I’m a bit of an emotional person in general, especially when it comes to pop culture. I get a lump in my throat when I hear the song “Into The West” at the end credits of The Return of the King. A song reminds of a specific time and place in my life, triggering waves of nostalgia. Hell, I even tear up and cry just watching a trailer for an inspirational movie these days. But there is one scene, in one of my favorite movies, that makes me more emotional than just about any other moment in a movie I can think of.
An hour and thirty seven minutes into Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Chihiro — Or at this point, still Sen — has lured the monster No Face outside of the Spirit Bath House where she’s been kept since the beginning of the film. This is the first time Chihiro has ventured outside the Bath House grounds since arriving. The real world that Chihiro and her parents entered through seems to have disappeared. All that surrounds her now is an endless landscape of perfectly blue water, as she wades her way to the lone train stop in the middle of nowhere.
When she hands the ghostly ticket-taker the train tickets that Kamaji the Boiler Man gave her, the ticket-taker counts her, the little rat, and the bird perched on it’s back...and then one more head. Chihiro turns around to see No Face, no longer a monster, standing behind her. Even though only moments ago, No Face was trying to devour her, Chihiro doesn’t hesitate to extend an invitation for No Face to come along with them as they travel to Swamp Bottom, to visit Zeniba, the evil sister of Yubaba the Witch. They take their seats among other faceless, nameless spirits, all trying to get home, and begin the journey through this watery, haunted world.
There’s so much about this scene aesthetically that makes it so damn moving and melancholic, and just like any Miyazaki film, there’s loads to unpack in every single frame of these three minutes and twenty seconds. Part of what makes the scene so lovely is the fact that it takes place right after what is probably the most intense sequence of the film. No Face tearing through the Bath House, trying to eat Chihiro while uncontrollably projectile vomiting everywhere is masterfully handled, with excellent sound design that bashes against your nerves like No Face skidding down hallways and slamming into every corner. By the time we escape the Bath House with Chihiro, the sound design quiets almost to silence, with nothing but distant breezes and lapping waves gracing our ears. Once the beautiful piano piece by Joe Hisaishi kicks in, I dare you not to start getting emotional.
Or perhaps the key to the scene’s melancholy lies in No Face. Your heart breaks as he slowly chases after Chihiro and is overtaken by the waves of the approaching train. His sheepish insistence to be included even after his rampage and his neurotic shyness once entering the train, only taking a seat after Chihiro calls him over and demands that he behaves speaks volumes to Miyazaki’s character development and the fact that there are never truly any villains in a Hayao Miyazaki film.
The childish innocence of Boh and the bird as they hop up and down, gazing out the window at the passing landmarks, excited to be outside the monstrous castle for the first time, or snuggling up in Chihiro’s lap once they’ve tired themselves out near the end of the trip, brings to mind nostalgia for family trips I took while a child, the feeling of falling asleep on a long car ride and waking up in a strange new place hours later.
One of my favorite parts of this scene is Miyazaki’s faith in using no dialogue or exposition whatsoever, letting the entire scene play out in montage as landmarks speed by and we are treated to gorgeous wide shots full of skies painted red with the setting sun. As the other patrons of the train file out and night creeps into the sky, Chihiro and her friends are left alone on the train as neon lights fly by in an existential shot that could easily be a masterful painting hung in an art gallery.
Out of all these elements though, the thing that makes this scene the most beautiful part of the movie is also what makes Miyazaki one of the most important storytellers in history. The depths of his films know no boundaries. Miyazaki does so much more than just tell a simple fairy tale. He has breathed life into a fictional world and made it more real than anyone else could ever imagine. This strength is highlighted by what could easily be the most dismissive part of the scene: the spirits on the train. There are endless stories that could be delved into these characters who serve no practical function in Chihiro’s journey. Where are these ghosts going to, and will they ever reach their destination?
The two most inspiring examples of this depth are brief images that create a haunting, lasting impression that has stuck with me for years after seeing the film for the first time. The first is the sight of an older spirit holding the hand of a child spirit at a Train Crossing, watching the vehicle speed past them. In the far off distance, there is a village. It looks like they’ve traveled quite a long distance to reach this Crossing. Did they miss the train? Are they lost?
My favorite image takes place at another Train Station stop halfway through their journey. After the train pulls out of the station again, continuing on its way, Chihiro glimpses a little girl spirit, who looks like she could be her own age, her hands clasped together, watching the train move away, as she is left behind. Who is that little girl waiting for? How long has she been waiting? How much longer will she have to wait?
The stories of these ghosts and the pure empathy that Miyazaki has for such small characters is so touching and important. This empathy and devoted attention to detail is what makes the movie so timeless. No matter how many times I watch it, this scene will always hit me in a spot that few other stories do, as it makes me think about just how far this fantasy world goes. It makes me wish I could ride the train, and be a part of that world.