How Hayao Miyazaki Maps A Setting

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

If you’ve seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away recently enough to remember any of it, then I’d like you to participate in a little game with me–either in the comments, or just in your own head. I want you to try and see if you can describe in as much detail as possible how the main character, Chihiro, makes it from this bridge, to Yubaba’s office. Feel free to pause the video right here and think about it for as long as you need to. All done? Here’s my description from memory, not having seen the film since writing my analysis of it last January:

Chihiro holds her breath, making her invisible to spirits, gets halfway across the bridge before gasping, and then Haku rushes her the rest of the way super fast. He pulls her around to the side of the bathhouse and instructs her on where to go, then leaves. Chihiro then cuts through a small garden, skirts around the corner of the building, and winds up on a very treacherous stone staircase. She follows it to the bottom and enters through a heavy door, leading into a hallway which goes to the boiler room, wherein she hangs out for a while with Kamaji and the soot balls. (I could describe this whole room in detail, but I don’t have time.) She then heads through a small sliding door into the basement workrooms, heads up a few flights of stairs, and emerges onto the second floor of the bathhouse. She follows Lin down the halls and then gets crammed into an elevator with a giant radish man and taken to the top floor. After emerging into an ostentatious hallway, she is magically carried through a long series of doors until finally arriving at the office.

Yubaba’s bathhouse is one of the most memorable settings in any of the films that I’ve ever seen–and I think a huge part of what makes it so memorable is the fact that I completely know my way around it. Even though it’s a place that I’ve never actually been to–in fact, it’s not a real place a all, at most having borrowed elements from Japanese bathhouses visited by the production team–(which only makes it that much more impressive that studio Ghibli was able to portray it in such intimate detail)—I feel like I’d already know my way around the place if it were real and I were able to visit.

So how did Miyazaki and his team accomplish this? How come I know my way around this place so much better than I do the settings of so many other films? Well, simply put, the journey through this setting is uniquely coherent. From the moment that Haku finds Chihiro in the crowded streets of the spirit city, to the moment that he stops to give her instructions, the characters consistently run across the screen in the same direction, through a series of wide-angle frames with tons of visible background details, allowing the audience to maintain a sense of space and direction across the entire trip. Chihiro continues moving in the same direction until entering the boiler room–and because we get to spend a lot of time in this room, we end up seeing it from every conceivable angle until we know the layout of it perfectly. Once we’ve completely familiarized ourselves with this place, Chihiro is then once again lead in a series of very coherent lines across very wide-angle, high-detail backgrounds through several locations, until she gets trapped in a tiny elevator, wherein we finally have breathing room for a facial close-up.

In the entire span of this journey, the frame is very rarely on anything other than Chihiro; and the only times that the focus shifts away are when Chihiro spends enough time in one spot for us to acclimate ourselves to it. As such, we constantly maintain our sense of location, and never have to readjust in order to understand where a scene is taking place. It’s only after the bit in Yubaba’s office that we finally get a cut which doesn’t take us to the moment or location immediately following the previous one–and by this point, we have a pretty solid grasp on where we are. From here, the film is able to launch into its almost vignette-like midsection of small stories without ever having to regale the viewer on how they made it to each location.

Leading a character through the setting of the story might seem like a pretty obvious way to acclimate the viewer to that location, but it’s kind of amazing how rarely it happens–or how difficult it can actually be to do it if you don’t put in the effort. To give you an example of what I mean, I recommend watching the first fifteen minutes or so of the first episode of Garzey’s Wing. Aside from being one of the greatest fifteen minutes of anime ever made for all of the wrong reasons, this entire sequence is like a crash-course in how to completely lose and disorient the viewer on where the fuck they are and what the hell is happening. The clips which I’m showing right now are, in fact, not edited at all–this is a sequence of visuals ripped directly from the show, in exactly the order in which they occur, during which the main character is teleported from his world into a fantasy world. The entire three-episode OVA is like this–and while this is a very extreme example, I think that even a lot of mainstream anime, and a majority of mainstream Hollywood films, often fail to present a coherent or memorable location between shots, and therefore end up feeling like a meandering clusterfuck.

I think it’s rather telling that the first volume of Miyazaki’s manga masterpiece, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is packaged with a fold-out map right after the cover page. Without this map and others shown throughout the volumes, it would be difficult to understand the relative locations and sizes of the story’s warring nations–or the sheer scope of the Sea of Corruption which threatens to swallow the entire world. While I won’t pretend that I was always completely aware of exactly where each beat of the story took place in relationship to one-another, because there’s a lot of flying involved, it’s pretty obvious that Miyazaki found the geographical locations of his fictional lands to be of high importance to the nature of his story–and at times, checking back on these maps could be pretty helpful in getting my bearings.

What inspired me to write this video, though, was the first episode of Miyazaki’s directorial debut, the 1978 TV series Future Boy Conan. One of the things that struck me early on was how quickly and completely I was able to understand the layout of the small island which Conan grew up on, and how as the situation grew more complex and action-oriented over the course of the episode, I was always able to tell exactly where the things were happening in relationship to one-another. This could be attributed to a combination of the opening flyover shot of the island, the way that characters would enter and exit locations heading in the same directions, and the huge amount of detail put into each stationary shot. Also interesting is that when the villains leave the island, they very clearly leave in a line leading from right to left–so when Conan leaves on his journey after them, he heads off in the same direction.

Thinking back on Miyazaki’s work, I can remember quite a few locations which stuck with me in much the same way. From Ponyo, I could tell you exactly how to get from Sousuke’s house, to the nursing home where his mother works on the neighboring island hilltop. in about as much detail as I could the scene from Spirited Away; and I’m sure that many of you could easily tell me how one might go about breaking into the castles both of the Sky, and of Cagliostro. On that note, let me know what your favorite Hayao Miyazaki setting is down in the comments below, or if you can think of any other film settings which you know so well that you could find your way around them without a map. Share this video to anyone whom you think would appreciate it, and support me on Patreon if you’d like to help me with making more videos like this. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!


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