves as a natural welcome mat for an abandoned town, the family Ogino finds a cure for their metaphorical (and actual) gluttony in a pile of freshly cooked food. Not one for mysterious treats that seem to have appeared out of thin air, the cunning young girl finds that a trap has been set for her small family by the owner of a hotel/spa for ghosts. Transformed into pigs by the cursed food, Chihiro’s parents must rely on their young daughter and her unlikely new magical friend, Haku, to help them escape their animalian prison to regain their human form.


In a secret world with tiny doors and multitudinous hidden passages seemingly built by and for children, Chihiro comes of age in front of the viewer’s eyes. As this preteen girl becomes more sure-footed (figuratively and literally) in this world built out of steam pipes and rickety ladders, she reclaims the voice society has taken from her, becoming a strong and confident young woman capable of handling far more complex a problem than anyone previously would have given her credit for.

Sen is the proxy of spiritual magic in this world, and as she learns, so too do viewers about the troubles of the Earth’s spirits, and the best way to make friends in an unfriendly environment. Miyazaki suspends belief and lets this incredibly intricate plane of existence influence the viewer’s understanding of every frame. Scary characters become far less so with time and maturation (the arachnidan boiler man would haunt me if he weren’t so immediately pleasant), as even in these most extreme of circumstances, Sen faces challenges head on and excels at each. Like the protagonist must discover for herself, Miyazaki shows his audience that there is a solution to every problem, and that no anxiety exists that cannot be overcome.


For a man in his 60’s, Miyazaki is inexplicably attuned to the childlike wonder that exists (however minutely) in us all, the flame of which seems to so brightly burn in him yet only feels dull and fluttering when coming from many other animated filmmakers. Beyond his creation of massive and complex worlds, Miyazaki and his animation unit push the boundaries of their craft and meticulously work at crafting something that is truly rare in its beauty. Drawing on techniques pioneered by live-action direction, the Ghibli team has created an artificial tracking shot that is as mesmerizingly opulent as it is technically impressive. Used in two instances in the film, these point-of-view following shots track Chihiro as she rushes through a field of sumptuous flowers in the first act, and in the closing moments of the film when the family have returned to their all-but-abandoned car to get the heck out of Dodge.

The first use of this extraordinary technique sweepingly illustrates the whirlwind of emotion that accompanies the discovery of a new love. Chihiro has found, like many viewers, that letting yourself submit to that most unexplainable of emotions is nearly as revelatory as the feeling itself. The latter is a dizzying passageway into the credits, and becomes a way for enraptured viewers to detach themselves from the screen to which the attention has been glued. Through an animated wormhole back into (a newly mundane) reality, Miyazaki has thrown viewers back into their seats, and thereby consents to resuming life as usual.


Trading sprawling vistas for elaborate interiors and flying machines for a magical train, Hayao Miyazaki mutes his environmentalist tendencies in order to let the gifts of humanity shine. Burying his naturalism within the hoard of Earth-bound spirits, the director venerates humanity’s gifts for bravery, perseverance, friendship and, above all, fantasy on his way to telling a story about the gift of love. Spirited Away has become one of Studio Ghibli’s most acclaimed and unanimously beloved films, and it is quite easy to see why. A careful reframing of the typical coming-of-age narrative, Spirited Away displays a fondness of those infinitely awkward years, while showing us all how important they were in making us who we are today.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.