Japanese anime is immensely popular in countries all over the world, but a particularly large fan base exists in the US and Canada. I myself am a huge anime fan, so for this blog entry, I chose to look at the film Sen to Chihiro no kamikakusi, or in English, Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki is an acclaimed director both in Asia and North America, and his films tend to blend symbols and imagery from many cultures, but Spirited Away makes a point of using more traditional Japanese imagery and makes reference to Japanese folk-tales. Spirited Away is the story of a young girl named Chihiro, whose interactions with “good” and “evil” form the plot of the film. I think this imagery is used to connect to a “hero’s journey” plotline, which engages imagery and structuralism to explore the balance between good and evil.
Since Spirited Away is an animated film, there is a great deal of room for creativity and astounding imagery, complete with a giant bath house and some of the most unique strangest looking spirits and monsters. However, underneath the imaginative spirit world, Susan J. Napier says that “Spirited Away offers… a sharp critique of the materialism and toxicity of contemporary Japanese society through its complex vision of quasi-nostalgic fantastic realm threatened by pollution from within and without.” (Napier 2006: 288) Moral dilemmas are explored throughout the film, particularly a tension between pollution and cleanliness, or good and bad. The protagonist, Chihiro, is thrown into the spirit world when her and her parents wander into the spirit village.
|Chihiro and Yubaba, the bath house|
Her parents eat the food of the spirits and are turned into pigs, and Chihiro’s adventure develops onto a quest to have her parents changed back (Miyazaki 2001). In order to do this, Chihiro goes to the bath house, the central feature of the spirit village, to get work so she can stay in the spirit world to help her parents. She enters into a state of liminality as the owner, Yubaba (see Figure 2), hires her and changes her name to Sen, effectively taking her identity. During Sen’s employment at the bath house she has to prove her worth, facing many challenging situations, often involving an unclean spirit who needs to be helped by her to become “clean” again (invoking the purity/impurity divide I mentioned before). In the end, Sen becomes Chihiro again, succeeds in having her parents changed back into humans and returns to the human world. In this way, the film follows a pattern of structuralism, as Sen/Chihiro is completing a journey where she must challenge good and evil in a “transitional space” that is indicative of structuralism (Gray 2010: 54)
However, the anomaly in this film is a particular character that at once violates the good/evil divide and presents a more complicated version of structuralism. This character is No Face (see Figure 3), a black robed, mask wearing spirit who has a tendency to swallow people whole, yet could be “interpreted as a
|No Face and Chihiro|
lonely young Japanese person who does not know how to make friends.” (Reider 2005: 19) He is a confused soul, but in the end the actions of the protagonist correct his behaviour and brings him to good. While this interpretation sees No Face as more of a social outcast, Napier sees No Face’s fascinating position within the story as an expression of contemporary Japanese society, because his “…excessive appetite brings chaos to the collectivity…” (Napier 2006: 303) and is only brought under control by the intervention of Chihiro. For the last part of the movie, No Face actually becomes one of Chihiro’s companions while completing the final tasks she has to face, and he is redeemed only by friendship.
In Spirited Away, Chihiro faces many challenges and tasks that overcome good and evil, represented through purity and impurity and complicated characters such as No Face. Chihiro’s story is in line with structuralism because of the moral dilemmas she faces, and also the resolution that sees the world returned to normal, therefore being removed from a liminal state where good and evil conflict.
2010 Film Theory. In Cinema: A Visual Anthropology. Pp. 35-73. Oxford: Berg.
2001 Spirited Away. 125 min. Studio Ghibli. Tokyo.
Napier, Susan J.
2006 Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. In The Journal of Japanese Studies 32(2): 287-310
Reider, Noriko T.
2005 Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols. In Film Criticism 29(3): 4-27