Spirited Away: Revisiting My Childhood Trauma

by - 6:00 PM

I loved movies when I was a kid. Don't get me wrong, I still love movies, but back then movies were my life. I used to watch The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch on a daily basis. Sometimes my dad would leaf through the TV guide and mark movies I'd like. That's how I ended up watching Spirited Away at 8 years old. I had no idea what the story was about. I just liked that it wasn't in English or Dutch, so I insisted on watching the whole thing. 2 hours and 15 minutes later, which felt like 5 hours, I stumbled out of our living room, traumatized and scarred for life.

It took me a couple of years to learn about Studio Ghibli and Spirited Away's worldwide popularity - and that the movie wasn't really meant for 8-year-olds. The damage was already done though. I always had the plan to watch the movie again, but just thinking about it made me highly uncomfortable. I'm talking about the sweaty armpits and extreme jumpiness kind of uncomfortable. Even a gif could turn my stomach into a big ball of nerves - which is unfortunate, because a gif of No Face at a ridiculously large buffet is very popular among bloggers on Twitter.
I knew I needed to face this fear at some point, but I avoided it as long as possible. I probably would've put it off forever if my boyfriend hadn't had the DVD, still in plastic. When he said he hadn't watched it, I said something which still surprises me: "Let's watch it right now."

Even before we hit 'play', I regretted my decision. I didn't remember the main character Chihiro's name, but I did recall that her parents turned into pigs because they ate food in some mysterious place after taking a wrong turn. As a child, this seemed like something that could very well happen to my parents too. Silly as it may sound, that fear was still with me when I rewatched the opening scenes. While my boyfriend laughed and the dated and clumsy CGI, I became tense and quite paranoid. This fear had nothing to do with finding something a little unsettling, it was fear in its most primal form. It was fighting my fight-or-flight instinct with all my power. I kept reminding myself that the plot wasn't scary at all. In fact, I even remembered the end of the movie. Still I was feeling very uncomfortable as I watched Chihiro enter the spirit world. The dark shadow figures moving about in food stalls made me want to scream. Then the pig scene came and I wanted to scream even louder. And then, suddenly, the panic and fear were gone. Because honestly, Spirited Away isn't scary. It's weirdly interesting.

After Chihiro's parents turn into pigs, she finds her way to a bathhouse for spirits. A boy named Haku smuggles her inside, where humans aren't allowed to come. Chihiro manages to get a job in the bathhouse, bathing spirits. Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse, takes power over the girl by taking her name away. After this, she goes by Sen, and I lost all track of the main storyline. There are spirits jumping into the frame from all sides, there's an enormous baby that turns into a hamster and an evil twin who turns out not to be evil and the good twin was actually evil? Do you understand my confusion?

If we strip all the confusing elements away, we're looking at the story of a little girl who's fighting for her and her parents' freedom so they can go home. It's the most basic explanation I have to offer and it doesn't really do the movie justice. I think that the core of the story is what kept my fear going for so long. Like I said before, I was convinced this could happen to me too. Getting stuck in a bathhouse and having to save my parent's was too much for me. Strangely, that seems to be the only thing that really scared me about Spirited Away. Watching it now, I couldn't be bothered by the plot at all.

To be honest, I don't think the plot is the movie's strongest point. No Face seems to have little to do with Chihiro's mission. Neither does the stink spirit who's Sen's first customer. Watching Spirited Away feels like watching a TV series that has a little adventure for each episode and in the end the main issue gets resolved without any clear progress being shown in the middle of the season. So no, I don't think the plot makes the movie as great as many say it is. Something that made the movie extra terrifying to eight year old me does: the art and character design. Those pigs, I'm telling you, look pretty damn realistic. The spirits are based on Japanese yokai, the reason why a lot of them reference things my western brain doesn't understand. All the spirits are some kind of easter egg, which I don't understand, but I like them anyway for how realistic and mysterious they look. The classic Ghibli style works so well with these creatures. I could gush about this style for ages and I love to draw some yokai from the movie every now and then myself.

By the time the movie came to an end way sooner than I expected, I was surprised to find myself relaxed and happy. I knew I'd never become a Spirited Away fangirl though, because of the messy plot and the many references I didn't get. I like my plots to be clear, even when they're a chronological mess. There just has to be a clear goal and a path that leads to it. Spirited Away kind of shits on that concept, but it does other things really well. There are tons of easter eggs for people familiar with Japanese culture. I also absolutely loved reading up on all the theories and symbolism in the movie. I appreciate the character design more than ever. So despite my childhood trauma, I'm glad I've seen Spirited Away at two such different points in my life. It didn't just make my second time watching way more interesting, it also made me notice and appreciate the little details and subtleties I couldn't process at eight years old. Maybe I should watch the movie again in another 13 years for a proper review. For now I'm more than happy to end this mess of a blog post by saying that I've fallen in love with the Ghibli art style. Spirited Away inspired me to step outside of my comfort zone in both my art and my writing. I truly hope you enjoy my efforts, now and in the future.

x Envy

You May Also Like

2 Fellow Ramblers

  1. I adore this movie, I watched it for the first time a few years ago and fell in love it so quickly. Great review babe, 💜✨

    With love, Alisha Valerie x

    | BLOG | TWITTER |

  2. The art style in every Ghibli film is breathtaking.
    I'm a huge fan of slice of life, very every day things that don't necessarily have a plot, so I do love Spirited Away.
    Have you tried Howl's Moving Castle? It's based off a book so is told in a much more traditional-story way.
    Cora | http://www.teapartyprincess.co.uk/


I solemnly swear that I am up to no good! Wait, no, I mean: I solemnly swear that I will answer each and every comment ;)