Spirited Away (2001)
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki.
Those who know me know that this film is one of my benchmarks for cinema. The story itself is utterly simple, but the plot is a beautifully designed tapestry of interconnectedness that harkens the touch from masters of the craft. This can easily dwarf much of the rest of the production so I would like to take a moment to pay homage to the sublime imagery that is captured in the film, and which is often overlooked as animation isn’t considered as prestigious as live action mise en scene.
Studio Ghibli is known for their ability to create landscapes that are profound. This example is one of my favourites. The simplicity not only speaks of the location but the way of life, and thus characterises the people without actually having them on-screen. When writing screenplays, this note is often overlooked. A setting should inform your character before they ever say a word of dialogue. This frame speaks measures about the people that live in it and we haven’t even met them yet.
The counterpoint to a location introducing you to a character would be a setting informing the viewer about a known character. The above shot is such an example. At this point in the film Chihiro is at her most confused about her current plight. The story could be discussed but a frame like this expresses her mindset purely in its arrangement. The little girl at the centre of a messy place.
Above is another earlier instance of the protagonist’s inner conflict being given imagery through the use of space and shadow. At this beat in the plot she is entering a foreign and dark place, both literally and emotionally. She is without her parents for the first time and knows not what to expect. And here Miyazaki has surrounded the figure of a little girl with large metal objects, unnatural in their intention, and she has little choice but to approach the monstrous shadow at the end of the hallway. Even her stance is one that speaks to her characterisation. Half of her posture is held back in only the way a child can be.
This image, although simple and functional within the piece, speaks to the character’s inner conflict and future journey. The stairs could have been an easy decline, straightforward albeit narrow in their descent. But as we shall see later, Chihiro’s choice will be tangential and jagged, like her flight down the stairs is. On a side note, the scene itself where she runs down these stairs at speed still gives me butterflies every time I watch it. I find myself perpetually searching for an arm rail… from the comfort of my chair.
The two shots above deal with the antagonists of the piece. The Other and The Mother. A classical tenant detailed in works of Joseph Campbell and the like. In the first image, the protagonist must confront the instinctual enemy, No-Face. His shadowy and obtuse form is neatly surrounded by the havoc his intent and actions have wrought but it is the contrast in setting and appearance to the second image that should be noted. Yubaba is the intellectual antagonist of the piece. She peers out over the landscape with omnipotence and proves to be the real dilemma Chihiro must overcome. This is illustrated by the darkness that surrounds her. On face value, No-Face is a monster and Yubaba is a grandmother, but Miyazaki reveals their true nature by contextualising their surroundings. Whilst No-Face peers out from the darkness, Yubaba peers into it.
And lastly, a shot that summons up a fundamental of Japanese cinema and Anime in general. It is sometimes referred to as the “reed in the wind” shot but it can be captured by anything that embodies stillness. Quite often films barely have time to embrace quietness of character, let alone quietness of location. Spirited Away indulges in it. And it is that what makes it so subtly captivating.