‘Spirited Away’ (2001): The Nature of a Life-Changing Moment

How do you define a life-changing moment?

It can mean so many things to so many different people. While some would define it as something as gigantic as getting married or having your first child, others would say that it can be something as small as watching a film that moves you.

Over the course of my life, I have had a number of these life-changing moments – some big, some small. Some happy, some sad. But no matter what, I still carry the implications of these moments with me today – no matter how long ago they may have been.

I was eight years old the first time I managed to identify a life-changing moment for myself.

While this may not seem like one of the biggest things in the world in comparison to the stereotype of what defines a “life-changing moment”, it’s absolutely something that changed me as a person and continues to shape who I am and the choices I make even today. I will always whole-heartedly believe that even the tiniest thing can shape someone’s life, very much like a kind of butterfly effect.

For me, this moment was the first time I watched Spirited Away.

My parents and I used to regularly visit Choices (a former DVD and video game rental store) to rent out a film or two to watch. We were occasionally joined by my younger sister, a toddler at the time, but it was mostly just something that the three of us did after my sister went to bed. One particular evening, I was taking my time to decide which flavour of popcorn I wanted to buy when my dad came over holding a DVD.

“Hey, this looks really good. Read the back of it.”

I took a minute to look at the front cover of the DVD first. It depicted a young girl, dressed in some kind of uniform and gazing out with an expression on her face that I found difficult to decipher. And, to my delight… it was animated. I’ve always been a huge fan of animation, I grew up on animated shows from the 70s and 80s and I loved nothing more than waiting up late for my dad to come home from work so I could sneak downstairs and watch the old Cartoon Network shows with him. It’s always been a big part of my life, so finding an animated film unlike any other I’d seen before was really exciting.

I flipped the case over to read the back, and quickly realised that the film must have been Japanese in origin which only made me more excited. I’ve always held an interest in learning more about different parts of the world, so I was sold before I even read what it was about. Reading the small snippet of plot information only served to further pique my curiosity, and I knew I had to see it.

Ever enthusiastic, I jumped up into the middle of the sofa with a bag of popcorn clutched to my chest and a huge grin on my face. My parents sat either side of me; my dad leaned over to flick the light off and we waited for the menu screen to pop up.

Now, I think I can speak for all three of us when I say that we were hooked even from the DVD menu. The score for the film, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is hauntingly beautiful in even a way my eight year old self couldn’t help but notice. Even now, as I listen to The Sixth Station and The Dragon Boy while I write, I find myself being transported to another world that never fails to take my breath away. The piece of music used for the menu screen is One Summer’s Day, which has become iconic amongst fans of Studio Ghibli and even just anime on a broader scale. We took a moment to comment on the beauty of the music, before my mum pressed play on the remote and our journey began.

Because that’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? A journey, both for the characters in the film and you, as a spectator. As you follow these characters through either a brief time or a lifetime, you get so engaged and invested that you really do feel as though you’re going on this journey with them.

Really, there’s no better way to describe Spirited Away (and my experience that night) than a journey.

I spent the next two hours feeling like I wasn’t even sat on the sofa in the company of my parents, I was sharing Chihiro (or Sen)’s world with her. I gaped in horror at her parents after they were turned into pigs, I pleaded with Kamaji the boiler man to give her a job at the bathhouse and I wept with her in the flower fields as she struggled to remember who she was, and her purpose. The incredible cast of characters took me to a realm that was previously uncharted, supported by exquisite background art and attention to detail. And the music, of course, lent itself so perfectly to shape this outstanding film into a true piece of art.

As the film finally came to a close, it took all three of us a good few minutes to say anything. We  sat in reflection of what we’d just seen, revelling in the beauty of end credits song Itsumo Nando Demo (meaning “always with me”) sung by the breathtakingly talented Yumi Kimura.

“God, that was good,” my dad finally said, stretching his limbs after hours spent on the sofa.

While my parents began to discuss the film amongst themselves, their attention was drawn back to me when I finally found my words and opened my mouth.

“That changed my life.”

While what I said might just be a little bit cringey, I definitely wasn’t wrong.

In so many ways, Spirited Away really did change my life. It sparked in me not only a newfound love of Japanese animation, but a deeper appreciation and love of film in general. The impact it left on me was enormous, so much so that I watched it again and again before our rental period was up. I would even beg my mum to put the DVD on and leave it on the menu screen, just so I could listen to the music one last time before I went to bed. I’d never loved a film more.

I first watched Spirited Away at what I suppose was a pivotal point in my life, much like ten-year-old Chihiro – who is moving away from her hometown with her parents, starting at a new school and saying goodbye to her old friends. At the age of eight I was beginning to find out more about myself – what kind of a person I was, how I separated myself from the people around me and discovered who I was as a separate entity. I’d always fit in nicely with a little group of friends (even though, admittedly, I was a bit strange), but at that age I was so conscious of being like everyone else that I really did need to think about what made me me sometimes.

My parents bought me a DVD copy of Spirited Away for Christmas that year, and it became one of my prized possessions. While I’ve seen many more Studio Ghibli films that I’ve absolutely adored, none have had the impact on my life that Spirited Away did. I saw film in a brand new light, composed of so many intricacies and varying nuances that made them special. From now on the story, the characters, the music, the art, the journey… would all weave together into a rich tapestry of an experience every time I pressed play.

While it took me a long time to realise that I wanted to do anything related to film as a career, I definitely feel as though watching Spirited Away was my first step in that direction. Without that… who knows what I’d be doing now. As I sit on a brand new sofa in a brand new city, surrounded by brand new people, gearing myself up to press play once again on When Marnie Was There (the studio’s most recent feature film venture)… I feel so infinitely grateful. I wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for that first push into the wonderful world of film that Spirited Away gave me… and I can’t help but wonder where this journey will take me.

When people define a life-changing moment, they often do forget that these moments can be even the tiniest of things.

And sometimes, it’s the tiniest things that are the most important.