Breakdown: Spirited Away

Spoilers! Obviously!

I could wax poetic about Hayao Miyazaki for ages. Today, building off last post on Flaws in the Disney Machine, I’m going to focus on two areas where Miyazaki excels over Disney, even over Pixar.

Character Design


In a 1996 interview, Hayao Miyazaki wondered,

“could we depict an affirmative character with a so-so looking girl? What we are doing is a show in a sense, after all. […] They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more.”

In contrast to the Disney animator who complained that women were hard to draw because they had to be cute, Miyazaki set out to create a female protagonist who was ordinary. He gave her a snub-nose, awkward movements, and over-sized clothing because he wanted the audience to admire her for her personality rather than her looks. (I’m not just being mean; I got this from The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki. I hope it’ll expand more on this in Turning Point.)

I believe he carried this idea in choosing his next film as writer/director, Howl’s Moving Castle, where Sophie spends the majority of the movie as an old woman.

Ponyo is pretty cute though. As are the girls in The Wind Rises, from what I can tell. Perhaps Miyazaki wasn’t as bothered by this because of their age.

Miyazaki might not want us to identify with Sen/Chihiro because of her looks, but he does use appearance to draw us closer to other characters. Not beauty, but familiarity. Lin and Haku both look quite a bit more human than the other spirits.

Lin is a weasel spirit; Haku is a dragon/river. But they look like people.

Whereas most of the spirits have their proportions bent.

This affects the audience’s sympathies. The boiler man might have six arms, but his face is more proportionate than the other spirits as well. Pixar did something like this with A Bug’s Life.

The grasshopper, the bad guy, is the only one with six arms. This makes him less human, and moves our sympathies away. Well, Heimlich (the caterpillar) has a bunch of arms. And tiny eyes. But he’s comic relief–we don’t need to identify with him the same way either.

Miyazaki takes this further. Somehow the effect works and isn’t questioned. I’ve never heard anybody ask why Haku and Lin look like people.

Implied Themes

A story’s main theme usually mirrors the main character’s arc. I think of this as the stated theme. The thing the story is trying to tell you.

In any kind of communication, there is subtext. Things beneath the surface that are assumed, never said. I think of these as the implied themes.

Disney and Pixar focus the story quite well on their stated themes, and have the entire film working towards that one statement. But it lets us use our own assumptions to fill in the background, rarely pushing for complexity.

The stated theme of Spirited Away is simple. Sen/Chihiro’s arc is about not giving in, gaining confidence, trusting her gut, cooperation, etc. Depth comes from the multiple layers of implied themes.

The first implied theme is about greed. When they discover the abandoned amusement park, the father mentions that there used to be many of these all over the country, built without much thought. The spirit bathhouse can be viewed as another display of opulence.

Other displays of greed are more explicit. The parents become pigs. No-Face offers gold to the bathhouse workers, they go crazy for it. And the money turns out to be dust.

Let’s say the second implied theme is feminism, partially addressed above.

Next is environmentalism. This is present in almost all Miyazaki’s films, here evident when they have to pull gunk from the river spirit.

Finally, Miyazaki is the master of not having a true “villain.” The characters refuse to stay fixed as either purely “good” or “evil.” Haku, Lin, and the boilerman are all kind to Sen/Chihiro, but also have moments of hostility. Several characters physically transform to mirror their change.

Yubaba is the closest thing to a villain, but even she has a kinder side, helping in the bathhouse and mothering the baby. Then, when Sen meets the kinder twin, Zeniba/Granny, Miyazaki uses the exact same character design.

At the final test, Yubaba seems like she might back out when Boh says that he won’t like her anymore if she makes Sen cry. It is Sen (after calling Yubaba “Granny”) who declares that she’ll take the test, and Yubaba simply says “See if you can tell which of these pigs is your mother and father” without any further goading or threats.

I like the balance and layer of themes in Spirited Away but it’s this last one that makes me consider the film a masterpiece. Miyazaki jokes that he finds drawing evil characters unpleasant, so he simply doesn’t do it (22:20-ish). Really, this is an issue of point of view, as he’s alluded to more seriously elsewhere. The ability to see multiple perspectives. It’s not easy to write a story without a villain, but he’s done it repeatedly, making sure to humanize both sides.

I have a lot more to say about Miyazaki. The next post will focus on pacing.


3 thoughts on “Breakdown: Spirited Away

  1. Brad says:

    I thought Lin WAS a person! I just assumed she and the other workers were people who had somehow got stuck in the spirit world like Sen did. Did I miss something obvious?

  2. They make a big deal about Chihiro being human, which implies that nobody else is. It says that Lin is a weasel spirit in The Art of Spirited Away, although it isn’t specifically stated in the film. She does get really excited about eating a newt though.

    Note, Lin’s depiction as human didn’t break your immersion. You made an assumption and went with it.

  3. Jen says:

    Interesting blog discussions. My two year old has been in love with Totoro since she was 18 months (she copies Mai’s every action and lines) and she has recently been taken in by Spirited Away.It is very fun to see the film through my daughter’s eyes. I thought it too complex for a two years old, but she just notices different things than I do. She follows two main plots every time: Sen helps the dirty monster gets clean and Yubaba misses her baby and baby comes back. I like how she roots for Yubaba to get her baby back. She acknowledges her bad temper, but still wants her to get her baby back because she knows she also has the capacity to love. She isn’t just a right off like most disney antagonists are. Watching my daughter, who roots for Yubaba and is fascinated with the dirty monster and Daikon spirit, I wonder if the binary opposition of many Disney films is healthy for children. I mean, evil is not very simple in real life. People are complex.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s