An Encounter in a Blank Period
The film “Spirited Away” was released in the summer of 2001. At that time, I was still a university student, and I had just escaped from the research lab that spring. I lacked the hungry spirit to cling to my professor, pleading, ‘Let me study here.’ If the professor had been Yubaba, I might have been transformed into straw or something, to become fodder for the equestrian club’s horses.
Not knowing what to do next, I was at a loss. It was the second ‘blank period’ in my life, following the time I spent as a ronin student preparing for university entrance exams. My connection with society had become thin, and only delusion and anxiety grew. This miserable time, when I was virtually ‘spirited away,’ met the film “Spirited Away” during that summer. It was not unreasonable to be drawn into the mysterious town beyond the tunnel. Two years later, I started publishing novels, and it is certain that this movie influenced the various worlds depicted in my works.
The Perfect Tunnel
The beginning of this movie is so wonderful, it makes you sigh. The film begins with the protagonist, Chihiro, riding in a car with her parents on their way to their new town. When they take a wrong turn, they find a dark tunnel deep in the forest. Beyond that tunnel, a mysterious town is spread out.
Her parents start eating in an unmanned restaurant, and an appalled Chihiro wanders around the town alone. Eventually, she encounters a boy on a bridge in front of a bathhouse. Told to ‘go back immediately’, she finds her parents transformed into pigs. In the blink of an eye, the sun sets, the lights of the night illuminate the town, and eerie shadows begin to prance around.
Even now, when I start watching this movie, I’m drawn into the world beyond the tunnel. It’s so smoothly depicted that everything seems natural while you’re watching, which should indeed be called magic. I’ve never seen another film that starts with such intense attraction. It gets me right from the opening title.
It shows a newly developed residential area on a hill. It seems Chihiro and her family have moved to this housing complex. In this residential area carved out of the hills, it would have a name like ‘[____] Hill’, with shiny new houses neatly lined up.
This is what I would call my original landscape.
I moved from Osaka to Nara in the summer when I was in fourth grade, around a little younger than Chihiro.In a bedroom town on the border with Osaka, a residential area named ‘[_____] Hill’ was spread out on hilly terrain that used to be forests and fields. I spent my adolescence, the peak of my fanciful thinking, in that town until I graduated high school and went to university in Kyoto.
Descending the hill from the high ground, there’s a river, and on both sides, rice fields continue, with the traditional rural landscape spread out. I remember my mother telling me about ‘Nagasunehiko’, who fought against the Emperor who came from Kyushu during the Emperor Jimmu’s Eastern Expedition, while looking at such riverside scenery. We lived in a residential area that appeared on the hilly area without any historical significance, but right next to us, there was the scenery of Nara connected to ancient legends.
On the border between the new residential area and the old town, there were shrines and temples. This was natural, as the newly developed residential area was built by clearing the forests of the hills that used to be the backdrop for shrines and temples. The boundary between the new town and the old town was tangled with steep slopes and small paths, leading to unexpected places.”
There’s a new residential area on the hill. There’s a historic town on the flat land. There are shrines and temples in between. This is a simple rule that I learned physically at the time. “We came by the lower road (Eng: I must have missed the turn off),” says Chihiro’s father at the beginning of the film, indicating such a relationship. They came from the side of the plain and took a detour just before climbing up to the housing complex on the hill. It’s neither a hill nor a plain. As the mother casually points to something lying by the side of the road and says, ‘It’s a house of the gods,’ it’s a place where there should be shrines and temples. It’s a place where it’s natural to have an entrance to a mysterious world deep in the forest.
‘The entrance to the mysterious world is nearby.’ This was the sensation that dominated me during my childhood. That feeling continued to grow within me, resisting the acceptance of reality as it is, and eventually made me a novelist. The person I think of here is my father.
When I was a child, we often went on ‘adventures’ together. We would take leisurely walks around the neighborhood or go for drives in the car. Sometimes we would climb over fences and venture into the forest, and sometimes we would get stuck after driving our car into narrow roads like a maze. Each of these little adventures allowed me to imagine, ‘If only this road led to a magical world!’ and I steadily stepped up as a dreamer.
A quarter of a century has passed since then, and my father now regrets that I have grown up to be a dreamer who writes novels, but it was my father himself who planted the seed for me to become a dreamer. Parents never know when they are “educating” their children.
My father has a poor sense of direction, and I am a dreamer. Because we are both absent-minded, when we are walking in the forest or on an unknown road, we lose track of where we are. We experience a loss of direction, as depicted in Sakutaro Hagiwara’s “Cat Town”. I was irresistibly drawn to this vague unease and the exhilarating feeling of approaching a different world. Although it was scary, I was okay because my father was with me. It felt like I wanted to go home, but also like I didn’t want to.
In doing so, we would often end up in familiar places. We thought we had come a long way, but it was surprisingly close. It was a pleasant surprise, and also a letdown.
In the movie, after Chihiro and her family pass through the dark tunnel, they arrive in a space that looks like a waiting room bathed in soft light from the windows. Hearing the sound of a train, Chihiro and her family feel relieved, thinking, “There might be a station nearby.”
That sensation was familiar to me. The feeling that we hadn’t wandered into a different world, but had returned to our original daily life. A feeling of, ‘Oh, I see.’ It’s very similar to the sense of relief I felt when my small adventures with my father ended. However, unlike my father and I, who made it home safely, Chihiro’s parents end up on the other side of the tunnel. Therefore, the sound of the train heard in this scene has two opposing meanings. It evokes the everyday, but at the same time, it’s a premonition of another world.
Adventures with my father during my childhood were fun, but as I was a timid child, I was fundamentally nervous. Especially when we had to climb over fences, I was very anxious. What I can’t forget is when I was scared of getting scolded for trespassing, my father would say, “If you get scolded, just apologize.” That saying of my father sounded incredibly unreasonable. I simply hated “getting scolded.” But my father didn’t understand that at all. I wanted to say, “That’s not the point.” Still, I followed him anyway…
After wandering into the mysterious town on the other side of the tunnel, Chihiro’s parents start eating greedily in an unmanned restaurant. Chihiro doesn’t touch the food, saying, “The shop owner will get mad at us.” “Your dad’s here,” her father says. The phrase I always recall in this scene is, “If you get scolded, just apologize,” my father’s words. Chihiro probably wanted to say, “That’s not the point.”
In the scene where Chihiro’s parents start eating without permission, it’s natural to think, “What foolish parents they are.” However, I believe that no matter how good the parents are, from the perspective of a child, there are moments when they appear foolish and shameless. Adults, who provide reckless explanations for mysterious things, like “It’s made of mortar” or “It’s the remains of a theme park”, and don’t understand the child’s anxiety, are like that. The father who said, “If you get scolded, just apologize,” may be the same. If so, was my father also destined to turn into a pig if he got lost in another world? However, that is only one aspect of adults shown to children, not all of what adults are. Adults and children are not so clearly divided.
So, what have I been writing so far? About how wonderful the beginning of this film is. It’s perfect opening vividly depicts the entrance to another world that exists between the newly developed residential area and the historic town. This movie starts by capturing the anxiety and excitement of approaching the other world as tangibly and in as surprisingly short a time as possible.
The first time I was captivated by Hayao Miyazaki’s films was right around the time I moved to Nara. I remember watching “Castle in the Sky” on TV and thinking that I had never seen anything so interesting. After that, I watched other Miyazaki works one after another, starting with “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”.
Miyazaki’s works are often referred to as “fantasy.” However, I’ve had a stubborn personal definition of fantasy since I was a child, and I never thought of Miyazaki’s works as fantasy. The sensation of having a gateway to another world in the vicinity of my house, the feeling that I might go there at any moment—in other words, the sense of being imminently spirited away—is the only thing that has meaning for me, and that is my fantasy. From that perspective, Miyazaki’s works were someone else’s stories unfolding in a distant world. Even in “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Princess Mononoke,” they are set in “old Japan where Totoro was” and “old Japan where the Forest Spirit was,” so it didn’t feel contiguous with my world. Therefore, they are not the fantasy I define personally. Until the summer of 2000, I found Miyazaki’s works interesting, but I did not expect them to resonate with my fundamental dreams.
That’s when “Spirited Away” appeared.
For the first time, I saw in Miyazaki’s film the perfect “entrance to another world” that I had been seeking. Chihiro was once me. The tunnel to the other world existed just beside the newly developed residential area, just as I had expected. It was as if Miyazaki had been observing my adventure with my father from behind. What I had been trying to find but couldn’t, the dreams I had been obsessed with since childhood, the wonders, the fantasies, were all meticulously planted in this movie. That’s why I was shocked by “Spirited Away.”
The Land of Images
It’s difficult to talk about what lies beyond the tunnel. It’s a bit of a detour, but I want to broadly talk about my method when I write novels. This is because it seems that Hayao Miyazaki starts making films in this way, and I believe that every creator, to a greater or lesser extent, works in this way. I start with a central image. It could be a landscape, a character, or a phrase, depending on the time. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that “attracts the heart.” At that vague stage, there is no clear story, let alone a theme. I explore something else that connects to that image. I try to connect completely different images. If I can’t discover anything, I have no choice but to give up. But when I’m lucky, I sometimes catch a fragment of something that resembles a story. Once that happens, other images automatically start to connect and expand on their own. Once it’s expanded enough, I try to find the flow of the story.
In that process, I want to tell the story using only the “images I want to use” as much as possible. If I write extra images for the sake of development, the world becomes diluted. If I have to do that, I’m tempted to twist the development itself and just follow the “images I want to use.” The denser the image, the stronger the impression of the world. I only want to write what I want to write. I don’t want to write what I don’t want to write. But if I insist on such self-indulgence, the story becomes disjointed and the world itself falls apart.
Story and image
Finding a good balance between the two is what I consider “creating entertainment.” That’s why when I try to create a piece of work, there are “images I want to use but can’t.” My own works are also built on the corpses of “images I want to use but can’t.” By the way, Hayao Miyazaki is a person with an incredible imagination. Having made one piece of entertainment every few years, he must have accumulated a vast number of “images he wanted to use but couldn’t.” What I’m trying to say is that the world beyond the tunnel in “Spirited Away” might be a place where images that had been unfortunate for various reasons have come back to life. When he tried to create a completely separate other world, images that hadn’t had their turn before might have rushed in en masse, like the gods crossing the river.
In the places Chihiro goes, extraordinary images appear one after another.
The transformation of this film has two aspects. One is the image of “the uncanny”. This was something originally in Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, subtly appearing in various forms in the story, setting, theme, etc. However, I believe it was from this movie that it was given a concrete form and lively movement, allowing me to genuinely feel that “this is dangerous”. The bloated body of No-Face, the filth he vomits, the image of blood splattering from Haku turned into a dragon. They carry a vivid “uncanniness” that differs from the filth of the stink god appearing in the middle of the movie, and also differs from the Tatarigami in “Princess Mononoke”. It’s a precursor to what will come as a tsunami in “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”. It feels awkward to put it into words hastily, but it would be an image of “death”. It’s a strange expression to say that “death is lively and moving”, but that’s possible on the other side of the tunnel. When the door to the country of images was opened, not only pleasant images emerged, but also unpleasant ones.
Another aspect of this film’s transformation is that it lacks a clear climax. Until now, Miyazaki’s works were entertainment, always with a clear climax. “Princess Mononoke” had the rampage of the Forest Spirit, “Porco Rosso” had the duel of the seaplanes, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” had the airship accident. These were designed so that viewers like me could feel, “Ah, the movie has ended”. It was a kind viewer-friendly design.
But where is the climax in “Spirited Away”? The crisis brought about by the rampaging No-Face subtly deviates from the “Story of Chihiro” that we’ve been following. It has no real relevance to the story of Chihiro returning to her original world, the story of Chihiro trying to save Haku, or the story of confronting Yubaba. It’s not following the so-called plot development of exposition, development, climax, and conclusion. Rather than being linked by the convenience of the plot, it is linked by the convenience of the image. As the movie progresses, the image of No-Face swells up, giving the impression that it has collided with Chihiro’s story from the side.
As a result of the rampage of No-Face, the “uncanny” entity, Chihiro’s story unexpectedly slips sideways from the direction we were anticipating and lands in an unexpected place. If you only look at the outcome, Chihiro was able to save her parents and return to her original world, so it can be called a “happy ending”. But, because it deviates from the direction expected from the first half of the movie, the ending feels like something out of a dream. The feeling when this movie concludes is different from Miyazaki’s previous works. The only aspect that can be called a friendly design is that, by any means, they “returned Chihiro to her original world”.
Unlike personal creations like novels, animation is influenced by various external circumstances. The ending of this movie might have simply been due to scheduling circumstances. The truth is unknown. However, regardless of the reason, Miyazaki’s films have definitely transformed, and this “strange landing in the final stages” will be passed on to his later works.
In terms of decision making, it’s about valuing the image. It means not adhering to the narrative structure of setup, development, turn, and resolution, even if it means sacrificing the image. I mentioned earlier that creation begins with a “central image”. Expand the image you want to paint, and give it a narrative structure. However, when trying to establish a setup, development, turn, and resolution for entertainment, inevitably, “images that you don’t want to use but should use” will arise. If you forcibly avoid and breakthrough that, you have no choice but to abandon the so-called user-friendly design. Skip over things you don’t want to explain, connect only the images you want to paint like stepping stones, and you have no choice but to end the story with the power of the image alone. I don’t want to paint what I don’t want to paint. I want to paint what I want to paint. If you follow the convenience of the image rather than the convenience of the story, movies will gradually approach the world of “dreams”. I think that’s what’s happening in the second half of “Spirited Away”.
The destruction that began in the second half of this movie continued to “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and subsequent Miyazaki works stopped choosing easy-to-understand landings. They no longer established a setup, development, turn, and resolution at the expense of the image, or made things easy to understand. I’m not sure how I should think about that now. Abandoning user-friendly design is freedom, but being free is also scary. “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” was a scary movie. The Miyazaki works I’ve been familiar with since I was a child transformed into something else at the midpoint of a single movie called “Spirited Away”. That border was when waste was being unscrupulously drawn out from the decaying god, and a refreshing voice saying “good fortune” echoed. The first half of the movie is entertainment where my personal fantasies are perfectly depicted. The second half of the movie is a dream world where the flutters of eerie things can be heard from afar.
Indeed, Chihiro came back from the other side of the tunnel. But I wonder if Hayao Miyazaki himself didn’t come back from the other side of the tunnel after he rather forcibly sent Chihiro back.
I sometimes think about that.
The concept of returning
This movie also has a memorable ending. When Chihiro starts running through the town holding Haku’s hand, the hustle and bustle of the bathhouse up to that point changes abruptly, and the surroundings become suddenly quiet. That silence vividly suggests a dream. At that moment, I feel as if the experiences I’ve had in the movie through Chihiro are suddenly drifting away. I don’t remember the process of waking up from a dream every night, but I think that’s probably what it feels like.
The process of entering a different world is wonderful, but the process of leaving a different world is also wonderful. Before the movie ends, the world on the other side of the tunnel starts to change into something familiar. Thus, Chihiro returns to her original world. What happened to her after that, I don’t know. Now, from here on is my imagination.
When I was a child, something similar happened. I found a tunnel just like Chihiro while walking around the neighborhood forest with my father. “If you get scolded, just apologize,” my father said, and we both nervously passed through the tunnel. It was a magical town.
Being a cowardly child, I don’t think I could have been as brave as Chihiro. I don’t think I could have saved my father who had turned into a pig. But from the incontrovertible fact that my father and I did come back, I must have been as persistent as Chihiro when I was a child. I overcame many crises and saved my father who had become a pig. The fact that I don’t remember anything about it is just because my memory was lost by magic. If I think about it, everything makes sense. Why have I been captivated by the sense that there is a different world near my house since I was a child, why was I so moved by the movie “Spirited Away”.
Perhaps those forgotten memories are what made me a novelist.
Morimi Tomihiko – Born in 1979 in Nara Prefecture. He graduated from the Applied Life Sciences course at the Faculty of Agriculture, Kyoto University, and completed the master’s program at the Graduate School of Agriculture of the same university. In 2003, while still a student, he won the 15th Japan Fantasy Novel Grand Prize with “The Tower of the Sun” and made his debut. In 2007, he received the 20th Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize for “The Night Is Short”, “Walk On Girl”. In 2010, he won the 31st Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize for “Penguin Highway”. In 2014, he won the 2nd Kyoto Book Grand Prize for “The Adventures of the Holy Slacker”. His works include “The Tatami Galaxy” (Kadokawa Bunko), “The Eccentric Family” (Gentosha Bunko), “The Art of Love Letters” (Poplar Bunko), “Yoiyama Kaleidoscope” (Shueisha Bunko), “The Beauty and the Bamboo Grove” (Kobunsha Bunko), among many others.