For many adults, animated movies help to bring them a sense of nostalgia and escapism from the real world to help them feel like a kid again. The majority of animated films that adults consumed as children were from Walt Disney Studios or, if they were a slightly younger adult, Pixar Studios with a bit of Dreamworks Animation mixed in. These were the popular, Hollywood animation studios that just happened to be the only animation that American kids were exposed to.
For me, being exposed to Studio Ghibli animated films as an adult brought back an even bigger wave of nostalgia for my childhood and, specifically, Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) is a film that I would consider as the ultimate form of escapism mixed with social commentary.
Spirited Away takes place in a fantasy world filled with spirits and animals – the most elaborate dream world that a kid could come up with. According to Miyazaki, the creatures in the film are based off of Japanese folklore creatures, similar to spirits, called “kami.” For the most part, the creatures are cute. Giant yellow chicks, frogs of all shapes and sizes, interesting looking pigs, the most adorable soot sprites. They all interact with each other underneath the roof of this mystical Japanese bathhouse. Miyazaki does an incredible job of fleshing out this world in mostly just this one building, showcasing all of the different creatures and their ways of being. There’s Yubaba and Zeniba, who seem to be witches of some sort, with Yubaba making deals for workers and turning humans into pigs (which could also be a commentary on human consumption and greed). There’s No Face, a misunderstood monster. There’s even Kamaji, who controls the water for the bathhouse, with help from the soot sprites. If it had to be compared to a Western (or traditional Hollywood) animated film, its setting would be most similar to Alice in Wonderland (dir. Clyde Geronimi, 1951). The scene of No Face feasting inside the bathhouse brings to mind Alice’s tea party scene with the Mad Hatter, utterly whimsical and filled with the most delectable treats.
The fantasy world that Miyazaki creates also allows for themes of social commentary. While watching as a child, these themes may not be picked up, but as an adult, they become evident. The hero of the film, Chihiro, has to learn how to be confident in herself and courageous in new situations which is the main plot point of the film. As she explores this new world that she is in, she comes across river spirits in the form of Haku (who also shifts to a dragon) and an unnamed river spirit, who both provide subliminal commentary on pollution and commercialization. The unnamed river spirit first appears as a “stink monster” filled with black sludge and garbage who no one wants to help. Chihiro takes care of the “monster,” who then reveals itself to be a river spirit. The scene alludes to the rivers and oceans that humans mindlessly pollute and contaminate. With Haku, it is revealed at the end of the film that he is the spirit of the Kohaku River, which was filled in and replaced with apartments, and those apartments are why he cannot find his way home. It is a more direct statement to the abundance of commercialization that humans have done in order to provide more housing without consideration of the environment. The idea of Miyazaki saying that many of the creatures are “kami” works extremely well here, as it personifies the environment and forces the audience to be more sympathetic to the film’s messages.
Studio Ghibli’s animated films have some of the best animation mixed with variations of social commentary to appeal to both adults and children. A cute, magical, escapism-fueled world features some of the best allusions to environmental commentary.