Hayao Miyazaki has always been fascinated with the idea of youth. It’s not just because he primarily makes films for children—his affection for the imagination and innocence of our childhoods informs his entire career, every one of his films reflecting upon the joy that stems from the freedom of being young and the sadness that comes with losing that. No film captures that more than Spirited Away, his 2001 magnum opus that uses a young girl’s existential journey through a land of spirits as an examination of finding yourself in your youth. While the film as a whole is a stirring pursuit of that idea, there’s one scene that alone unlocks the secret to Spirited Away—and perhaps Miyazaki’s entire filmography.
Near the conclusion of the film, the film’s protagonist Chihiro/Sen takes a trip to the countryside of the spirit realm in a scene that stands out as some of the emotionally striking filmmaking ever committed to celluloid. She boards a train, full of featureless spirits, that takes her across endless expanses of flooded villages and ghostly cities. There is no dialogue, only the sounds of Joe Hisaishi’s haunting score, the sweeping sounds of the ocean, and the relentless chugging of the train’s engine. A deep sense of sadness hangs heavy in the air, Chihiro watching wordlessly as her mysterious fellow passengers disembark for places unknown. In a particularly haunting moment, the train pulls away from a station and Miyazaki focuses on the spirit of a solitary young girl, probably Chihiro’s own age, watching it depart. Are these the spirits of the dead, traveling to a newfound home in the afterlife to reunite with their loved ones? Or are they weary, lost travelers, doomed to years of traveling with no set destination? Miyazaki knows he can’t offer any answers. He instead focuses on Chihiro’s face, which for the first time in the film is set with a sense of determination.
He shows a young girl on a metaphorical, and in some ways literal, journey from the naivete of her childhood to a deeper, more mature understanding of what it means to live for something. Chihiro is perhaps Miyazaki’s most complex character because she isn’t a joyful, mostly carefree child like the many Ghibli protagonists that preceded her. She spends much of the film nervous and unsure of herself, seemingly longing for the confidence of her much more easy-going parents. Her experiences in the spirit realm and her eventual evolution into maturity that the train journey represents form the very backbone of the bittersweet nature behind Miyazaki’s work. He longs for the privilege of childhood, the point in our lives where we are supposed to be unburdened by the worries of the world. But through Chihiro, he recognizes that a sense of freedom isn’t a guarantee and that it’s up to all of us to allow children the space to discover that freedom within themselves. Chihiro’s success in saving her parents and the reclamation of her identity hinges on the determination she discovers within herself in this scene.
Miyazaki’s protagonists in earlier films, particularly My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, do face similar struggles over their freedom to be themselves; the merry adventures of Satsuki and Mei’s childhood in Totoro are complicated by the sickness of their mother and Kiki’s loneliness and lack of purpose drives the moral center of Delivery Service. The difference is that the train sequence in Spirited Away takes Chihiro’s emotional development a step further in that Miyazaki isn’t just speaking to children with this moment, he’s speaking to all audiences. As a child, you watch this moment and say “I know there is something in me that’s stronger.” As an adult, you watch it and are flushed with all the memories of the ebbs and flows of your life. You remember the times you had that same childhood realization, but you also resonate with the sense that something has been lost as you grow older. The faceless spirits mirror our own doubts over the anxiety and mundanity of being an adult, as well as the losses we’ve encountered in that growth, but the serenity in the scene also suggests that Miyazaki pleads that we must make peace with that development.
From a stylistic and structural sense, the scene is so potent because it’s a climax that is not climactic in the traditional sense of the word. It doesn’t land as the structural apex of the movie because it’s a bombastic set piece or a moment to unveil an earth-shattering revelation; it strikes such a chord because it actively challenges that notion of what a climax is, coming immediately after arguably the most action-packed scene of the film (No-face’s rampage through the bathhouse) and even standing in opposition to many of the pivotal moments of Miyazaki’s other films. In Miyazaki’s previous films, the emotional catharsis of those works still come in fast-paced, “epic” moments: Totoro’s themes of childhood bonds and trauma are crystallized in a journey on a cat-shaped bus, Princess Mononoke’s themes of environmental justice and lost innocence is made shockingly literal in a battle scene, and so on. In stark contrast, the train scene grinds Spirited Away’s propulsive momentum to a near halt to force viewers to linger on the transformation that Chihiro is undergoing and reflect on that change in our own pasts. The emotional challenge of hinging Chihiro’s catharsis around a scene this reserved is so great that Miyazaki arguably shied away from it for over a decade. Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo are fantastic films that nevertheless take a step away from the philosophical intricacy of Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s more spiritual sense would return with The Wind Rises, another masterful film that shares more threads with Away than you may spot at first glance. The climactic scene of that film can be seen as a moment in the vein of Miyazaki’s more electrifying work that’s complicated by the same quiet grace as Chihiro’s train ride: the protagonist Jiro finally achieves his dream of building the perfect plane, but feels a gust of wind at the test site that signifies the death of his wife Naoko. The triumph of his success is animated with only the sound of the wind and another poignant score from Hisaishi hanging over the scene, the juxtaposition of Naoko’s death and the eventual use of his planes for war illustrating that Jiro’s creative life has been corrupted by forces outside of his control. The mirrored styles of the two scenes and Miyazaki’s decision to return to that method of filmmaking for The Wind Rises reflects on the importance of Spirited Away not only as a tool to understanding Miyazaki’s wider career but as a work that shades Miyazaki’s own thought process even over a decade later. He is confident and wise enough as a director to recognize that his audience, specifically children, don’t have to be taken on a thrill ride for the purpose of the film to connect with them emotionally or spiritually, especially when dealing with themes that he feels would be betrayed by flashier filmmaking.
Chihiro’s train ride brings out the ideology and motivations behind Miyazaki’s sense of duty as a filmmaker with reserved grace. It exposes and continues to inform the ethos of his work, the theme that all his central ideas eventually return to in some way: aging is an inevitable loss, but it is not the end. Aging gives us the agency to discover ourselves, to remember the carelessness of our youth and cherish not only that memory of our past but who we’ve become since. That ideal shines new light on all of Miyazaki’s works, providing an answer to the question of what comes after the joys of childhood that he illuminates in them. As Chihiro’s train leaves her into a dark and uncertain night, Miyazaki reassures us that its journey is not over. It has more of us to shepherd, and the growth that spiritual migration invokes just means we are all strong enough to grow.
Thanks for such a poignant analysis of this beautiful film.