iconic shot: Spirited Away (2001)

- By Robyn Kilroy

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Picture this…

A young child, lost and frightened in a place that is completely alien to her. She comes across something mysterious that stops her in her tracks. While the mysterious thing is tall and intimidating, there’s also something enticing about it, something that intrigues the young hero to investigate it further. This scene encapsulates the childhood wonder and fear everyone gets when they come across something as colossal and mysterious. The iconic shot I’m talking about, of course, comes from Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting 2001 film Spirited Away. Miyazaki is himself a notable director, with a catalogue of iconic films such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and My Neighbour Totoro (1988) to name just a few that launched him to success across the world. However, Spirited Away stands out for its sheer beauty, and there are countless specific shots that envelop the beauty of this film in a single still image. However, the specific shot I will be exploring is the shot of when the young hero of the story, Chihiro, comes across the mystical Bathhouse for the first time.  

Spirited Away tells the story of when young Chihiro and her parents come across what seems to be an abandoned amusement park as they are travelling to their new home. However, the amusement park is revealed to be part of the spirit world and as a result of their encroachment, her parents are turned into pigs. In order to save her parents, Chihiro must work at a bathhouse for spirits under the witch Yubaba. It’s a classic hero’s journey scenario, however the film stands out for its truly gorgeous animation and breathtaking and meaningful shots. It’s almost difficult for me to single out one absolute iconic shot because there are so many equally magnificent shots. However, the shot of the Bathhouse when Chihiro first encounters it says so much about the themes that Spirited Away shows while also being a beautiful shot. It’s the shot I think of when someone mentions Hayao Miyazaki, or even when someone mentions Studio Ghibli (the animation studio he co-founded).

As Chihiro meanders around the abandoned amusement park, she appears to be curious, but nothing really stands out until she comes across the giant bathhouse. It is located away from the rest of the buildings, separated by a bridge, signifying its importance to the film. While the rest of the park is seemingly uninhabited and dead, the bathhouse seems to be in operation, with smoke coming out of its chimneys. The establishment of the bathhouse invokes the idea that Chihiro and we, the audience, are about to transition from one world to another; from the familiar to the unfamiliar. It is the first turning point in the film and Miyazaki manages to sum it up in this single shot. It is one of the pinnacle moments of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the crossing of the threshold into an unknown or special world. In this shot, Miyazaki perfectly articulates to the audience that the Bathhouse is significant, without having to outright explain it to them. As a personal fan of the motto “show don’t tell” in cinema, I commend Miyazaki for this.

Another interesting aspect about this shot is the way it displays Chihiro in comparison to the Bathhouse. The shot begins framing the bathhouse, and then pans down to Chihiro standing on the bridge, staring in awe at the building. By panning down to Chihiro, the film invokes the perception that she is small and vulnerable in comparison to the world she is about to enter. When we first are introduced to Chihiro, she is portrayed as a scared young child. She nervously follows her parents into the supposedly abandoned amusement park and is terrified of the monsters and spirits when she first encounters them. This one shot establishes her vulnerability, but also marks the start of the change in her character. She becomes braver throughout the film, working her way up to get a job at the Bathhouse. She learns how to stand up for herself and goes out of her way to help her friends, like Haku, and her parents. In the same way that this Bathhouse shot signifies the transition from the ordinary world to the special world, it also marks the start of Chihiro’s personal growth. From this shot onwards, she becomes braver and stronger as a character.

While Spirited Away is notably teeming with iconic shots that have become a part of pop culture worldwide, The Bathhouse shot that I have discussed above is, in my opinion, equally important in terms of plot and characterisation, as well as it being a beautiful piece of animation. To me, this shot will always be one of my favourite moments in an animated film, and it will continue to go down in history as an iconic shot.