Spirited Away: A Masterclass on Color, Sound, and Silence

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By Paul Chang

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) tells the story of a ten-year old girl, Chihiro, and her trials through the world of spirits.  Chihiro first appears to be a normal, if a bit sullen and introspective, child.  However, she encounters a series of shocks: her parents are turned into pigs; she cannot leave because the river has flooded; she starts turning into a spirit herself before Haku helps her, and so forth.  Despite these unexpected changes, Chihiro handles the challenges with aplomb.  She persists and earns a job from Yubaaba, the bathhouse witch, then earns the respect and trust of many bathhouse guests by cleaning the river spirit and by taming the No-Face spirit.  Chihiro thus grows through her triumphs and setbacks and emerges with a mature, intelligent demeanor when she finally leaves the mystical land with her (human) parents.

This coming-of-age story has been acclaimed for its depth and mystical qualities, but also for Miyazaki’s masterful handling of various themes, emotions, and social issues.  Themes of spirituality, humanity, environmental consciousness, and capitalistic greed permeate the film, among others.  A lot of the themes and emotions are demonstrated through Miyazaki’s use of color as well as his manipulation of sound.  For starters, Chihiro’s journey is one of a spiritual nature: she quite literally starts turning into a spirit, before Haku gives her an antidote.  This transition from human to spirit and vice versa is properly conveyed by animative processes: Chihiro’s body turns semi-transparent before she becomes solid again.


This nifty bit of animation by Miyazaki not only shows off his illustrative prowess, but also illuminates how thin the line can be between the human and spiritual world.  Miyazaki’s illustration of night and day also highlights this.  One of Studio Ghibli’s earliest producers, Hirokatsu Kihara, stressed the use of color and of color matching in creating and conveying meaning.  “It is often said [that] using different colors is something that Japanese people are good at,” explained Kihara. “We use different colors for the same things: colors for morning, sunset and twilight. We create time by changing the colors for different times of the day.”

Miyazaki used this color matching to convey time masterfully in Spirited Away.  It is a film between two worlds: the world of spirits and of humanity; the world of youth and of experience; the world of night and of day, and so forth.  For much of the film, the transition between day and night serves as a signifying device for danger and devolvement, both into the world of the bathhouse and into spiritual decay.  In the opening minutes of the film, Chihiro is faced with the daunting challenge of escaping before nightfall.  As we see the color transition from pastel, calming colors of the day to the bright, fluorescent lights at night, the danger of spiritual elements and the creeping presence of artificial lighting becomes predominant.

Miyazaki most likely wanted to showcase his use of color and animation techniques, but beyond that, the color serves to orient the characters and the audience in a certain time frame.  In accordance with this temporal consciousness, Miyazaki also associates the more innocent, childlike moments of the film with warm, pastel colors.  On the other hand, the fluorescent, artificial lighting inside the bathhouse and the hustle and bustle of the guests in a brightly lit setting often signifies that something bad or “adult-like” is about to happen.  This ties into the commonly mentioned theme of losing and regaining innocence, of growth through trials, and of Miyazaki’s opinions on the perils of capitalism.  Miyazaki displays quaint scenes of nature and calmness and juxtaposes these with moments of greed and chaos inside the more brightly colored bathhouse.   The shift from warm to aggressive, saturated colors ties to themes of capitalist influence (Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs, the greed of the guests when No Face manufactures gold out of thin air, etc.)  Thus, Miyazaki uses different hues and saturations of color to generate two spheres in the film: one of solitude and serenity, and another sphere of capitalistic chaos and greed.



Miyazaki’s films are also famously filled with a certain type of calmness – the same kind of calmness that characterizes the daytime scenes in Spirited Away.  He calls these moments of calm, of cinematic downtime, “ma”.  He says:

We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally. [claps his hands] The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension…. What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

Why does Miyazaki like to mix in these moments of “ma”, and why have these moments become famous instead of the more violent moments? Moreover, what implications do these moments of simplicity and tranquility have for a claim like Susan Sontag’s?

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” (Sontag 1964)

Because Miyazaki insists on creating these moments of peace and of silence, the moments in which there is abundant noise is even more noteworthy to the audience.  Two scenes in particular display this.  The first is when Chihiro first enters the boiler room run by Kamajii.  There is a certain rhythmic quality to the movements that correspond with the sound to form a humorous, musical-like scene.  Moreover, the sounds must have been added in post-production, which elevates the humor and technique of the studio’s post-production capabilities.  Another example is perhaps also the most famous: the train scene with Chihiro and her entourage.  In this scene, there is little to no sound emitted by the characters.  Instead, it is overlaid with a simple piano piece, which features the same musical motif in different variations. What is it about this scene that makes it so powerful, despite the lack of dialogue, and what do we learn about the characters? What makes it different from the scenes of “ma”, and what role does the music play?

Beyond these themes, it is also helpful to think about Spirited Away through the lens of concepts we’ve encountered in class.  First, there is still the same quality of “squash and stretch”, or Eisensteinian “plasmatic-ness”, in some parts of Spirited Away that pay homage to earlier animated works.  Both Yubaaba and No-Face display the ability to grow to comical proportions in various scenes – while Yubaaba’s transformation in a moment of anger is short-lived, No-Face gradually grows and shrinks as the film goes on.  No-Face’s squash and stretch corresponds to a development in his character and contributes to Miyazaki’s broader beliefs about a capitalist, consumer-based system.  As No-Face consumes more people, he becomes a monstrously large figure, only to regurgitate the people he’s eaten when Chihiro gives him the antidote.  This use of squash and stretch thus functions not only as a humorous image, but also as a way to build the character and to communicate critical themes.

Secondly, it helps to think about the qualities of animation as a whole that confers advantages as well as disadvantages.  Andre Bazin claimed: “All art is founded upon human agency, but in photography alone can we celebrate its absence… photography’s objectivity confers upon it a degree of credibility absent from any painting.” Since we can conceive of animation as a collection of individual paintings, is it subject to these same criticisms? Does it have any more objectivity because it is a moving image or because it is a created world unto itself? Perhaps more importantly, would Miyazaki be concerned with Bazin’s conceptions of credibility or objectivity?

Finally, it behooves us to consider the concepts introduced by Lev Manovich.  He writes: “cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation.  It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a subgenre of painting.”  Manovich believes that cinema has come full circle – “born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its boundary, only to become one particular case of animation in the end.”  Spirited Away includes many shots that mirror common camera techniques in cinema.  Miyazaki includes shots of various surroundings from high up or far away, gradual closeups of characters’ faces, and even uses closer objects to obscure characters in order to build suspense.  Hence, it is important to consider Manovich’s claims about cinema and animation.  While it is true that CGI has essentially turned some live-action films into quasi-animations, the converse is true as well – animation has started to employ techniques seen in live-action film.  Spirited Away is infused with cinematographic elements seen in more recent films, adding on a component of depth and directorial vision that was absent from earlier animations.  Cartoons like Duck Amuck that we watched in class largely featured left-to-right motion, mostly centered on the characters at a fixed distance.  All things considered, perhaps cinema and animation have become closer than we previously thought – which begs the question: will they become one and the same?

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