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The Spirit Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001)

Characters and Spirits

The great appeal of Studio Ghibli’s filmography arguably lies in its encompassing of such a wide variety of stories and ideas. From humble tales of Italian fighter pilots and teenage witches, to grand narratives on spirits and nature, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and more recently Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have brought to our screens some of the most richly diverse animations of all time.

And yet, despite their ranging settings, characters, styles, and ambitions, there are certain films within Studio Ghibli’s catalogue which compliment one another in their treatments of particular themes and motifs. Two such films, I believe, are 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, and 2001’s Spirited Away, both of which involve youngsters coming into contact with the spirit world subsequent to experiencing a great shift in their environment and comprehension of family life. Don’t get me wrong, the number of areas in which these films differ is many, but when considered alongside each other, there are more than a few interesting observations to be made.
Follow the White Rabbit: Entering the Spirit Domain
Passages to Spirit Worlds

Both films center on young girls, who, at the very beginning of their respective stories, are in the process of moving house. Chihiro of Spirited Away, a moody 10 year old, is miserable at the thought of having to construct a new life for herself in an unknown town away from her friends. Sulking in the back of her parents’ car, absorbed by a wilting bouquet of flowers she has received as a leaving gift, she seems reluctant to embrace the beauty of her new surroundings, much preferring to lament that which she has left behind. We are given a skewed view of trees and hills through her car window as she lays down on the back seats, outside greenery distorted by telephone wires and road signs. Contrastingly, Mei (3) and Satsuki (10, note: the same age of Chihiro) of My Neighbor Totoro, are elated at the prospect of starting a new life in the country, and are eager to soak in the luscious landscape around them. They delight in the beauty of their setting as they drive through fields with their father.

A side-by-side comparison of the films’ introductions of their natural landscapes offers an interesting picture of how the characters’ perspectives differ (some of My Neighbor Totoro‘s first frames on the left; Spirited Away on the right):


Whereas Mei and Satsuki’s panoramas are wide open, sun-kissed spaces, where the sky and clouds have room to breathe, Chihiro’s vistas are obscured and interrupted by modern life. The glass of the car windows casts glossy veils over the landscape, and the speed of the vehicle itself distorts the views on offer, blurring lines and colour. ‘What has this got to do with spirits?‘ I hear you ask. Well, from the very opening of the film, Spirited Away places Chihiro in a limbo-like space of pre-teen disinterest and apathy, where the lights of nature and tradition have faded, and boredom and indifference have begun to take hold. This is precisely why her eventual interaction with the spirit world ends up being so much more flamboyant and electric (for want of a better word) than Mei and Satsuki’s, who are themselves capable of finding magic in fresh air and acorns. The first things these sisters talk about when they arrive at their new home are the fish in the nearby river, and the enchanting tunnel of trees that acts as a walk-way up to their house. They are absorbed in nature, unlike Chihiro, who feels a disconnect with everything around her. When her parents stop to inspect the strange, crumbling building they come across on a country lane, Chihiro would rather return to the back seats of their car than enter inside.

This difference in attitude and perspective is the key to understanding the characters’ encounters with the spirit worlds. Whereas Mei comes across the small white spirit in the garden accidentally, and in a moment of pure curiosity and elation, follows it happily into the center of the camphor tree, Chihiro is reluctantly following her parents, who are themselves led by greed, when she finds herself trapped in a magical domain against her will. Mei’s spirit world is a place of sanctuary, a retreat that she has been invited into as a direct result of her inquisitiveness. To her, it is no different from the garden in which she has just been playing, for her youthful imagination grants her everyday life a spiritual depth. For Chihiro, however, the spirit world she finds herself in is initially a cold and alien thing, a place where human comfort has little meaning.

First Spirit Encounter

Having landed in Yubaba’s Bathhouse unplanned, and unprepared for what lies ahead, Chihiro’s spirit world is a more mature environment. A theatrical place of work and movement, it is a highly populated locale where characters of all shapes and sizes bicker, trick, cheat and steal. In this respect, it foreshadows some of what Chihiro can expect from adult life. She is, after all, standing on the precipice of young adulthood, and will be soon coming into contact with a much wider and scarier world than the one she is used to. With the help and guidance of Haku and Lin, she learns early on that the way to survive is to keep busy and please her peers. And yet, this day-to-day experience of work for reward does not come at the sacrifice of child-like magic. Far from it. Every ‘lesson’ that Chihiro learns, she does so through a careful combination of innocent concern and adult wisdom. And some of the very first spirits that she is formally introduced to are the soot sprites (susuwatari) that Kamaji the boiler man enchants to help him with his duties. These creatures are playful and friendly, and are a welcome dose of innocence in the midst of commotion. It is interesting to note that these sprites also appear in My Neighbor Totoro, where they are said to inhabit old, empty houses. When Mei and Satsuki excitedly inspect their new home, they discover these black puffs of soot hiding in the attic.

Soot Sprites

Whereas Chihiro ‘falls’ (or is perhaps ‘pushed’) into her spirit world, Mei and Satsuki are ‘invited’, or ‘led’. The scene where Totoro appears at the bus stop as the sisters are waiting for their father to return from the city, is a good example of one of the key differences in the two films’ treatment of human/spirit relationships. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits appear to the children experiencing emotional or physical turmoil. They are a kind of crutch, in the way that the imagination is a form of blissful escape. There is the suggestion that the spirit world is forever present, and has its core in nature and kindness, if only the right person would want to look. Spirited Away, on the other hand, paints its spirits as mostly disinterested in humanity (similarly to how Chihiro herself seems disinterested in nature at the beginning), and at times even horrified or hurt by it. The Bathhouse is a place for them to retreat to and relax, cut off from ‘reality’ (ironically reflecting Mei, worried for her ailing mother and feeling the absence of her older sister, retreating to the camphor tree and taking a nap on Totoro’s belly). Chihiro is the ‘foreign presence’ in her story, which allows her to engage in a whirlwind journey of emotional and spiritual growth. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits are foreign in that they are of another world, but are never treated with suspicion or disdain, and seem more in tune with their surroundings than the humans they reveal themselves to.
SIDE NOTE: Transport
Transport Comparison 2

Both the grandiose barge at the beginning of Spirited Away, and the Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro are completely suited to their respective environments. They are each sensational and striking modes of transport made specifically for their spirit worlds, that excite the senses and awaken the imagination. Mei and Satsuki delight at their journeys in the bus, with it becoming for them a kind of ‘Cheshire Cat’ that appears and disappears at will, and grins exaggeratedly. It is an embodiment and intense magnification of that which is comforting to them, being a place of fun and warmth. Sadly, Chihiro does not experience the same warmth when she encounters the boat carrying the Bathhouse’s clients. Despite its vividness, it leaves her feeling uneasy and threatened. This is to do with the fact that Chihiro’s spirit world is not altered or morphed to suit her perspective. Her view is one of the outsider, who has stumbled across the goings-on of an ‘alien’ space. She is not eased carefully into contact with spirits as Mei and Satsuki are, but thrown head-first into their domain.

Chihiro becomes most at ease with her surroundings whilst on her journey on the one-way train to Zeniba’s house. She has already experienced a lot within the Bathhouse, and is making her way to Yubaba’s sister in order to bargain for Haku’s life. This journey is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sequences in the film, as we witness shadows and silhouettes of passengers travelling and waiting at platforms, seemingly lost or abandoned. And yet, despite this melancholy overtone, it is whilst on this train that Chihiro really begins to understand the love and determination that comes with friendship. On her travels she has no cartoonish character to whisk her away to safety, only a ticket for an everyday carriage of a train where she is able to be lost in silence, like those around her, alone with her own thoughts for a while. Transport and movement offer her these occasions of deep contemplation.

Transport Comparison
Unbreakable Bonds: Totoro and Haku
Characters with Spirits

Totoro and Haku are the spirits central to their respective stories, and, despite their ethereality, each play a vital role in the emotional stability and growth of their human counterparts. In My Neighbor Totoro, the sisters’ excursions with their forest friends are more than just whimsical escapades, they are necessary relief from some of the darker aspects of their family life. Despite appearing sprightly and playful throughout the film, Mei and Satsuki’s happiness masks a deep concern over their mother’s well-being as she lies seriously ill in a local hospital (a broken promise of her recovery and return is what causes Mei to run away from home). Totoro, a simple creature, spends most of his time either yawning, smiling, or sleeping, and is therefore the perfect companion to youngsters distressed by adult problems. Similarly, Haku, in Spirited Away, helps Chihiro to retain focus on that which is important whilst all around her seems chaotic and displaced. He is her beacon of light in the dark, as Totoro is a reassuring laugh. Both spirits act as guardians of sorts, helping these children through difficult times, whilst simultaneously strengthening and enriching their life and relationships.

If Totoro is like an imaginary friend, or a rapturous ‘troll’ from a picture book come to life (Mei seems to associate him with the troll under the bridge in ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff‘, hence why she names him ‘Totoro’ – a mispronunciation of ‘tororu [troll]’) then Haku and his relationship with Chihiro may represent the link to forgotten memories from childhood. When the two first meet in Spirited Away, Haku seems sure he has met this young girl before, but doesn’t know where or when, and it is not until the end of the film that Chihiro remembers that he is in fact the spirit of the built-over Kohaku River, into which she fell as a youngster and nearly drowned. This flashback sets both of them ‘free’, and grants them a better understanding of their own identities.


Chihiro spends most of the film facing head-on various challenges which result in her growing as a person (her encounter with the ‘stink’/river spirit can be seen a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, and No Face is a warning against greed and consumption). She enters the spirit world as a sulky pre-teen, and leaves it wiser and more at ease with herself and those around her. Interestingly, it is a remembrance of her younger self which lends her the most perspective on her life currently, and which awards her a certain vigor that she lacked before. Transported back to years of wonderment where a sublime river’s power was enough to excite the imagination, she learns once again to embrace the magic of nature. The glittering hairband that she retains at the end is testament to the child-like vision which she has regained, and which will, ironically, aid her in her coming years of maturity.

Without sounding like some sort of therapist, Haku and Totoro are both pillars of emotional development, and are evidence of the importance of creativity in the face of an increasingly technological world. It is easy to label Chihiro as listless in comparison to the vibrant Satsuki, but once you realise the difference in setting (My Neighbor Totoro is said to take place in the 50s, and Spirited Away is at its earliest set somewhere around the late 90s) you realise that Chihiro’s attitude is a product of her environment. She sees trees obstructed by telephone wires because they are there in front of her, not because she wills them. This is why her journey through the spirit world with Haku is such a relevant and meaningful tale. There is no way she can stay in the traditional Japanese world of spirits and shrines forever, but she can learn from her time there and take something valuable away from it. Hayao Miyazaki cleverly constructs these majestic creatures of great significance and makes them a human’s best friend, in an attempt to connect youngsters with ideas which are not so easily attainable and consumable, but which can be accessed via keen observation and imagination.
Flying Comparison

Hayao Miyazaki almost always uses flight/flying machines in his films, channeling feelings of joy and fear whilst simultaneously reflecting upon the limitations and achievements of mankind. In My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, the flight sequences are more natural, and are used to convey the freedom felt by the characters as they are both metaphorically and literally uplifted through their contact with the spirit world. Totoro, and The Cat Bus which Mei and Satsuki ride in, are linked to the wind, and so flying with these characters is to experience a true bond with nature. The sisters must put their complete faith in the spirits they fly with, thus signifying their uncomplicated connection to the world around them.

The development of Spirited Away‘s end flying sequence tells us a lot about Chihiro’s development, as she relies on Haku to fly, only to have him transform from his regal dragon form back to a boy as he remembers his name. The two end up free-falling as tears fly from their eyes, their hands clasped together. Neither one relies on the other. There is no fear, only relief as they realise they have freed themselves. Chihiro’s movement through the sky here is a spiritual moment of elation at having found peace within herself.

Flying Comparison 2
We’re All Mad Here: Finding Families in Spirit Worlds
Spirits Comparison 2

Both films offer an array of incidental characters aside from their central spirits. In the former, the soot sprites, and the two miniature Totoros (Chuu/medium-Totoro, and Chibi/small-Totoro) are welcome additions to the spirit world surrounding Mei and Satsuki. Admittedly a far louder environment, Spirited Away also boasts numerous side characters, who each offer something different to the story. Lin, Kamaji, Boh, No Face, Yubaba and Zeniba are important and colourful personalities who help Chihiro along in her spiritual odyssey.

As touched on earlier, No Face (Kaonashi) is initially nothing more than a blank slate, a dry sponge waiting to soak up aspects of its environment. Once invited into the Bathhouse, however, it quickly and dangerously begins to absorb the personalities and traits of those around it (literally, by ‘eating’ the staff), and becomes selfish and greedy in its search for meaning. To Chihiro, this episode may act as a symbolic warning of the trials she may face in later life; coming into contact with those who have only a negative influence. A caution against over-consumption that is suited to the modern world she lives in, Chihiro learns an ultimately simplistic lesson from this spirit, which is that fresh air and open spaces can sometimes heal a panicked mind. Boh, Yubaba’s giant baby, is a personification of that tendency to revert to babyish behavior in order to get what one wants (a tendency that is not exclusive to the youthful). Once reduced down in size along with Yubaba’s bird, Boh embraces an inner calm, and is a rudimentary reflection of Chihiro’s own development. Yubaba and Zeniba themselves can be seen as representations of different styles or sides to parenthood, with one stifling, and the other encouraging. These dysfunctional spirits make up Chihiro’s adoptive family whilst she is separated from her parents, in a similar way to how, in the absence of their mother, Mei and Satsuki seek basic comfort in Totoro.

Small Spirits

Lessons are also learnt in My Neighbor Totoro, albeit basic ones, as the sisters are able to come to a greater understanding of plants and growth through their midnight ceremonial dance with the spirits. The acorns that they find and rejoice over at the beginning of the film are like a strange reversal of the gold coveted (and offered by No Face) in Spirited Away, as the girls admirably value spiritual over materialistic wealth. Their partnership with the totoros (I’m grouping the three of them here) is a constructive and productive relationship built on a shared love of nature.

Each film provides for its central character/s an assemblage of lively and intriguing creatures, who exist at once separately from, and entirely for, their human friends. In My Neighbor Totoro, the spirits seem called to the girls; completely suited to their obsessions and traits, they become their personal forest guardians. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s companions are less straightforward and less amenable than Totoro and his accomplices, but this does not mean that they are any less personal to her, and in the end they become necessary stepping stones towards a better understanding of childhood and memory.

Spirit Worlds

I hope you all found this post interesting and not too long! I find that analysing Studio Ghibli can sometimes feel like falling into a whirlpool of colour and texture, which makes it hard to remain intelligible. What is so amazing about these films is that they can appeal to so many people in so many ways. You don’t have to see any ‘metaphors’ or ‘symbols’ or ‘themes’ if you don’t want to. The stories have a charm all of their own, without having to layer any deeper meaning on top of them. But still, it’s fun to write about what you love and it’s nice to be able to share such writing with people who care about film.

Below are a few extra side-by-side comparisons which I compiled (but which sadly didn’t find their way into the piece). Hopefully they reveal some further interesting parallels between the two films. Enjoy! 😀

Frog and Toad
Shrines Comparison
Silhouettes Comparison
Stone Spirits Comparison
Spirits with Leaves

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Ponyo (2008)


Ponyo is without a doubt the most operatic of all of Studio Ghibli’s works. It is, after all, partly inspired by Wagner’s opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), and parts of Joe Hisaishi’s score for the film reflect this. With very little dialogue (even by Ghibli’s standards), the story progresses most often through wordless spectacles of vivid colour, where lines dance and curve to music. Perhaps this is why so many people find it the least involving of the studio’s animations. When I first watched it around three years ago, I found it a little alienating.

On a second watch, however, I felt it possessed much more of a charm. I don’t know whether it was the setting (I was much more comfortable watching it this time round), or simply the fact that I wasn’t expecting as much, but it won me over somehow. Whereas before the film’s visual and sonic palettes had seemed elementary and borrowed, like an unplanned explosion of a child’s poster paint collection, they now boasted a brave boldness that I admired.

The titular character is a goldfish named Brunhilde, who is lent the name ‘Ponyo’ by a young boy, Sōsuke, whom she befriends after being accidentally separated from her Sea Wizard father. Ponyo takes a strong liking to Sōsuke, and makes it her aim to find her way back to him after being returned to her ocean home. In terms of plot, there are shadows of The Little Mermaid (there is a ‘test of love’ towards the end, which if Sōsuke fails, will cause Ponyo to turn to sea-foam), but things never stray too far from a simple tale of companionship. Unlike in Miyazaki’s other works, there is little narrative darkness to be found here, meaning the film runs of the risk of seeming shallow in comparison to its predecessors.

However, what the film triumphs in is its absolute unabashed preoccupation with pattern, texture and movement. Water not only flows and runs in its natural form, but bubbles, oozes and churns once enchanted, ripples and waves transforming into the heads of great fish and leech-like monsters which seem composed of honey. Crystal clear liquid turns sky-blue, indigo, and cobalt within minutes. Whereas other Studio Ghibli films may be extraordinary for their great attention to detail, filling every inch of the screen with elements unexpected in animation, Ponyo is extraordinary for its interest in the senses, dazzling its viewer with lights and colours which have enough life in them to be characters of their own.

Like a stained glass tableau, each frame of the film buzzes with child-like brightness. The moment Ponyo breaks free from her bubble prison and cuts holes in her father’s submarine is a visual highlight, with great shoots of water, thick as rope, bursting through the walls and winding their way across the screen. Ponyo is thrown this way and that, submerged by the ocean but ecstatic at escape.

This may not be the most profound of Miyazaki’s works, but it is by far the most exuberant. For those who prefer the quieter side of Ghibli, it might not be an instant favourite, but its audacious beauty cannot be denied. At times schmaltzy, this tale of a little red goldfish is bolstered by its innocence and iridescence.


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Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Watching this film for the first time when I was 11 years old (fittingly only one year off the age of the main protagonist), I was enchanted and terrified by the spirit world it brought to life. Imagining myself lost in the bath houses of old Japan, surrounded by strange creatures of all shapes and sizes, I was transported into a world entirely foreign to my own, but one in which I felt strangely at home.

Chihiro is like most 10 year old girls in the modern world; spoiled, moody, confused, and caught adrift in that strange space between childhood and young adulthood, in which one’s outlook on life shifts, and morphs into something deeper and darker than before. Hayao Miyazaki chooses the perfect character to carry his story of transformation and memory, as we watch a young girl at a pivotal stage in her life, swap naivety for wisdom. Ironically, it is through being ‘spirited away’ to a place of antiquity and fancy, that Chihiro experiences such maturity.

There are mounds of metaphors at work throughout the film, not least the loss of childhood innocence experienced through various encounters with Gods and spirits. The ‘stink spirit’, for example, who turns out to be a river god, is a classic lesson in not judging a book by its cover; and ‘No Face’ is a warning to young Chihiro of the trappings of adult greed and consumption. The witches Yubaba and Zeniba represent conflicting faces of parenthood, with one smothering and restricting whilst the other warms and comforts. And Haku is the rollercoaster-like encounter of first love, made obvious by the fact that Chihiro, in a moment of great danger, is engulfed by the river Kohaku, only to be ultimately carried by it/him to a greater understanding of life and memory.

And yet all of these ‘messages’ can be taken or left as they appear, each one adding to the story despite not being vital to its core strength and magic. The beauty of Studio Ghibli is in its innate ability to give meaning to moments of child-like reverie, where fantastical images packed full of minute and exquisite detail consume the viewer in a way that few other animations do. The colours, the shadow, the lights, the framing; each aspect of Miyazaki’s visual worlds is brought to life with such awesome power and elegance that it is hard to focus on metaphor and meaning, and easier to simply get lost in the intoxicating artistry of it all.

Every scene and moment of Spirited Away is lent a tangibility that contradicts its hand-drawn nature. From the glorious representations of food, to the very water that surrounds the setting of the main action of the film, each element of the cinematic landscape is a portal through which the viewer is transported into an otherworldly realm. By the story’s end, Chihiro has experienced some of the transition into adult life through transportation to her own enchanted realm. Surrounded by the unknown, she has been made ‘Sen’, a serious worker and a loyal friend, journeying and facing great peril for those she loves. We journey with her, and when she returns to her human life and becomes Chihiro again, we feel the great nostalgia for what she left behind, but also great wonderment and apprehension for what lies ahead. This is what makes Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli so great, that ability to encapsulate the indefinable ache of growing up. How perfectly it is epitomized here, where a child is lost in a maze of dazzling wonderment, only to come out the other side more serious, but with a flicker of light and magic still intact.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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