Embracing Silence: The Profound Impact of ‘Ma’ in Anime and Beyond

Spirited Away | Hayao Miyazaki |Studio Ghibli

A couple of years ago, my daughter introduced me to the fascinating world of Japanese anime. Her boundless love and enthusiasm for these films inspired me to delve deeper into anime to get to know her better and also have new opportunities to connect with her over shared interests. I completely fell in love with anime’s profound yet simple storytelling, rich and eclectic characters, haunting and beautiful music, and, of course, Hayao Miyazaki himself.  It has become an infinite source of inspiration and soon turned into a shared passion.

The art of storytelling is instilled into our lives both personally and professionally. We are likely familiar with the key elements of good storytelling: setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution, viewpoint and more. 

But today, I’m intrigued and quite inspired by the silence in storytelling—the part of the story that’s not being told, and the stillness and the emptiness of space in time. It’s a concept beautifully encapsulated in the Japanese term ‘Ma,’ of which Hayao Miyazaki is a master.

In the famous scene from Spirited Away, ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino takes a train ride with No-Face, a masked spirit. For two minutes, nothing else happens in that scene. While the train is moving, Chihiro is just sitting there completely still. This intentional pause in the film allows us, the audience, to see what she is seeing and feel what she is feeling. In that stillness, amidst the passing outside world, we have thee opportunity to share the experience with that little girl and become a small part of a larger narrative. 

Emotion, catharsis, epiphany often occurs in the stillness and silence, both on screen and in life. It got me thinking, that in this overly stimulated era, instead of constantly being in motion or doing something extra assuming that we need to be productive at all times, what if we grant ourselves the freedom to sit through moments of inactivity? As Miyazaki said, “If you just have non-stop 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.”

The use of “Ma”, speaking literally and figuratively, allows us to reflect, imagine, and interpret what is happening—visually and emotionally. Instead of relying on dialogue  and action to depict emotions, “Ma” nurtures the sense of those emotions.

Hayao Miyazaki is not the sole visionary incorporating “Ma” as an essential part of his storytelling and, of course, the concept of “Ma” goes beyond films. You can encounter “Ma” in music, painting, design, poetry, architecture and various other forms of creative expression.

Regardless of the medium, I hope you can find the empty space in time to freely create and experience new sentiments, find beauty in simple moments or simply be.