‘Turning Red’ director Domee Shi on Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’

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Domee Shi. Photo credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar

In both life and her work, Oscar-nominated director Domee Shi finds inspiration in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated fantasy feature “Spirited Away.” Shi’s film “Turning Red” is nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. She also won for her animated short “Bao” in 2019. 

In “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki tells the story of a young girl who goes on a journey through a strange, and, at times, scary, supernatural world. Shi has said Miyazaki’s film influenced “Bao,” a short animated drama in which a woman becomes a kind of mother to one of her handmade dumplings. 

In Pixar’s “Turning Red,” Shi tells the story of a 13-year-old girl learning to navigate early teenhood, who discovers that she turns into a giant red panda when she feels strong emotions. 

More: 'Turning Red' director Domee Shi on the many meanings of the panda 

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

[“Spirited Away” by Hayao Miyazaki] is my comfort film. It is one of the biggest inspirations in my life, not just artistically, but I go to it to make me feel better about the world and myself.

It's just not only a beautifully animated film, but really I identify so much with the main character, Chihiro, and her journey, through starting off as this like bumbling, clumsy, scared little girl, and you see her go through a gauntlet, a magical gauntlet, and just end up wiser, stronger, more confident, more kind

I think I was in high school when I first watched it. It surprised me so much, because I'd never seen an animated movie like that, where it can go from exciting action scenes to a very still, dialogue-free scene of a girl sitting on a train for five minutes.

And the movie does it in such a brilliant way that isn't being preachy. It's always entertaining and there's also these beautiful, poetic moments where you just sit with a character on a train, and you hear the piano music and you're just enjoying that moment. I think it's such a wonderful work of art. 

That was the era, the height of princess movies. And to have this character be this average Japanese girl, who isn't beautiful, who isn't perfect, who's making mistakes, and who feels lost and helpless and alone, but she perseveres — that's just amazing. That's such a baller move to make a movie starring this kind of character at the time.

That bathhouse is such a great metaphor for a kid or somebody trying to find their place in the scary wide world, and they have to find a job. They have to figure out how they can contribute to society. They're gonna make mistakes and they're gonna screw up, but ultimately, if they don't give up and if they keep trying, they will grow and flourish in this world.

I just remember in high school, I was stressed, I was emotional and there [were] all these things that I was worried about in my daily life. But I remember watching it and then feeling better afterwards. I think that there was something about that movie that just made me feel better, which is what a good movie should do.



Rebecca Mooney