Miyazaki’s Ma and the Development of Space

Smack bang in the centre of Spirited Away, arguably the most prominent eastern hand-animated film of all time, lies a scene that I have remembered vividly for over a decade. It is a 2 minute long sequence of the main character Chihiro’s journey to the witch Zeniba’s cottage as she seeks forgiveness on behalf of the wounded Haku. Within this sequence there is no dialogue and nearly no character movement and yet it is possibly the most profound and enlightening 2 minutes that the film has to offer.

Of all of Miyazaki’s creations Spirited Away is one of the more western in its narrative style. As Chihiro and her family accidentally get stuck it the spirit realm the film follows her attempt at escape. It follows an classic ‘conflict-resolution’ plot, unlike other works of his such as My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which meander along without much overarching narrative purpose. With this in mind Spirited Away still unfolds in a manner rarely attempted by the west and this presentation is best depicted within this traveling scene.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics divulges the concept of aspect-to-aspect framing; something western action based narratives rarely utilise, but eastern narratives, such as Spirited Away, regularly employ. This style of editing discards time to reflect on space and allows for the environment of the character to be divulged and explored. As western narratives almost exclusively focus on where the characters are going and what actions they are taking, many eastern narratives comparatively focus on where their characters are and how that space effects them. Where western cinema gives us single establishing shots, eastern cinema often lingers and explores the crevices of existence within the environment the character are entering. This is exactly what happens as Chihiro boards the train heading away from the bathhouse.

As an audience this journey is the first time we see anything of the spirit world outside of the bathhouse in which the action, conflict, and majority of the characters reside. The film takes a breath as Chihiro journeys out, with No-Face and her two other companions, further into the spirit world. In this space Miyazaki gives his film dimensionality. We are given no answers, no plot or character development, instead we look out the window with Chihiro and watch the world go by, pondering the scope and complexity of its existence.

It is noted before the journey that the train only goes one way, away from the bathhouse and consequently the human world. And unlike the colourful monsters found in the bathhouse the occupants of the train are transparent and undoubtably human in shape. The rift left by the lack of action in this scene is filled with these questions as we wonder, who are the passengers? Are they dead? If they are, then where are they going? If the train has only now regressed to a single direction, is it a recent occurrence that the dead cannot return to life? What changed? As we go past the stops that precede Chihiro’s and glimpse landmarks through the window we wonder what character occupy these locations, and what lives do they lead?

The answers to these questions are unimportant to the plot, but their inception allocates the space that gives Chihiro’s world a sense of gravity. Between the setting of Chihiro’s departure and her arrival an entire world is developed in the minds of the audience, a world that would never exist were a classic action to action approach to be taken to this part of the narrative. If the film were to cut from a shot of Chihiro entering the train to her exiting at Zeniba’s cottage, the spirit world in our minds would be limited to these two locations. Instead we are encouraged to see an expansive world that exists outside of Chihiro’s individual narrative. We ponder the passengers existences and the stops they get off at, we wonder where the train goes after Chihiro gets off.

This space between moments Miyazaki describes as “Ma”, a Japanese word roughly translating to ’emptiness’ or ‘negative space’.  Miyazaki stresses the importance of silence surrounding noise as, if you “have non-stop action with no breathing space at all it is just busyness, but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”. Leaving characters not to act, but simply to be, allows this depth to form. The “Ma” that occurs in the two minute train journey gives the narrative of Spirited Away silence in between noise, stillness between action. It gives the audience the space the film needs to bring Miyazaki’s two-dimensional creation into a three-dimensional world that the audience perceives to out-span its characters.

This space allows for the world of Spirited Away to prevail outside of Chihiro’s narrative and it is in this that the importance of ‘Ma’ can truely be felt. This space develops a story in which the setting does not simply accommodate action but finds its own existence spanning beyond the protagonist will. ‘Ma’ allows Miyazaki to make a 2D animated narrative with more depth and gravity than a substantial portion of live action films being released in the west. Just as lines are defined by their negative space, and noise is defined by silence, Miyazaki defines his characters (and their narratives) by the spaces they occupy.