Animation and Accessibility in Spirited Away: Extending to International Audiences

In 2003, Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, making it the first and only Japanese film to win the prestigious award. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the film follows 10-year-old Chihiro who, whilst moving to a new neighbourhood, finds herself trapped in the Japanese spirit world, called “Kami”. Chihiro must escape and rescue her parents, who have been turned into pigs by spirit Yubaba. Spirited Away, first released in 2001, is often cited as one of the greatest animated films of all time, whilst the anime market still tends to sit outside of the Western mainstream. So, what is it that connects audiences to Spirited Away, and more crucially, how has the film been made globally accessible?

Image Source: Still via Spirited Away – Official Trailer, Madman Anime // YouTube

Animated films are usually created for children and families, with films such as Frozen capturing the imaginations of a generation of children in recent years. Likewise, Spirited Away is as accessible to children of all ages. For example, the bright, vibrant colours and detailed, expressive visuals are likely to appeal to the curiosities of children, even if they are too young to follow the plot. What separates Spirited Away from many other films of the same genre is its engagement with tradition. Each frame of animation is hand drawn, with Miyazaki drawing the original storyboards himself, leading to him being hailed “the auteur of anime” by the New Yorker. The narrative itself also includes elements of traditional fairy tales that children can easily recognise, before twisting and subverting some of these conventions. As the film progresses, the binary nature of good and evil is challenged when we discover the flaws of the heroes, leading us to sympathise with the supposed villains. The world that unfolds before our eyes is more complex than many other animated films. For Western audiences, this world, which is heavily influenced by rich Japanese folklore, is perhaps even less recognisable. However, we can explore the spirit realm of Kami and its fascinating inhabitants alongside the protagonist Chihiro, who is also overwhelmed and scared, making the journey easier to follow. In a 2001 interview with Animage, Miyazaki remarked that he “created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathise”. To achieve this, the film introduces a character who is already feeling lost, after leaving her school and her friends for a new town. The audience connects with Chihiro in a way that when she is thrown into this new environment we are just as deeply immersed.

Image Source: Still via Spirited Away – Official Trailer, Madman Anime // YouTube

Spirited Away can be viewed on a number of different levels as an accessible work of cinematography, which can appeal to a wide range of audiences. For some, it is an exciting adventure tale, and for others, it is a compelling coming-of-age story. Whilst the love story between Chihiro and Haku is never central to the plotline of Spirited Away, it introduces a human angle which acts as a point of connection for many. Beneath the surface, there is also a subtle exploration of important themes, such as identity and environmentalism, exemplified in both the narrative and the imagery. For example, when Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs at the beginning of the film, this can be viewed simply as an ordeal that the protagonist has to overcome. However, it can also be interpreted as a critique by Miyazaki of the rise of consumerism in modern Japan, with her parents’ transformation symbolising a punishment for their greed, after their indulgence at a deserted restaurant. The motif of food is utilised throughout Spirited Away, as a force of either good or evil, and to drive the film’s action. The idea that the film can function just as cohesively in these various ways speaks to its accessibility.

Image Source: Still via Spirited Away – Official Trailer, Madman Anime // YouTube

Despite all this, Miyazaki’s film has widespread appeal and is accessible because it does not explicitly attempt to cater to all audiences. It is unapologetically weird and wonderful. From bouncing heads and giant babies to mischievous frogs and paper birds, audiences are treated to a truly unique visual experience. To some, its boldness and creativity may prove divisive, but we are happy to be swept away by Miyazaki’s vision. Spirited Away is a story about childhood and it is specific in its presentation of a character at this stage in their life. In the same Animage interview, Miyazaki said he had not yet “made a film for 10-year-old girls, who are in the first stage of their adolescence”. This was in contrast to his other films, like My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which are aimed at younger children. Miyazaki’s commitment in Spirited Away to this particular demographic and his acute awareness of their feelings and emotions during this transitional period draws in audiences of all ages. Growing up is a universal process, and everyone can recognise themselves in Chihiro, regardless of age, so audiences are likely to respond to this beautiful depiction of adolescence.

Image Source: Still via Spirited Away – Official Trailer, Madman Anime // YouTube

Spirited Away is part of a large collection of films created by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animated film studio, founded by Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. Alongside Spirited Away, movies such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) have given the studio both commercial and critical success for the last 35 years. Whilst the films have always had international appeal, their accessibility has historically been an issue. Studio Ghibli has a long and complex history with Disney, with the American giant failing to understand the magic of Miyazaki’s creations. This has lead to limited box office success in the United States. Until 2019, there was a ban on the digital purchase or distribution of Studio Ghibli films, but a recent deal with Netflix changed all that. In January 2020 the streaming platform secured the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films, giving international consumers (outside of Japan and North America) instant access to this library of animations. This is an important development for the studio, as Japanese animation, including the wonderful Spirited Away, is now more accessible than ever. This  seems particularly fitting for a collection of films that puts inclusivity at its core.

Erin Zammitt

Featured Image Source: Still via Spirited Away – Official Trailer, Madman Anime // YouTube

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