Spirited Away: Themes and Meanings in Hayao Miyazaki's Movie
The Many Strands That Make This Movie
Hayao Miyazaki was already Japan’s most famous director of animated movies when he wrote and directed Spirited Away in 2001. By 2003, the movie had swept the boards, winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, plus 4 nominations. It won two Saturn awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, a Silver Scream Award at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival, four “Annie” awards, two Awards of the Japanese Academy, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Award), a Blue Ribbon Award and a bagful of other awards and prizes from societies and organisations in countries as diverse as Argentina, Spain, Germany and the United States. Just what is the attraction of Spirited Away?
Quite simply, the story works at all levels; emotional and social, mythical, material and rational. However, the entire script is undershot with the theme of capitalism versus the world of the spirit. It especially refers to Shintoism, the indigenous spirituality of the people of Japan. Chihiro is the subject of the movie, a little girl who is very unhappy because her parents are moving home. Presumably, the family is on the move because Father has a new job – we never learn the exact reason. He speaks the language of the businessman and is breezily optimistic about the future as he drives Chihiro and her mother along the motorway.
Suddenly, Chihiro spots a number of miniature stone houses, half-hidden in the grass verges. When Mother says “they believe that spirits live in those houses,” she is doubtlessly referring to the practitioners of Shintoism. This practice underlies the belief in the connection between nature and humanity, that the human and natural worlds are imbued with a spiritual force that runs through and connects all of us. Shintoists place small shrines alongside places of natural wonder, like rivers, waterfalls and mountains, where they believe that these "natural" spirits live.
Just after Chihiro spots the little shrines, a strange force takes over Father and he begins to drive the car so erratically that he makes a wrong turning, gets lost and is forced to stop when they come to a dead end. He gets out of the car and, despite being young and ostensibly fit, his waistline oozes over his trouser band. Father begins to explore his surroundings. This is the first of several conflicts that Chihiro finds herself embroiled in.
Intuition Versus Knowledge
Father dismisses the façade of the building they are facing as “an abandoned theme park”, the result of the Japanese economy going bust. By now, Chihiro and her mother are alongside him. Mother happily explores the site with Father, but the sensitive, prepubescent Chihiro knows that something is wrong. She pleads with them to return to the safety of the motorcar, but her parents dismiss her fears. By now, Father is crossing a bed of stones.
“They were going to put a river here,” he says. Lured by the smell of food, the family walk along a deserted street. When they find bowls of delicious-looking food on a shop counter, the adults believe it within their rights to eat what they want so long as they leave payment. “Daddy has credit cards and cash.” Again, they are bound by the rules of the material world. Intuition saves Chihiro who refuses to eat anything. She wanders off to explore and meets a boy of about her own age who tells her to get out, that she is in danger. She returns to her parents but it is too late; they have been turned into pigs. There are echoes of Greek mythology here, the parents’ transformation being similar to the encounter of Ulysses and his army with the enchantress, Circe.
Chihiro cannot return to the rational world, her way now being blocked by the “spirit river” flowing over the bed of stones. Also, it is dark. All kinds of fabulous creatures are walking over a bridge to a large building, ablaze with light. A desperate Chihiro encounters the young boy again. He is Haku, a spirit in human form, and he has decided to help her. He tells Chihiro that the only way to stay around long enough to rescue her parents is to get a job in the spirit bathhouse. Following his instructions, Chihiro sneaks into the bathhouse and overcomes a number of obstacles to win an interview with the witch, Yubaba. Although she is an enchantress, Yubaba is reminiscent of a present-day capitalist, earning heaps of gold as she controls the place and its workers in an insidious way – anyone she doesn’t like is turned into a pig. However, she has also made a supernatural pact to give a job to anyone who asks for one. She tries to terrify Chihiro into leaving, but the little girl won’t give in.
Chihiro signs a contract and Yubaba “steals” her name off of it so that it now “belongs” to her. Stealing names is another way of controlling her workers and at this point, present-day marketing mailing lists and stored information spring to mind. Chihiro’s work begins, hard labour among workers who bully her because she is human. However, Chihiro has made friends with Lin, another humanoid spirit, who shows her around and finds her food and clothing.
Courage in the Face of Adversity
On Chihiro’s first night, a stink spirit shows up at the bathhouse. Yubaba, determined to see Chihiro fail, assigns the little girl to help the very smelly customer. “Don’t mess this up,” she warns. While everyone else runs away in horror, Chihiro serenely attends to him, getting covered in muck in the process. From a balcony, Yubaba watches and laughs.
However, as the bath progresses, Chihiro discovers that a knife has been stuck in the spirit’s side. By now, the other workers are helping her. They attach a rope to the knife and collectively pull it away, releasing a tide of broken machine parts, including an old bicycle, and other man-made pollution. The “stink spirit” is actually a noble and serene river spirit. He hands Chihiro a special token and flies into the night. He also leaves behind a pile of gold. For a short while, at least, Chihiro is a hero. However, mischief is afoot.
Greed Is Not Good
Noface, a spirit who has been following Chihiro around, picks up a piece of the gold and hands it to her. She refuses it. Instead, a greedy little frog tries to take it by jumping into Noface, who immediately assumes the frog’s personality. He begins to consume dishfuls of food and in return, spews out handfuls of gold. When Chihiro wakes up next morning, the bathhouse is in uproar. She is unmoved by the gold, however, what with longing to rescue her parents and wanting to find Haku, who has gone missing. When Chihiro refuses the gold, Noface turns murderous and gobbles up two bathhouse workers.
Chihiro finds Haku in his spirit form, mortally wounded by Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba. Chihiro learns that Haku has stolen a magic, golden seal from Zeniba - while under the spell of Yubaba, of course. Chihiro places the token that the river spirit gave her in Haku’s mouth. Out pops the seal and a mysterious black worm that she zaps with her foot. Kamaji, keeper of the boiler house, tells her that she can travel by train to Zeniba and return the seal. Before she goes, Chihiro uses the token to save Noface from the greedy frog. Noface spits out the frog and the spell is broken. In Yubaba’s apartment, the “spirit gold" crumbles to dust in front of the incensed witch’s face.
The Power of Nature – and Love
Outside of the poisonous bathhouse, Chihiro and Noface travel by train to Swampy Bottom, where Zeniba lives. Her house is simpler – a thatched cottage – but no less magical than that of her sister's. Chihiro returns the golden seal and Zeniba treats her to tea and cake. She tells a surprised Chihiro that Haku is not under any spell that love can’t break. She opens the cottage door to find a fully-recovered Haku awaiting her in his “dragon” form.
Chihiro thanks Zeniba and bids her farewell. She climbs onto Haku and they soar into the air. She tells him that she remembers an incident in her childhood where she fell into the Cohaku river, and a river spirit, Haku, rescued her. Sadly, the river no longer exists, now being covered in apartments. But Haku has recovered his full name and tells Chihiro that he can leave Yubaba forever.
Back at the bathhouse, Yubaba’s final challenge to Chihiro is to pick out her parents from a pen of pigs. Helped by a "thread of remembrance" given her by Zeniba, she passes the test. Haku leads her to the dried-up riverbed and tells her that her parents are waiting on the other side. “Don’t look back,” he warns her, as she crosses. There are shades of Orpheus and Eurydice at this point in the tale, but it is the end of Chihiro’s brush with the supernatural. Her parents are waiting, calling her name as she crosses. She holds her mother’s hand and leads her formidably across the footbridge. Chihiro is terrified that her parents will look back. Here, it always amuses me to think that the parents believe it is they who are taking Chihiro home.
In spite of the platitudes against greed and acquisition, Spirited Away is not a dull morality tale. It is a total work of art, with storyboards so beautiful they make your jaw drop. The interior of the bathhouse and Yubaba’s apartment combine Western opulence and oriental motifs in a way that the cottage-bound Zeniba dismisses as "tacky", but that I love watching; brightly-coloured screens painted with trees, flowers, clouds and demons, with subdued lighting picking out fabulous vases and classical references. Outside, there are banks of gorgeous flowers glowing against blue skies, and star-lit vistas into which Chihiro stares at night. The flooded landscape against which she makes her train journey is astonishing; day turning into evening as they travel. The creepy forest through which she and Noface walk to Zeniba’s cottage is reminiscent of European folklore. Happily, Zeniba is a good witch. A heart-warming musical score, with characters and incidents matched to definite soundtracks, accompanies the movie. Awards aside, I can’t praise Spirited Away highly enough; it will be my favourite for many years to come.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)