What makes the films of Hayao Miyazaki feel magical? Like any great magic trick, the secret to Miyazaki's magic hides in plain sight—in the case of "Spirited Away," in a simple moment such as this or this.
On the surface, moments like this where nothing happens might seem like filler, but the six-minute sequence of Spirited Away in which nothing really happens might best exemplify the secret to why the world of Miyazaki feels so spectacularly magical.
The scene in question occurs 44 minutes into the film, the morning after our heroine, Chihiro, takes a job at a magical bathhouse for gods and spirits, which happens to be owned by the same witch who turned Chihiro's parents into pigs. Here's how the scene starts.
我們談論到的畫面出現在影片的第 44 分鐘，女主角千尋終於在魔法湯屋中得到工作的隔天早上，湯屋專為神明和神靈而設，由湯婆婆經營，剛好就是那個將千尋的爸媽變成豬的女巫。場景是這樣開展的。
Meet me at the bridge. I'll take you to your parents.
Here's a question: What shot would you guess comes after this? In most cases, it would look like this: cutting straight to the bridge where they had promised to meet. But instead, Miyazaki does this: painstakingly showing Chihiro's journey from the bedroom all the way to the bridge, all locations that we've seen her pass the other way around. This is why Miyazaki's world feels so real. Because as magical as it is, there is a sense of space portrayed through time, distance, and scale. That's why a quick moment that introduces a location like this is so simple yet genius. Because despite being a location we've never seen before, by the time Chihiro gets there, we know exactly where it is compared to the rest of the world.
Going back to the story, this specific six-minute sequence is what's referred to as a "pinch" in a screenplay—a moment that occurs approximately three-eighths of the way into a script that gives the audience a moment to breathe and reminds them what's going on, like all the side characters that will later play a vital role in the story and, most importantly, what's at stake. The short interaction between Haku and Chihiro at the farm is full of these reminders of what's at stake, like the fate of Chihiro's parents...
Mom! Dad! What's wrong with them?
They don't remember being human. So look hard. It's up to you to remember which ones they are.
...or Chihiro's own identity.
Chihiro. That's my name, isn't it?
That's how Yubaba controls you, by stealing your name.
These reminders are Miyazaki's way of easily guiding the audience through the journey, letting them know exactly what has happened and also where it's heading, which leads us to the moment that truly makes the scene magical.
Miyazaki's films are famous for their culinary scenes, showing characters either cooking or eating in silence. It's never just a dining scene but rather a moment when characters bond with one another and also a moment that Miyazaki refers to as "ma," meaning "emptiness" in Japanese.
In one of his interviews, Miyazaki describes it as the time between a clap, explaining, "If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension."
You can actually find these instances of ma in all of Miyazaki's films. A moment when time just seems to stop. Nothing really happens, yet you feel yourself absorbed by its world. Sometimes it's just watching someone eat a rice ball in tears. In a sense, this entire six-minute sequence is a perfect example of Miyazaki's ma. Nothing really happens. It's just six minutes of a world we'd already seen, reminding us of the story we already know, watching things that happen that have no real consequences. Yet it's these moments that make the films of Miyazaki so magical.
As exciting as its final reveal is, what makes a magic trick so special is the anticipation that precedes it.