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The ‘Spirited Away’ Soundtrack at 20: Rediscovering the Name of Life

"Spirited Away" (2001), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
"Spirited Away" (2001), directed by Hayao Miyazaki. By Courtesy of Studio Ghibli
By Clara V. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

In the 20 years since the release of “Spirited Away,” the film has remained beloved by fans not only for its delightful animation, but its unforgettable score. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack has stood the test of time, and features memorable leitmotifs that pair with the film's themes of courage and friendship. Immediately recognizable to audiences all over the world, Hisaishi's musical signatures bring a sense of cohesion and familiarity to director Hayao Miyazaki's otherworldly vision by creating their own kind of magic.

One such composition is the opening theme “One Summer’s Day,” which first plays as ten-year-old protagonist Chihiro Ogino clutches a bouquet of flowers during the drive to her new home. Synths and strings swirl around a piano line whose measured cadence seems indifferent to Chihiro’s petulant complaints. After her parents take a wrong turn, the tempo takes off along with the car, making jolts of brass and percussion feel like bumps in the road. This initial strand of music, which conveys the unpredictable turmoil of growing up, establishes Hisaishi's score as essential to the development of Miyazaki’s themes.

Fittingly, each subsequent appearance of the melody from “One Summer’s Day” highlights how Chihiro overcomes obstacles with others’ kindness and support. The next time we hear the theme, Chihiro’s close friend Haku is by her side — and instead of unraveling into jumpy chaos, the piano returns for a peaceful solo as sunlight streams into the room where Chihiro has fallen asleep.

This calm shatters with the arrival of No-Face, a mysterious spirit who shows where the film’s most serious threat really lies: not in any particular character, but in the greed many of them share. When that greed leads No-Face on a destructive rampage, Hisaishi's score adds another dimension to the film: Frantic passages overwhelm the previously unassuming background music, taking a powerful sonic stand against selfish materialism that imbues Chihiro’s attempts to save No-Face with ominous urgency.

Chihiro’s now-iconic train ride to meet Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba is a scene that carries a loneliness too profound for words but well within reach of Hisaishi’s music. Silent spirits disembark one by one, leaving Chihiro surrounded by the pristine melancholy of “The Sixth Station,” whose layers of piano and strings overlap as gently as the soft ocean waves outside — but whose underlying harmonic tension between yearning and resignation bubbles to the surface in the absence of dialogue. You start to wonder how something composed to fill the silence somehow makes each shot feel so much emptier.

As Chihiro’s journey draws to an end, both the film’s plot and music explore the contradictions and nuances of memory. The main melody of “Reprise” doesn’t seem to reprise anything in particular at first, though its lilting waltz rhythm strikes a lovely balance between nostalgia and novelty. But the piece’s ending suddenly brings back a motif from “The Sixth Station,” replacing plaintive strings with triumphant fanfare as if to describe how revisiting the same memory from a new perspective can elicit so many different emotions.

I don’t really remember the first time I watched “Spirited Away” — but its soundtrack, just like the magical hair tie Chihiro receives in the spirit realm, will always be a connection to Miyazaki’s cinematic world, shining with the warmth of “One Summer’s Day.”


— Staff writer Clara V. Nguyen can be reached at clara.nguyen@thecrimson.com.

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