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Hayao Miyazaki’s Classic, ‘Spirited Away,’ Highlights What’s Missing In Today’s Movies For Kids


I have eight younger siblings, which means I probably watch more cartoons than any 21-year-old you’ll meet. Recently, I was watching “Power Rangers Dino Charge” with my four-year-old brother, Patrick. The show was what all kids’ series and films are these days — colorful and loud.

About halfway through an episode, Patrick got up. Despite a stimulating storyline, my little brother couldn’t sit still. He started jumping around the room, carrying his toy soldiers and making explosion noises.

The show reminded me of a quote from my favorite filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: “Just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration.”

I made the decision to switch the show my brother was clearly disinterested in to my favorite movie growing up, Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” a fantastical film from the renowned Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli.

“Spirited Away” follows Chihiro, a young girl on a journey to free her parents from a terrifying yet enchanting spirit world. She works in a bathhouse for the spirits, run by an overlord named Yu-baaba, in order to stay alive and rescue her family. Chihiro slowly grows in confidence as she adapts to her surroundings and uses her wits to overcome challenges.

Regarded as the greatest animated film of all time, “Spirited Away” masters “ma,” the Japanese word for a slow-moving, yet always-moving emptiness. In a 2002 interview, Miyazaki said, “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.” Instead, Miyazaki makes sure that all of his best films, from “Spirited Away” to “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” use quiet moments that allow the tension to build and “grow into a wider dimension.”

Miyazaki astutely noted that filmmakers these days are “scared of silence,” because “they’re worried that the audience will get bored.” This is an unfortunate misconception and a problem in most modern American movies, especially children’s movies.

One of the most beautiful moments in “Spirited Away” is toward the end, when Chihiro is on a train riding on glassy shallow water that stretches on for miles into a vast landscape. All the passengers are faceless, silent shadows, almost like ghosts. Even the train conductor’s face is unseen and his voice unheard.

Following by a tense, action-packed part of the movie, the train scene is a perfect example of ma. It is quiet, calming, yet perplexing. Moving toward a destination unknown, the train scene is an invitation for the viewer to think.

At 21 and four, respectively, my brother and I were enthralled for a full three minutes, absorbed in a quiet scene accompanied by a soft piano melody. Patrick’s favorite pastime is launching himself off furniture and wrestling with our dog. Yet, during this quiet contemplative movie moment, he sat attentively and fully engaged in the scene.

Too often, filmmakers underestimate a child’s powers of concentration and miss the opportunity to provide deep, magical, and memorable movie moments for them. This is true of literature, art, and music as well.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings,” wrote, “I think we only are really moved by what is at least in some point or aspect above us, above our measure.” “Therefore,” he concluded, “do not write down to children or to anybody.” By not lowering his literary standards for children, “The Lord of the Rings” has sold 50 million copies worldwide. Instead of their work being made to meet a child’s level, both Tolkien and Miyazaki’s work beckons children to meet them at a higher level of thought and creativity.

When I pick up my little brother from his Atrium preschool class, a Catholicized Montessori, I notice the effects of its unconventional methods. Created by Dr. Maria Montessori, part of the method employs meditation to bring children to new levels of awareness.

“Soon they were aware of drops of water falling outside in the courtyard, and of the song of a bird in a distant tree,” wrote Dr. Montessori. “The children each silenced their own movements and produced a collective quiet that was for them a profound experience.” As I watched my incredibly active brother calmly and carefully paint in the quiet classroom, I realized the merit of the method.

I don’t want to leave the impression that Miyazaki films are in any way boring. His storylines are some of the most creative and captivating you will ever encounter. With breathtaking animation, Miyazaki has the uncanny ability to create extraordinary worlds of imagination, but handles his creations carefully, employing ma after every outburst of energy. The product is incredible storytelling that has the ability to hold the attention of a four-year-old boy and a 21-year-old woman.

“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction and to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film,” said Miyazaki. “If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

“Power Rangers Dino Charge” isn’t a bad show. It is understandably enjoyable for a little kid. However, when every newly released children’s movie is overstimulating, and nothing is released at a Miyazaki tempo, that’s a problem. I hope that filmmakers reevaluate the way they approach kids’ movies. Parents and children will respond positively to quality work and a few respites from the action.