«SpiritedAway: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols Noriko T. Reider Released in 2001, Miyazaki Hayao'sI (1941 - ) animated film ...»
Film Criticism 29, no. 3 (2005), 4-27
SpiritedAway: Film of the
Fantastic and Evolving
Japanese Folk Symbols
Noriko T. Reider
Released in 2001, Miyazaki Hayao'sI (1941 - ) animated film
entitled Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (SpiritedAway) became the
highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. It won a number of awards,
including a 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and
a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Festival in 2002. Derek Elley,
a reviewer, writes, "It's almost impossible to do justice in words either to the visual richness of the movie, which m6langes traditional Japanese clothes and architecture with both Victorian and modem-day artifacts, or to the character-filled storyline with human figures, harpies and grotesque creatures" (72). Many critics have compared SpiritedAway with such western stories as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, or even Harry Potter. While the influence of western stories, art, and architecture is evident, as Miyazaki himself expressed, Spirited Away is replete with Japanese folklore, tradition, and symbolism. Indeed, the title itself, kamikakushi (hidden by kami/ deities), alludes to Japanese folk belief. Some of the film's principal characters such as Yubaba (a descendent of yamauba or mountain witch) and Kamaji (a tsuchigumo or earth spider) are reminiscent of characters found throughout Japanese folklore, their residence within the bathhouse offering a reflection of Japan's vertical society. To this point, situating the film as an exemplary work of the fantastic, I shall examine covert and overt Japanese folk beliefs, imagery, and symbolism of the film as a text, which resonates with voices of Japanese past and present.
SpiritedAway as a Film of the Fantastic SpiritedAway is an adventure and coming-of-age film in which the main character, a young girl by the name of Chihiro, embarks on a quest to save her family from a supernatural spell. The film opens with Chihiro's family moving to a new town, leaving Chihiro uneasy and sulky. On their way to their new house, the family unwittingly enters into a supernatural realm, where Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs.
While Chihiro is in a panic, a mysterious boy named Haku appears and offers his help. Chihiro learns that the only way to break the spell and re-enter the "human-world" is to find work at the bathhouse (of the supernatural). There, through various challenges and pitfalls, Chihiro finds friendship, she finds a way to help her family, and most importantly, she finds herself.
According to Todorov, "the fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event" (25). As many critics have noted, Todorov's definition of the fantastic is limited, marked by the duration of hesitation or uncertainty by the reader, and often the characters themselves. SpiritedAway is an exemplary work of the fantastic in that the uncertainty is experienced both by the character and the audience. 2 For the protagonist, Chihiro, the uncertainty comes at the beginning of the film in the restaurant area of a strange town in the other world.
Seeing her parents turned into pigs before her eyes, Chihiro talks to herself, "What? I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming. Come on, wake up. Wake up! It's just adream. It's just adream. Go away. Go away. Disappear..."
Chihiro then realizes that her body is disappearing. Panicked, she cries out, "I'm see-through! It's just a bad dream!" Clearly Chihiro thinks what she has seen and what she is experiencing are against natural law.
Luckily, Haku, the apprentice of Yubaba, who is the owner of the bathhouse, comes to the rescue and gives Chihiro some food from this strange realm in order to prevent her from disappearing. The motif of consuming food from the other world in order to stay alive in that realm may remind the audience of a famous Japanese mythological story of Izanagi and Izanimi. Izanimi, the female creator of Japan, dies while giving birth to a fire deity. Izanagi, her brother and husband as well as male counterpart, misses her so much that he goes to the nether land to retrieve her. But Izanami says that she has already eaten the food from that realm, implying that it would be difficult for her to return easily to this one. The food produced in the other world has the power to make one stay in that world. Chihiro's hesitation and uncertainty does not last very long, for she has to rescue her parents before she forgets who she is. She acts, casting away any doubt about whether what she is experiencing is a dream or not. From this point forward in the story, Todorov's definition of the fantastic appears to be applicable only now and then. One is not sure whether Chihiro is uncertain of the strange deities' existence on such occasions as when Chihiro faces oshirasama (spirit of radish) or simply if she is fearful of them. Throughout the film, however, Chihiro never stops believing that her parents will be turned back into humans in "this world." In order to rescue her parents and return to "this world," Chihiro ventures into the supernatural realm as a real entity, and she stands firm when faced with the challenges of the other world.
Chihiro's fear and hesitation are felt by the audience, albeit not to the same degree and not at the same intensity. After all, the audience is sitting comfortably in the movie theater or at home, watching the story develop as third-party bystanders. Despite this inherent detachment, the audience marvels at the transformation of Chihiro's parents into pigs. As a successful film invariably does, the audience quickly starts to empathize with Chihiro and is drawn into Chihiro's viewpoint. The masterful artwork, architecture, and cinematography render a realistic backdrop to the other realm, giving the audience a feeling that it really exists. Indeed, the director Miyazaki has said, "I created a world where Yubaba lives in pseudo-western style to make it seem as if it is something that has been seen somewhere else and to make it uncertain whether it is a dream or reality" (Yu 2002, 16).3 And unlike Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, what has happened in the other world is not entirely a dream. Again, Miyazaki explains that he did not want the audience to think that the world Chihiro has experienced was all dreams (Sait6, 117). To blur the distinction between dream and actuality, the text of SpiritedAway drops some hints to the audience about the end of the film. For example, the leaves accumulated on top of the car and the wild grass grown in front of the tunnel (entrance to the theme park) suggest a passage of time from when Chihiro enters the tunnel until her return. Chihiro's hair band given by Zeniba (Yubaba's twin sister)-its glittering underscores the hint-provides evidence of the objective existence of the "other world." It is important to note, however, that the audience is not given any clear evidence as to whether Chihiro will remember her adventure once she returns to "this world." Zeniba says to Chihiro, "You don't forget what happened.
You just can't recall it." This may be reassuring. But if nobody remembers it, who would say that it really happened? Equally important, even if Qhihiro remembers it, who would say that the other world through the tunnel really exists other than in Chihiro's memory or in her daydreams or imagination? Thus the audience is not entirely sure what happened to Chihiro: was she really in another realm experiencing all this or was she dreaming or imagining it all? At the end of the film, the audience is left guessing.
SpiritedAway conforms not only to a limited literary genre of the fantastic defined by Todorov but also to a more popular understanding of the fantastic as a form of escape. D.G. Hartwell writes, "Fantasy promises escape from reality. It is characteristic of fantasy stories that they take the readers out of the real world of hard facts, hard objects and hard decisions into a world of wonders and enchantments." 4 Indeed, Miyazaki says that "fantasy is necessary.
During childhood when children don't have much power but feel angst, fantasy gives some kind of salvation. When children face difficult and complicated problems, they will be beaten if they tackle them directly.
You don't need to use a dubious phrase like 'escape from reality"' (Sait6 2001, 119). Miyazaki further comments that, "Today, the world has become ambiguous; but even though it is ambiguous, the world is encroaching and trying to consume (everything). It is the main theme of this film to describe such a world clearly in the form of a fantasy."5 It gives assurance to children when things are not so black and white in this modem world. Miyazaki considers SpiritedAway as a fairy tale, a direct descendant of Japanese fairy tales, "Suzume no Oyado" (The Sparrows' Inn) or "Nezumi no Goten" (The Mouse's Castle) (Sait6, 74).6 His statement reminds one of Bruno Bettelheim's children's favorable reactions to the traditional genre of fairy tales: "In the traditional fairy tale, the hero is rewarded and the evil person meets his well-deserved fate, thus satisfying the child's deep-seeded need for justice. How else can a child hope that justice will be done to him, when he feels unfairly treated? And how else can he convince himself that he must act correctly, when he is so sorely tempted to give in to the asocial prodding of his desires?" (144).
SpiritedAway also fits well with Susan Napier's definition of the fantastic: "fantasy is any conscious departure from consensus reality." Napier's definition is much broader, for she encompasses the author's intention in creating the text. Napier explains that she is "...also concerned with the motivations behind the writer's decision to write in the fantastic mode. By choosing to use the fantastic, the author guarantees that the story will be received differently from one written in a conventional realistic mode" (9). As mentioned above, Miyazaki chose the fantasy genre to give assurance to children. Further, he believes that creating fantasy is akin to opening up the world of the subconsciousness where psychological reality reigns. In that sense, fantasy is more real than reality of this world (Sait6, 118-19). The film is dedicated to those who "were once ten years old, and those who are going to be ten years old" (Sait6, 114). Clearly, the director is appealing to children as well as to the child in all of us, giving universal assurance that justice does indeed prevail, even (or because it is) in the realm of the fantastic and supernatural.
Japanese Folk Beliefs, Imagery, and Symbolism The genre of the fantastic is one aspect of Spirited Awdy's appeal. Another attraction is the richness of its Japanese folklore elements. Miyazaki states that Japanese traditional design, rites, and tales are a rich source for the imagination. He believes that "it is a poor idea to push all the traditional things into a small folk-culture world.
Surrounded by high technology and its flimsy devices, children are more and more losing their roots. We must inform them of the richness of our traditions" (Yu, 16). Indeed, Miyazaki does an excellent job of portraying Japanese traditions within the film. There are numerous references to the Japanese customs and folk beliefs including kamikakushi (Spirited Away) and legendary figures. Several of the more conspicuous examples of Japanese folk legend, custom, and belief present in the film, are examined here in further detail.
Title: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi First to be discussed is a folk belief, kamikakushi (literally, hidden by kami, deities), which is part of the title of the film. In the past, when children or women suddenly disappeared and could not be found for a long time, it was presumed "they had met kamikakushi."
Sudden disappearances were often attributed to the spirit realm, as many believed that spirits took the person away to the spirit world. Yanagita Kunio's Ti3no monogatari(Tino Tales, 1909) includes many examples of kamikakushi. One of them is about a daughter of a rich family in the village. Some time after she disappears, a hunter from the same village meets her in the mountains. She tells him that she was captured by a strange being and forced to marry it and bear its children, only to have them devoured by her husband. She tells the hunter that she would remain in the mountain for the rest of her life but that he should return to the village as soon as possible (Yanagita 1978,113).7 Komatsu Kazuhiko, an anthropologist, writes "the truth of kamikakushi could have been a runaway disliking a village life, longing for urban city, or elopement. The veil of kamikakushi conveniently situates a runaway in the realm of deity.... Kamikakushi hides not only a person but also the truth behind the escapee" (Komatsu 2002, 217). Komatsu further comments that Kamikakushi is a verdict of "social death" in this world, and coming back to this world from Kamikakushi meant "social resurrection." Kamikakushi may be said to be a horrible experience of the other world, and at the same time, a time of rest as a "social being," or entering a life of "the other world" as a new social being (Komatsu 2002, 229). At the beginning of the film, Chihiro is seen as a sulkylooking girl, moving to a new town. Indeed, with all the stress of relocation, she may have felt like she needed an escape from this world.
Entering the other world, she discovers her own potential and identity.
She comes back to (or resurrects in) this world as a new, more mature and responsible girl. Kamikakushi, however, does not always have a happy ending - someone who is abducted by a spirit may be found dead after a while. Fortunately in Spirited Away, Kamikakushi turns out to be a benevolent veil for Chihiro.
Another folk belief present in the title revolves around the importance of one's name. This theme is not endemic to the Japanese