Art 123, Alejandro Garcia
1st Term Paper, Spirited Away Analysis
October 14, 2009
Spirited Away, by renowned animator/director, Hayao Miyazaki, is one of many Studio Ghibli films that are animated with highly accurate detail. Hayao Miyazaki puts a lot of time in studying the motion and secondary actions of his characters before he animates them. This ensures that all the laws of gravity and physics are portrayed correctly under “everyday” circumstances through out the movie. However, because there are magical creatures and spirits in an enchanted bathhouse, physics and gravity are compromised. Also, there are moments throughout the film where exaggerated expressions defy the laws of physics to enhance the playful aspect of the animation. This can be seen in many of the falling scenes, however they are convincing because of the laws of gravity that are followed. Spirited Away was an intelligent and highly detailed film in terms of understanding basic laws of physics enough to make the movie highly realistic, and only manipulated those laws when it was necessary for story telling purposes.
The opening scene in Spirited Away had so much life in just a simple animated car ride, because of the correct physical laws of motion. Every time the car hit a bump in the road, all the items in the car jiggled; the lighter objects, such as the paper bags and flowers, have more acceleration because they need less force to move. Chihiro, the main character, was sitting in the back seat and stood up to get a closer look at where at the path in front of the car. As soon as her dad, the driver, sped up and also hit a bump in the process, Chihiro fell back into her seat. This scene represents Newton’s law of Inertia, which states and object will be in constant uniform motion unless and outside force acts upon it. Because Chihiro was standing with little support in the car and the floor and seat moved forward, she was forced to fall backward.
The area around the car represents correct laws of physics along with the objects inside the car. The environment is animated to travel past the car at the correct speed to indicate how fast the automobile is moving. This is also done well in the train scene at the end of the film. Basically, objects that are closer to the moving vehicle move faster, then ones that are farther away. It is a visual trick that Miyazaki reproduces well in all his films. He observed a movement that most people do not notice when they look out a car window. The framing of the animated background is so precise, judging by how far the objects have moved in each frame, we can figure out the speed of the car’s uniform motion. Given that there are several layers of animation in one scene, and that the background is animated on “one’s” (one new drawing per frame) and the vehicle is animated with one drawing every other frame, it is difficult to judge the speed. However, if we look at the leaves moving past the car and judge the distance they have moved, but skipping a frame in-between, one could estimate that they are 15-20 inches apart. Therefore, Chihiro’s dad is driving about 20-30 MPH on cobblestones in a dense forest.
Miyazaki animates well due to intelligent observation and a strong understanding of physics and it is not only evident in the car scene, but also in the little actions that are constantly repeated in Spirited Away. For instance, Chihiro’s ponytail experiences centrifugal force. Whenever she turns her head, the ponytail spins outward and extends further away from her head. This is also a good example of follow-through because the ponytail continues to spin, even when the head has stopped. Scattered through out the film, objects such as food, dishes, or tiny bits of gold are being dropped. Miyazaki perfects animating falling objects, because they are all done with the correct timing arcs. There is anticipation at the beginning of the fall and afterward the object accelerates as it gets closer to the ground. The attention Miyazaki and his animators pay to the tiny details, adds to the quality of the entire film.
To make a quality animation, along with knowing the correct laws of gravity and physics, one must also know how to defy those laws in order to make the film more entertaining. Miyazaki masters bending physical boundaries to add magic to his movies. For instance, towards the end of the film a giant baby turns into a mouse, and a crow becomes a fly. The two characters stick together as they are being chased by the evil “No Face.” To move fast, the fly carries around the fat mouse, which is physically impossible, but also very funny and entertaining to look at.
The setting of Spirit Away is a giant bathhouse catering to spirits of Japan. The boss, Ubaba, and her assistant, Haku, have magical powers and always know what is going on inside the bathhouse. Ubaba is known for her ability to fly like a bird, and levitate anything she wants, including written words on a paper. Obviously, her powers defy the laws of gravity, but even so, they are animated to look as if they are floating through water. For example, when Ubaba destroys her office in an angry fit, she cleans up by making everything fly back to the respected places. As all the papers, coins, necklaces and other items fly through the air, they all seem to swirl and follow one another as if they floating on magical ribbons. This has little to do with physics, but it represents a beautiful solution of how to animate tiny objects floating through a room. Once again, Miyazaki proves his brilliant creativity.
Often times, for dramatic purposes, Miyazaki will defy the laws of gravity to help dramatize a certain emotion. Hair will suspend in mid air when the character is angry, excited, surprised, or any other wildly enthusiastic emotion. For instance, when Ubaba is poking Chihiro in the stomach while telling her “ I will work you until you breath your very last breath,” Chihiro’s ponytail levitates like a sticks poking out of her head. This trick of Chihiro’s hair emphasizes that she is “scared stiff” of the giant Ubaba. Another situation showing Chihiro’s hair standing on end is when she encounters the “Stink Spirit.” The horrific odor of the mud engulfed spirit makes Chihiro tense up, her shoulders are up to her ears, her pupils shrink, and her hair sticks out like spikes, and remains so for about 30 seconds. When the body stiffens, Miyazaki likes to exaggerate that physical sensation by making the character’s hair act as if it can be as straight as a board as well. This makes the character’s emotions clearer to the audience, even though it defies the law of gravity.
There are a few moments through out Spirited Away, where Miyazaki decides to not physical laws because of artistic expression, and to further emphasize a scene. One such technique can be slow motion. In the beginning of the film, Haku takes Chihiro’s hand and flies her through a crowd of people quickly. As they fly under women’s kimonos, the cloth floats in the hair like Marilyn Monroe skirts. Miyazaki animates the kimono gowns floating a bit longer then they should because he gives them a very slow settle. Hair tends to settle a bit slower than it should as well. Air resistance can explain why these light objects fall slower than others, but I believe it follows the whimsical style that Miyazaki constantly portrays in his films. It adds beauty to a scene that could be very fast and overlooked.
The scenes that test Miyazaki’s problem solving skills for believable physics and motion are the ones with the fast action. In Spirited Away, Chihiro encounters a lot of death defying stunts that she survives thanks to manipulating gravitational boundaries in animation. Most of these action scenes consist of long falls, or the prevention of them. A great example of this is when Chihiro is crawling down the stairs on the side of the bathhouse slowly at the beginning of the film. She gradually puts all her weight on one step and it breaks. The force of the fall propels her to run down the stairs at an extreme pace. This animation followed the laws of gravity well because the sensation Chihiro felt running down the stairs is the same we humans feel running down a hill. We run faster and faster and lose control of the speed in which our legs are moving because the gravity is rolling our body down a hill. But, instead of wheals or a tumbling body, our sense of balance keeps us upright as our legs accelerate from the downward slope.
A scene where Miyazaki bends the laws of gravity for dramatic purposes is when Chihiro, the mouse, the fly, and Haku the dragon are falling. When a small object is on top a larger one as it is falling, it will stay attached to that item like glue because the bigger object is blocking all the air resistance. However, although the fly and rat are above the dragon during the fall, the fly and rat slowly float up in the air, as if it takes them more time to fall because they are smaller objects. Even though most people won’t recognize this flaw, it goes against physics. But the little interaction of Chihiro pulling down the fly and the rat floating in the air to protect them adds character build up to a scene that could easily just be one simple falling motion.
Spirited Away is a high quality film that has a lot of evidence proving the laws of physics and gravity were well understood. Even when those laws are manipulated, their consistency through out the film proves Miyazaki directs and animates a movement with intention. He studies the best possible way he will manipulate reality so that it is congruent with the rest of the movie. Miyazaki is an amazing storyteller who knows how to relate to an audience with his observation to even the tiniest details of life.