Spirited Away: an Analytical Hybrid of Classical and Art Cinema

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Words: 2711 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Jun 9, 2021

Words: 2711|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Jun 9, 2021

Spirited Away is an animated feature created by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. The anime follows 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents as they come across an abandoned amusement park and find themselves in a spirit realm populated by Japanese spirits. After Chihiro’s parents are transformed into giant pigs, she creates ties with Haku, who helps her understand that the park is a resort for supernatural beings and that she must work there to free herself and her parents (Perez, 2001). Spirited Away uses techniques from both classical cinema and art cinema, forming this hybrid through psychologically complex characters, narrative techniques, and the principle of realism.

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Classical cinema, known for its strict and rigorous rules that create certain limitations for the process of creating a film, has been a form of filmmaking in Hollywood since the 1920s. Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger state the various narrative techniques used in classical cinema in their book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, with '...Hollywood films striving to conceal its artifice through techniques of continuity and 'invisible' storytelling; that the film should be comprehensible and unambiguous; and that it possesses a fundamental emotion appeal that transcends class and nation.' Classical cinema films are known for following the characteristics of classical artwork such as harmony, proportion, and a respect for keeping to traditions. Characters are also commonly goal oriented through their own psychological motivation (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, 4). In contrast, art cinema is known for being a completely different way of producing films and was used most prominently after World War 2 (Bordwell, , 744). Each director has their own style, creating a narrative that is more unrestricted and original. In art cinema, characters are extremely complex and multifaceted with various layers and rarely able to be placed in just a single “box.” Likewise, to classical cinema, “the art cinema is classical in its reliance upon psychological causation; characters and their effects on one another remains central. But whereas the character of the classical narrative have clean cut traits and objectives, the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent reasons, or may question themselves and their goals” (Bordwell, 776). The audience can see aspects of what the director wants to create instead of what they must create, something uncommon in classical cinema. Spirited Away uses devices from both mediums to forward its narrative coherently and to create an immersive experience for the audience.

A prominent factor of a film that uses art cinema techniques includes '…the film’s use of 'Realistic' — that is, psychologically complex — characters'. Throughout the entirety of the film, we see the complexity of Chihiro’s character who starts out as an apprehensive and anxious young girl who had been thrown into a difficult situation and, in time, arises into a strong and self-assured character. Chihiro was able to come into these new characteristics because she does not lose her sense of self to the “name-stealer” Yu-Baaba – and as a result, is able retain her own identity; even with the substantial change she experiences in the movie under the facade of Sen. As Sen, Chihiro was able to enhance her own strength and courage that was always inside her, becoming more independent and accepting of circumstances. The first moment the audience is introduced to Chihiro’s personality is at the entrance of the temple-like structure and is the most evident moment of who pre-transformation Chihiro was. Here, she is seen as extremely nervous, immature, and heavily reliant on her parents. Complaining ever since her father decided to deviate off into a forest path, she shows much unwillingness in going inside the temple-like structure her parents are eager to explore. Trying to hold her ground outside the temple, she watches in fear as her parents are seemingly taken by darkness. Not wanting to be alone, Chihiro runs after her parents in a desperate cry of, “Mother! Father! Wait for me!” Chihiro’s grip on her parents is later forcefully pulled apart when she discovers that her parents have turned into pigs. Still dressed in their normal clothes, her pig-parents no longer behave like humans – but rather pigs with a never-ending desire to eat. Chihiro’s unbelieving attitude is most prevalent in this moment – at first, unwilling to believe that her parents have become pigs, running desperately to a sea of dark shadows and yelling out “Mother! Father!” Additionally, she tries to convince herself that what she saw was just a bad dream – until she realizes that it is herself that is fading, rather than the dream. This doubt is confirmed as a surreal riverboat starts to unload invisible figures – which become tangible as they stop on the shore. Chihiro finds reassurance in Haku, who offers her help in understanding what is happening around her. As Haku is the closest resemblance of a human she can find, as well as his knowledge of knowing who she is, Chihiro has no choice but to trust him. Chihiro, from this point onwards now known as Sen, is told to save herself and her parents she must obtain a job in the spirit world. Upon Haku taking Sen to see her parents, we see the first instance of Chihiro losing herself to become Sen as she calls out to her parents “Mother, Father! It’s me! It’s Sen!” Haku, a character who had already lost his name, tells Sen she cannot lose who she is and brings to her attention the note left by her friends in her pocket. Inside the pocket of her shorts, a card from her friends where she once lived reminds Sen that she is not what this place has made her to be – she is Chihiro. Remembering her own self was enough to remind her of her past and her purpose for being in the spirit world. Sen’s attention is also brought to Haku’s dilemma or being unable to remember his own name and thus remains captive under Yu-Baaba. With Sen regaining her knowledge of Chihiro, the weakness that she once exhibited is swapped with courage and responsibility, which in return releases her from Yu-Baaba’s control. Sen’s most significant moment of change and development is when she willingly sacrifices her own safety to save Haku, who at this point has been revealed to have a curse that turns him into a dragon. Knowing that to save Haku she must feed him a bitter dumpling, she forces his mouth open and reaches all the way down with no regard to the sharp and frightening teeth in the dragon’s mouth. Even though the dragon had shown threatening gestures to her before, Sen places Haku’s life before her own, overcoming her fears and forcing her arm into the jaws of the suffering dragon. The Chihiro from the beginning of the film would have never considered such an act of bravery to save someone while risking her own life in the process. This moment illustrates Sen as a character who has grown and developed into a stronger person. The change is significant; she was the only character to experience such a positive, dynamic transformation. In comparison to the other characters, Chihiro’s experience allowed her to psychologically conquer far more in her own journey and experience great change in herself, for the better.

Narrative techniques, such as music, camera angles, and film structure also play a crucial role in evoking emotion into the audience as well as placing high importance on what the characters are experiencing. As Bordwell states, traits of classical cinema include, “Narrative time and space are constructed to represent the cause-effect chain. To this end, cinematic representation has recourse to fixed figures of cutting (e.g., 180-degree continuity, crosscutting, 'montage sequences'), mise-en-scene (e.g., three-point lighting, perspective sets), cinematography (e.g., a range of camera distances and lens lengths), and sound (e.g., modulation, voice-over narration).” Spirited Away seamlessly encompasses pure melodies of optimism and bravery throughout the entire course of the film as Chihiro comes across her own struggles and must find the courage to overcome them, almost always on her own. Moments that are intense and quick have music that plays at a faster pace while scenes that are more serious and dramatic have a slower pace and become louder and grander. For instance, in a critical scene towards the end of film, Chihiro has a flashback and remembers Haku’s real name; this in turn becomes a very intense moment and ultimately the turning point of the film. The music at the start of this sequence is victorious and triumphant, a moment the audience can share and appreciate Chihiro’s feeling of accomplishment in finding out the missing piece in Haku’s life. Alternatively, as Chihiro informs Haku of who he really, the music quiets down and demonstrates an impactful moment in the plot with a point of emphasis to solely focus on the characters and who they have become. The film is also made up of various camera angles and shots that are used to enhance certain scenes. High angles, for instance, can be used to show someone or something as lesser and/or unimportant. This can be seen at the beginning of the film when Chihiro and her family arrive in the car at the entrance to the amusement park, there is a high angle shot on the car, showing its inferiority to the entrance. Low angles can be used to show someone or something as superior, something that is very significant, or to show intimidation. For example, when Chihiro is trying to get a job from Yu-Baaba, she begins to threaten Chihiro. A low angle shot is shown on Yu-Baaba, which demonstrates her dominance over Chihiro. Sweeping angle shots are normally used to give the audience a perspective on a large landscape. This can be seen when Chihiro and her family first enter the amusement park, there is a sweeping angle shot of the grassy hills with the wind blowing over it, which gives the audience a scope of the landscape, while also creating a hint of mysteriousness. Finally, tracking shots are used to follow someone or somethings around, normally in a chase. For instance, Chihiro’s first moments alone in the spirit world have her running through the streets trying to find her parents. This tracking shot is from a distance, evoking emotions of fear and isolation. Spirited Away also follows a very conventional narrative structure upheld by classical cinema. The standard basis of classical cinema starts with the “First, 'cause' or beginning; secondly, development; third, crisis; forth, climax or effect; fifth, denouement or sequence...Now the ideal required a unified chain of causes and effects, varied by complicating circumstances (the development), concluding with a definite action which resolves the chain into a final effect (the climax) and which lingers to establish a new situation of status at the end.' The cause, Chihiro discovering her parents have been transformed into pigs, dictates the complex situations Chihiro must conquer - losing her name, convincing Yu-Baaba to give her a job, as well as coming into her own, finding her courage and saving Haku. The climax and conclusion of the film lead into each other smoothly, forming a satisfying and successful ending for the characters. After Chihiro feeds No Face the rest of the medicine, forcing him to throw up all the people he ate, she takes him to help her confront Zeniba, Yu-Baaba’s twin sister. Through meeting Zeniba on her own, she discovers that she is the opposite of Yu-Baaba and is in fact a kind old woman. Haku comes to get Chihiro and she remembers his name. In telling him that he is a river spirit, they were able to be free from Yu-Baaba’s control. Chihiro wins Yubaba’s bet that she will not recognize her parents as pigs — freeing everyone. With her unknowing parents, Chihiro returns to the human world — but has been changed forever, no longer fearing something as simple as moving away from home.

Spirited Away also uses the element of realism to connect audiences to real world issues and personal struggles, such as the power our identities hold and the blurred lines between what is considered good and evil. According to The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, “art cinema motivates its narratives it’s principles of realism and authorial expressivity…the art cinema defines itself as a realistic cinema. It will show us real locations and real problems” (Bordwell, 776). Understanding the importance of one’s identity in Spirited Away comes out of the rules of the world the movie takes place in. At a first viewing, the rules seem far-off or purely for the reason of making this movie seem “otherworldly,” but through a deeper understanding, it is very evident that these rules are not so unlike our own in that they are philosophical depictions of our own consciousness and what takes place internally rather than having an outside affect on our reality. When Chihiro is first taken into the spirit world, she becomes translucent as she begins to fade from existence. Chihiro realizes she does not belong in this world, has no ties, and it seems as if because she has no relation to that world to keep her there - no identity or purpose – that she simply does not belong there and must be erased; that is until Haku comes. “Don’t worry, I’m a friend,” he says and as he gives her a piece of food and Chihiro becomes tangible again. Although this moment may seem small, it is one of the most noteworthy in that consuming the food, Chihiro is provided with an identity for this society through her alliance being established as a result of her bond with Haku; someone within the spirit world to allow her in. In this regard, food often symbolizes a “peace offering” within the movie, however this sequence establishes a union that keeps her from floating away; a new persona that allows her to stay in spirit world because of her ties to Haku. Spirited Away also displays every character with a combination of good and bad characteristics. Characters who seem good at first, such as Haku and No-Face, have their share of evil qualities through mysteriousness, secretiveness, as well as the literal consumption of other characters. On the other hand, those who seem bad in the beginning, such as Zeniba, Kamaji, and Lin, become vital in Chihiro escaping back to the human world. Spirited Away and its ability to blur the line between good and evil is a much more realistic representation of our world. In the end, evil is not abolished but rather pushed aside as characters make better choices that bring out the goodness in them and these choices have a ripple effect. For instance, Sen’s acts of kindness bring out the hidden good in those around her. The only character who seems to remain unchanged by Sen’s example is Yu-Baaba, but even Yubaba has qualities, such as her love for Boh and her praise and affection she gives to Chihiro after the cleansing of the River Spirit, that keep her from being an absolute villain. Even though these acts of kindness may be only in the self-interest of Yu-Baaba, these moments set the boundary where good and evil flutters.

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In conclusion, Spirited Away displays characteristics representative of both the classical cinema and art cinema genre respectively. While the film’s main purpose is Chihiro’s journey back home to where she and her family belong, the movie also creates moments of commonality between the film and audience watching through the development of Chihiro, the technicality of how the narrative is told, and the parallelism to the real world. This choice of creating a hybrid between both mediums allows for an all-encompassing experience for the viewer, making it easy to understand what the characters are going through, and how those obstacles can help us see things differently in our lives.

Works Cited

  • Bordwell David, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge and Kegan Paule, 1985.
  • Brandy, Leo and Marshall Cohen eds. Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Perez, K. (2001). Spirited Away Plot Summary. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from
  • Miyazaki, H., & Wise, K. (Directors). (2001). Spirited AwayMotion picture on DVD. Japan: Toho.
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Spirited Away: An Analytical Hybrid Of Classical And Art Cinema. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
“Spirited Away: An Analytical Hybrid Of Classical And Art Cinema.” GradesFixer, 09 Jun. 2021,
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