The train scene in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is one of the most memorable, beautiful, and baffling moments in the film. So what does it mean? What’s going on? What is its purpose?

(I think I fixed the problem youtube was having with the copyright. So yay!)

Transcript below the cut:

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Spirited Away is one of my top two favorite Miyazaki (and Ghibli) movies, fluctuating alongside Nausicaa. And this analysis hits the nail on the head of how I love it. Like… not how much, not why, but HOW. I breathe in, and it breathes with me. It’s wide. It has so much action, and just enough space between it to let it really sink in. And this scene is – yes, it’s one of my favorite things about anime that Western media tends not to have. In Western animation, and especially in live action stuff, you look away for two seconds and you’ve lost the thread of what’s going on. The most important things can take, like, two seconds, and the directors count on you being literally glued to the screen for these two seconds.

Anime doesn’t do that. It gives things space, and the more important the thing is, the more it gets. Everybody mocks the shounen action scenes where it can take two minutes to swing swords two times because of the face shots and the corny dialogue… but the end result is, you ACTUALLY can’t miss the swords being swung two times.

A similar thing happens here. Even if you missed some of the points along the way of how Chihiro ends up on the train and where exactly she’s going, there is no way to miss the transition from one part of the setting to another. And those parts are almost diametrically opposite, and have drastically different mood, yet there is no way for the shift to be jarring, because there is this long, calm scene, and even if you like, check out for most of it to gather your thoughts on something else, by its end you don’t expect to still be in the noisy, bustling, aggressive bathhouse. You’ve been carried to a new headspace, as well as a new setting part.

I don’t know, maybe this is a ‘me’ problem, or maybe it’s actually kind of common – it’s really hard for me to focus on narratives that unfold alongside time and not space.

(It’s not a visual/audial/textual divide, precisely. Constantly scrolling text like the announcements at train stations presents the same difficulties as listening to a podcast, and comics are as fine as books. It’s exactly a question of whether I get to skip forward and backward freely until something sinks in and I move on, or if I’m carried by a pre-set pacing and can’t just glance back)

I constantly end up disoriented, confused or just plain distracted by thoughts on what just happened. And it’s precisely this ‘ma’ that LETS ME. It’s the allotted space for just that, for me to take time to really register what just happened and where I am, to finish the thought and to get ready – and tensely expecting! – of what happens next.

It’s so, so important, and it’s so, so beautiful.

All that deep&high theory aside, as an incredible nerd I can’t also not comment on my interpretation of what the train is. I know the afterlife interpretation but every time I hear it, it feels jarring. It just doesn’t match the emotions and mood and general feeling and associations I get watching it.

(I come from a yet third cultural background here – I’m Eastern European, from former Soviet Union, specifically from Ukraine, so that might account for how huge the difference is to me)

The feeling I get is that this train is something of a… reflection? different plane? of a train that exists in the real world. The passengers getting on and off are actual living people who have no clue that there is this bathhouse and this little girl and this spirit alongside her, and that the train they are taking has any connection to all these things. They just go on with their days, and this train touches on that. It used to be more connected, it used to be that the other direction the actual real life train goes was tied to this spirit world too, but now it’s not. And I think it’s the train going from the busy city to rural countryside that has this connection, and the train going from countryside to city that has lost it.

Chihiro’s journey here, in the emotional plane, is pretty identically parallel to an archetypical journey of going from a big city to the countryside – you leave the bustle, you go somewhere specific where there’s pretty much nothing for you except this one thing you have as a goal, and instead of thinking about everything at once you only have one thing to focus on. And you can relax, because you’ve done everything you could in preparation, and all the problems that wait back in the thick of things are now postponed until you get back.

That’s why she gets on the reflection of the real life train – it’s pretty much the same thing, just that she’s travelling on the spirit plane and those people on the real one.

Meanwhile the other way isn’t working, and I bet it’s at least partly because of the thorough communication breakdown between the two sisters. Nobody from the swamp goes to the bathhouse with the same general expectations and emotional tune as people who go from countryside to the city in the real world, and so there’s no train for them to hop on.

This is probably also why the tickets are rare – it’s a real world train, and the tickets are probably real life tickets that aren’t even sold in the spirit world because normally, nobody wants them. They are the equivalent of a mollusk shell when you live in the middle of the continent – if you at some point made the journey to the seaside they are plentiful and not really valuable, and you probably have more than you need to when you come back (because you need 0)… but if you need any for some reason and you don’t have them already, good luck finding any. You just have to pester your friends who’ve been to the seaside recently and hope any of them picked up such a useless, abundant, absolutely free thing.

Maybe the reason we are reading this scene so differently is because from what I hear, train isn’t really a normal way of transportation in America? I see “gas stations and truck stops are liminal spaces” a lot, and to me the association is really with countryside trains, neither here nor there, with a lot of people whose reality only ever intersects with yours when you share this small space, and even then only barely. It matches perfectly the mood of this scene, to the point that I’m inclined to think that there isn’t a deep metaphorical explanation. It’s exactly what it appears to be – a train to fuck-knows-where, where you are the last passenger staying on for the last station and have no idea who anyone else might be or what their business possibly is.

It’s… nice.



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