Arielle Westcott is a junior at the University at Albany. She studies English and will be working on her honors thesis starting in the Fall, 2019. She also minors in art history and international studies.
"The book that most influenced my life was one about a murderous bootlegger written by William Kennedy. The poet I live by is Emily Dickinson."
Lessons and inspiration from Spirited Away
By Arielle Westcott
When I was about seven years old, I remember my mom coming back from Best Buy with a bunch of DVDs, most of which were for me and my sister. She would often bring us back a movie to watch, usually something Disney related, and we would watch it once or twice and then forget about it.
On this day that I remember, she brought back Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, an animated film that was distributed by Disney, but originally made and produced in Japan.
From the moment I first watched it, I was enthralled. Even now I still have the DVD, though the case is ruined and the disc itself has many scratches on it since my younger self was not careful with the things she owned.
The director of "Spirited Away," Hayao Miyazaki, with the poster for the film.
This film was like nothing I had ever seen before. There were mysterious—almost creepy—creatures and spirits as well as symbols I could not read, which I later learned were from one of the three Japanese alphabets. Not only that, but a character named Yubaba that was supposed to be the main antagonist was not actually all that evil. At this time in my life, the main villain in the shows and movies I watched was often obvious and accompanied with an evil laugh or villainous speech. Yubaba seemed evil at first and was obviously the antagonist, but as the film went on, she had more layers than I originally thought. Sure, she was a witch, but she was not necessarily an evil one, and she also had a child, which revealed a more caring side to her character that was not presented until later in the movie. This confused me at the time, because the shows and movies I watched as a child mainly depicted good and evil as black and white subjects—as concepts that could never mix. In seeing a character that was supposed to be the “bad guy” be humanized, I saw that not all things were strictly one way or another, but rather, that a gray area existed. The world was a far more complex place than seven-year-old me realized.
After watching this film at least a thousand times, my mom eventually bought more of Miyazaki’s movies, which furthered my interest in Japanese culture overall. I wanted to learn more, to experience it all for myself. This movie made me curious about a culture I was unfamiliar with, so I started reading novels that were originally from Japan as well as watching other shows and movies that came from there as well. My curiosity expanded, for there was more in this world that I did not fully understand but desperately wanted to.
When I got into college, one of the things I looked for was an opportunity to study abroad in Japan, but once I saw how expensive that could be, I became uncertain in my dream to one day experience Japanese culture firsthand. It seemed even further out of reach than it did when I was a child, and rather than being an ocean or two away, it seemed more like a whole world stood in the way. I lost hope for a little while, but when I sat down to watch the movie again, to relive the past nostalgia I felt when I turned it on, I became inspired by the main character Chihiro’s situation. Though she was only about ten years old, she was literally an entire world away from everything she knew, and her parents were not there to help her. In the end, she was able to leave the magical world her and her family wandered into and make it back to the human world through her own efforts. So, if Chihiro, a character that I adored since childhood, could overcome her situation, why couldn’t I?
Rather than remaining disheartened by the financial burden of going abroad, in the second semester of my freshman year, I made an appointment at the university’s study abroad office to consider my options. With the help of my advisor, I found a study abroad program that aligned with my interests, as well as a bunch of scholarships that I could apply for to help fund my journey. Spirited Away was the starting point of my interest in Japanese culture and the emboldening point that made me continue to pursue studying abroad. Because of this film and the other films and books it inspired me to look into, I breached my comfort zone and experienced something that many other people often do not, and I am grateful for it.
Films, books, poetry, and other art forms give people the courage to face challenges in their own lives. Even though Spirited Away is a fantasy movie aimed at children, there are still lessons and inspiration that I gain from it even now. While fiction can offer people an escape from the mundanity of daily life, there are also realistic elements that can be found within it that can be applied to one’s own life. I have never accidentally crossed over into a magical world or seen fantastical creatures and spirits in real life, but I have met plenty of complex human beings and triumphed over difficult situations in my own life just as the characters in Spirited Away have.
The moments of reality that shine through in fiction are part of what makes it so universally appealing and inspirational.