The Train Journey - Spirited Away

By Thomas Underhill

My favourite piece of art hanging in my room was given to me by my dad when I moved out of their house and into my own flat – it’s an 1879 print by the Japanese wood-block print artist Kobayashi Kiyochika called “View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon”. The print depicts a steam train travelling through the twilight. The train takes up most of the piece, but just as important is the water surrounding it on both sides, reflecting the lights of the train carriages. Even the clouds above look somewhat watery in their mottled pattern. What’s always stuck out to me, however, are the little silhouettes you can just about make out in the train windows. They bear almost no detail, save for the vague outline of a hat or hairstyle, but that just leaves the observer to imagine their own details for these nameless passengers – where they’re going and what they might be leaving behind. For someone moving out of their parent’s place for the first time, this train came to mean something especially profound for me. I put it in a position in my room where I could see it every night, and look at those passengers riding Kiyochika’s train through the night.

View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon”. Kobayashi Kiyochika

In Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece, Spirited Away, a similar feeling is coerced from the viewer by use of a train. In the film, the train is similarly surrounded by water and occupied mainly by humanoid shadows. The conductor is seen only from the neck down, and aside from Chihiro and her animal companions, all of the other passengers are formless spirits, with the hint of clothing and translucent baggage the only indication as to their lives outside of the train.

Chihiro sitting on that train, travelling from the bathhouse where she starts her journey of personal growth, to Zenibaba’s house in the swamp where she makes her largest breakthroughs, has become one of the defining images of a film filled with potentially defining imagery. Each frame of Miyazaki’s masterwork has such personality and creativity that it feels almost surprising that when thinking of Spirited Away, so many people’s minds will be cast not to Haku battling the paper birds or Chihiro cleaning the supposed stink spirit, but to her simply sitting silently on a train, travelling on a one-way ticket to a swamp unknown.

In another sense, this isn’t actually that surprising at all. The film is clearly themed around personal growth. It’s a tale of Chihiro losing her identity and having to battle to retain it through a hostile world. It’s a narrative which highlights the growth we all have to go through during childhood, and the train scene is a simple and perfect encapsulation of this. We’ve seen Chihiro travel before at the start of the film. There, she’s slumped over in the back of her parent’s car, lamenting the move into the countryside. In contrast, Chihiro now sits straight up with a quiet determination. Sat directly next to her are her companions; Yubaba’s baby, pet bird and No-face, who are each going through their own periods of growth. The mood is not obviously one of change, but one of quiet reflection. At this break in the film, between No-face’s attack on the bathhouse and the film’s emotional epilogue, Chihiro’s train journey becomes a symbol of leaving something behind and reflecting quietly both on what has gone and what is to come.

Journeys have long been used as metaphors and symbols of personal growth in film and books; even in Miyazaki’s other films, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, that growth is kickstarted, as it is in Spirited Away, by the journey out of the protagonist’s hometown to an unfamiliar new locale. But the train ride in particular is so important to Spirited Away because of how it dilutes the experience into one wordless scene. It places emphasis specifically on the unknown factor that comes with all personal change. The one-way ticket that is growing up. In the end, Zenibaba’s house, so infamous and feared within the world of the bathhouse, is nothing scary at all. But there’s no way of Chihiro knowing that before she gets there. The gap between leaving and arriving is one fraught with anxiety, after all. The train journey moves into the night, and all the other passengers eventually depart. Chihiro is left almost alone on the train by the end but remains determined to push on to the final stop. Her journey to maturity is aided by her friends yet is ultimately fuelled by her own determination. Even not knowing what will happen on the other side, she has to press on.

Spirited Away isn’t my favourite film by Miyazaki, but the scene on the train comes close to being one of the best things I think he’s ever made. It can’t exist without the rest of the film – without the bathhouse turning from the terrifying unknown into a comfort for Chihiro, and then her love for Haku forcing her to make the active decision to abandon her safety and head out into the unknown. It also can’t have its full effect without the reveal of the kindness of Zenibaba, and the realisation that while change can be scary, it is ultimately nothing to fear. Like Kiyochika’s print, the train in Spirited Away is imbued with meaning beyond its obvious relevance. It may sound a cliché, but Miyazaki’s train is a reminder of the importance of the journey we take for personal growth, and a hauntingly beautiful one at that.

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