In this post I will be focusing solely on train journeys. Yes, they fill an entire post, and trust me, I could go on.
Recommendation: play this sound while you're reading. I'm listening to it as I write.
If I had to describe the most characteristic sounds of Studio Ghibli films, train tracks would be the top of my list (with the accompanying meditative Joe Hisashi piano music, of course). Trains are a constant and almost invisible presence in Ghibli animations, in big cities just as much as in the countryside. They connect the urban and industrial with the ancient and rural, and they also seem to transport people between the mundane and the magical.
One of my favourite scenes in Spirited Away is Chihiro getting on an ordinary train to visit a witch. This everyday, commonplace action was bizarrely juxtaposed with her magical surroundings. She still had to have a ticket (a prized possession in the confinement of the bath house), and the ticket inspector checked it as protocol dictates, but it became a decidedly otherworldly journey. (Especially as the tracks were underwater.)
After the baffling and chaotic events in the bath house, there is something incredibly soothing about that journey. Yubaba's baby son (turned into a mouse) presses his nose against the window, just like any ordinary child would. No-Face stops wreaking havoc and remains quietly seated, hands on his non-existent knees. Inexplicable transparent people keep getting on and off, yet it's the normalcy of the train ride that stands out in the scene.
I think of the train as the great equaliser in the Ghibli world, bridging the gap between everyday life and a magical reality that lives just beneath the surface. In Howl, we see an honest glimpse of the dejection in Sophie's eyes as she takes the tram home before she is hit by a curse and her life changes forever. Her workshop overlooks the train tracks -- in a way her getting on the train (which she'd only ever watched from her window) is like stepping out from behind the curtains.
It is a train that ends up taking Kiki to her dream town, a place that is to become her new home and the scene of her magical education. By all accounts she should've flown all the way, as proper witches do, yet it is the train where the magic happens. That journey allows Kiki to transition into her new surroundings in a way that flying doesn't enable.
In Only Yesterday the overnight train journey is an important part of the narrative itself as it provides ample opportunity to reminisce. Taeko makes profound discoveries about herself on the way, and at the end of it she truly reaches her destination in the blissful contentment that farm life offers. The story is very similar in When Marnie Was There, where the journey leads to the healing of an asthmatic and severely depressed girl.
In Whisper of the Heart the themes of trains and cats converge. A stray cat on Shizuku's train leads her to new friends that inspire her life purpose and adult self to emerge. In The Wind Rises Jiro first meets the love of his life on a train; a life-changing journey that's interrupted by a devastating earthquake. That train, carrying rich and poor in separate carriages, illustrates the class differences in WW2-era Japan. The earthquake, like a groaning supernatural creature, changes the course of more than just Jiro's life journey.
All of these train scenes symbolise eye-opening journeys towards the true self of the characters. I'd struggle to name a Ghibli film that doesn't incorporate a similar journey. Even just the sound of a train, ubiquitous and almost unnoticeable, promises adventure, magic and growth. Next time you might want to hop on and enjoy the ride.
This has turned into an epic description of trains.
For more on flying, technology, the countryside, jewellery, cats and pigs check out part 1.
Part 3 describes the gardens of Ghibli, a breath of fresh air in the industrial battle.
I also wrote a magazine article about what Miyazaki films tell us about lost childhood. It's not as grim as it sounds.
All images, characters and events referenced © Studio Ghibli