Thursday, July 23, 2009

Spirited Away: Beneath the Spirits

There is more than meets the eye in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. Miyazaki breaks free from conventional cinema to bring his audience an imaginative fantasy world filled with grotesque monsters and images of delightful enchantment. Rather than clash, these two opposing images gracefully unite to create the backdrop for the film’s heroine Chihiro. Beneath the surface of the film lie deep and meaningful lessons about life, love, friendship, and also insight into Japanese life and culture.

Chihiro begins the film as a typical 10-year old girl who is upset about leaving her familiar surroundings behind and moving to a new suburban home. Upon arrival at the abandoned theme park Chihiro is leery of taking food from a restaurant with no workers. It becomes clear that Chihiro is obedient, unlike her parents who gorge themselves without worry. This compliant behaviour saves Chihiro as she begins her work in the bathhouse. Obedience corresponds to another theme found in the film and that is the blurred line between good and evil. Most of the characters have a good and bad side to them. Two examples would be Zeniba and Yubaba. These two character teach Chihiro that both evil and good exist in the world and also that they can exist in the same person. Although Yubaba symbolizes evil, she also honours her word and demonstrates a kinder side with her baby, Boh. Zeniba too, seems quite malevolent when she threaten to kill Haku for stealing her seal, but after visiting with Zeniba, Chihiro quickly realizes what a kind and gentle woman she really is.

Miyazaki also makes clear his reference to some basic Japanese cultural values and more specifically to the Shinto religion. The Shinto religion is based on the worship of Kami, which are spirits of almost anything here on Earth ( According to the Journal of Religion and Film, followers of the Shinto religion hold rituals wherein villagers call forth the local Kami and invite them to bathe in their baths (Boyd & Nishimura). This practice is quite similar to the bathhouse in the film that welcomes various spirits and symbolizes the Japanese ritual. The tunnel at which Chihiro and her parents go through to enter the spirit world also has significant meaning in the film. It is believed in the Shinto religion that in order to benefit form the presence of kami or “spirits”, one must be open and willing to believe in their existence. One way this can be achieved is by moving oneself from the everyday world into a new and more receptive environment. Cleverly, in order to return to one’s natural state, he or she must be “re-formed” as a person in some way (Boyd & Nishimura). The tunnel into the spirit world and Chihiro’s transformation into a strong and capable young woman can be seen as a metaphor for this Japanese belief. The tunnel itself symbolizes a doorway into a magical, fairy-tale like world. This doorway into the unknown is comparable to Alice in Wonderland who falls in a rabbit hole and ends up in a dreamlike realm. Both Alice and Chihiro are forced to enter the unknown in a world where nothing is really as it seems.

Followers of the Shinto religion also believe that all phenomena become contaminated and impure at some point and therefore need to be bathed in order to resume their cleanliness. Miyazaki demonstrates this philosophy with his extraordinary creatures that come to the bathhouse to be bathed. The stink spirit in particular, whom Chihiro is ordered to prepare a bath, is cleaned of all kinds of garbage and debris. This serves as a metaphor for an impure kami or spirit. Once cleansed of all his impurities, “No Face” fervently tries to offer Chihiro gold, where upon she politely refuses. This angers “No Face” and for a short time makes him mad. Fortunately, “No Face’s” anger is short-lived. Toward the end of the film Zeniba helps “No Face” to be kinder and at one point he even helps her spin thread.

In his article for The Los Angeles Times, Film critic Kenneth Turan discusses the opposition Miyazaki’s creates between disturbing images such as creatures throwing up and delightful images of purity and serenity. For instance, the image of the train gliding across submerged tracks in a seemingly endless body of water, Turan compares to a painting by Rene Magritte. Turan argues that these opposing images come together and highlight the oneness of things and demonstrate “how little distance there truly is between these seemingly disparate states”. I could not agree more with Turan and found that images and characters that at first appeared evil or grotesque ended up being two-sided. I feel that Miyazaki deliberately created this harmonic relationship to illustrate that we are all capable of both evil and good.

By drawing on some of the basic struggles that we as humans face in our everyday lives and also on certain Japanese customs and beliefs, Miyazaki creates a world that will evoke a genuine sense of wonder for all of those who watch his film. The film’s heroine, Chihiro inspires audiences with her transformation into a brave and capable young woman. She successfully overcomes the shock of entering the adult world and having to work in order to survive. Chihiro maturely learns her responsibilities at the bathhouse and is rewarded by Yubaba. Through Chihiro’s character, Miyazaki is able to convey an important message about growing up and one that is rarely dealt with by movie creators. Miyazaki emphasizes all of the important and admirable qualities that young children or adults can possess with his creation of Chihiro.

Overall, I think Spirited Away is a remarkable work of cinema whose bold and imaginative tale will leave its audience wishing for more. Its incredibly relatable motifs make it perfect for persons all ages and backgrounds. Whether you are young or old, or somewhere in between, there is surely something you can learn from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away.

Works Cited

Boyd, James W., and Tetsuya Nishimura. "Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki's Film

Spirited Away." Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2004). Oct. 2004. 19 July 2009


"Religion & Ethics." BBC. 25 Oct. 2006. 20 July 2009.

Turan, Kenneth. "Prepare to be Astonished by Spirited Away." Los Angeles Times. 2002.

20 July 2009.

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