There is nothing like being stuck in a one-year pandemic that further encourages one’s escapist tendency. The obligation to isolate yourself from the outside world aggravates the feeling of being stuck in a dark hole with little knowledge of how to get out of it, something that I’ve always had with me since I first went through puberty and started having inclinations towards rebelliousness.
I grew up in the same city where I was born, a metropolitan city with an urban lifestyle that detached its citizens from a sense of reality and communality. Living in this same place for more than a decade, it comes off as no surprise that I would develop an escapist tendency. Escapism also works as a coping mechanism over my distress and worries. The notion that there is always a space in my head, a personal universe filled with self-indulging imaginations, that I can rely on as a distraction from reality makes me feel safe and at ease from time to time. As I grow older, this “universe” keeps growing and expanding, becoming more and more complex alongside the constant stimulations from the many fictional books and movies that I consume throughout the years. Books and movies with a fictional setting, in particular, enhance and fuel my imagination over the place that I illustrate in my mind to which I escape. As a result, I have more interest in reading books and writing stories. It kind of forms a cycle in which my passion for literature fuels my imagination, and in return, my interest in fictional stories increases even more.
One of the many stories that fulfill my need to escape, one that I have been particularly interested in lately, is Spirited Away, a 2001 animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of the works of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation film studio known for its stunning animation that glorifies the beautiful nature and various phenomena in life and intriguing stories that often include powerful messages. Their breathtaking visuals and the way their stories tend to evoke a sense of nostalgia and longing make the film perfect to “escape” with.
Spirited Away, in particular, involves a lot of magical and fantastical elements, perhaps more than any other Ghibli films, that make a delightful experience to dream in. Its world is filled with peculiar creatures, most of which I find to be cute. Some of these creatures resemble real-life animals, and I notice many of them are frogs with various colors and sizes. I have to admit, this film awakened a newfound adoration towards frogs, an animal that I wouldn’t associate with the word “cute” before. Others are entirely made up creatures like No Face–a semi-transparent spirit with uncanny behaviors, and Kamaji–a six-armed elderly man who operates a bathhouse. Most of all, the creature I find to be the most adorable would be the soot sprites–small, dark, round creatures made from soot who work in Kamaji’s bathhouse.
These creatures are a part of the magnificent world Miyazaki builds for this film, a world that is built so thoroughly that you find no problem in imagining it as a real place. And I think this is an essential form of escapist literature–an intricate world- which immerses you in it as if it’s real. Despite the many clearly fictional elements, it tricks you into believing that this kind of world might exist somewhere, far, far away, in a different planet or different universe, perhaps. It is this unusualness in fictional stories that become the key to escapism; a pleasing visual of whimsicality can draw you into a world of many possibilities that a limited reality cannot provide you with.
Another reason why Spirited Away hits too close to home for me is its portrayal of adolescence. I watched Spirited Away for the first time when I was 15 years old, only a couple of months away from entering high school. It was an age when the dramatic elements of the roller coaster that is your teenage years are starting to kick in. For most of my teenage years, I experienced a myriad of emotions, having to deal with the confusing search for identity while everything around me is changing at a rapid pace. But the one thing that stays constant throughout my teenage years, the one that defines my coming of age experience, is the feeling of loneliness, of being alienated from everyone around me. I resort to many books and films as my loyal companion through it all, but Spirited Away is the one that gives the most sense of hope like no other works have ever done to me. The film perfectly captures the anxiety of growing up, the feeling of being trapped in a timeline that’s moving too fast and not being able to catch up with. We can infer that Chihiro’s journey in the spirit world is an allegory of the coming of age experience. The cruel nature of the spirit world in which Chihiro was trapped mirrors that of the real world. The way Chihiro is different from the rest of the creatures in the spirit world reflects the aforementioned alienation. It painfully speaks to the worries and fears that plague my thoughts that I couldn’t even properly comprehend. And even with the eerie hyperbole of the way the world works that comes off as rather frightening, it provides immense comfort with the way the film just seems to understand when no one else does. Nothing is closer to the adolescent experience than this.
As I am now in my early stage of adulthood, these experiences are no longer a major part of my life, but Spirited Away still has a special place in my heart. In a world where authenticity is punishable, and our freedom to express ourselves is still limited. It is still easy for me to feel alone and estranged and still yearning for a place where I can exist without limitations, much like the “universe” I keep inside my head. To answer these worries, I always remember a particular scene from Spirited Away when Haku encourages Chihiro to remember her real name, as it will keep her grounded while she navigates through the spirit world. The scene reminds me that I should always go back to my true self. By remembering where I come from and who we are, and just like the film, no matter how difficult and challenging it is to navigate this complex world, what matters the most is staying true to ourselves.