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Essay: How Walt Disney & Hayao Miyazaki’s Animations Mirror Growing Up & Child Spirituality

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  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: 26 February 2023*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 705 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 3 (approx)
  • Tags: Disney essays

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Time in and time again, animators across the world can bring audiences into worlds that can either be familiar or unknown to reality. Many animated films can take viewers on a journey of self-discovery or communicate moral lessons and themes that a protagonist is meant to embody or embrace. This core methodology is reminiscent of the two big titans of the animation world: Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. Though their approaches to animation stylization diverge, they have created groundbreaking, fantastical pieces of storytelling with insightful moral lessons that moviegoers, filmmakers, and animators of new and old still appreciate to this day.

For starters, Spirited Away is thematically and structurally similar to Alice and her journey in Wonderland. The beginnings of both films present the characters as ordinary girls who are bored and fed up with their current situations and want to be in control. In Alice In Wonderland, the narrative opens with Alice disinterested with her sister’s history lesson. Alice additionally tells her pet kitten, Dinah, that "if [she] had a world of [her] own, everything would be nonsense”. In Spirited Away, Chihiro is unenthusiastic about the new chapter in her life that her parents have forced upon her. In this respect, both protagonists are unmotivated to move forward in the world they live in, until they both experience an inciting incident that pushes them out of it. This introduces one of the major themes to both films: a transition from childhood into adulthood. In Spirited Away, this is conveyed visually when Chihiro walks through a dark tunnel that is synonymous to that of a portal into another realm. This metaphorical gateway sequence is similar to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. They are thrown into worlds that are unfamiliar and frightening to them, which is similar to growing up in the adult world. Thus, both of the young protagonists have to go on a spiritual journey to discover themselves, their responsibilities, and their blessings as human beings. At the start of both films, the girls take their childhood freedom for granted. However, as both narrative progresses, the girls react in shock by characters or events they encounter. In Alice in Wonderland, when she meets and talks with the Cheshire Cat, she is startled by him and doesn't act as bold or confident around him as she had done to the previous characters. In Spirited Away, after constantly whining and complaining to her parents about not being in control, Chihiro runs off to explore the small abandoned theme park-esque town. Upon returning to her parents, she is shocked to discover that they have been turned into pigs and gets spooked out by spirits appearing out of thin air. Together, Chihiro and Alice learn to accept that they actually had more freedom in the real world and have more appreciation for the lives they have upon their return back. Ideologically, this idea is emblematic of Joseph Campbell’s summary of the monomyth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell, 1968, 30)

The only difference from this quote is that both films place emphasis on the “heroine’s” journey, and that’s what makes both stories individually unique for their time. Disney heroine protagonists before Alice were already in their teens and she’s just a child. Chihiro is in the same position and both girls have to come to terms with this transitioning into adulthood. Now, where these two “coming of age” animated films diverge is how they present themselves stylistically and visually.

First, it’s important to point out that Studio Ghibli is based in Japan, a country whose culture is rooted upon aesthetics that speak for themselves. Hayao Miyazaki and his team of very skilled animators hark upon this idea through the use of extensive and intricate hand-drawn cel animation. Each landscape and locale throughout Spirited Away is gushing with immense detail and gorgeously palleted colors that any single slide or shot from the film looks as if it could be hung in the Louvre.

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