A Full-Blown Interpretation of Miyazaki's Spirited Away: Symbolism
A Japanese animated film that can undeniably represent Japanese history, tradition, culture, and religion in many forms and conventions, that is Spirited Away by The Great Miyazaki.
Many reviews by anime fans, movie critics, and enthusiasts have already been posted on different social media platforms because Spirited Away is recorded to be one of the best films of all time.
Spirited Away revolved around a ten-year-old girl who, in reality, may not understand the word “spirit”. Any girl may easily mistake a spirit as a ghost. A good question here is, why did Miyazaki San allow his anime film to be entitled “Spirited Away” if this is a children's movie?
Miyazaki is known for being a profound movie creator. He always exudes the stylistic competence of the writer and director as one. He works meticulously and leaves no stones unturned. This could be his ultimate key to breaking Japan’s movie record and the Western films'.
He created timeless movies with deep and reverberating meaning, which Spirited Away truly emulates. A story within a story within a story. With. Allegory. Metaphors. Myth. Archetype. And. Valuable lessons.
The Allegorical Start.
In this particular section, let me explain how this movie is so interestingly rich with allegories that can resurface from our senses and teach us countless life’s lessons. Because for me, Spirited Away can be our own life’s story.
From the very start of the film, an allegory with many metaphors was immediately presented. It started when the Ogino family was in a car going to their new home; while Chihiro was whining, they got lost and traversed to an unfamiliar road. Akio decided to take that new road and recklessly drove until they reached a seemingly dead end. They decided to explore the place despite the insistent remark by Chihiro that she was scared and they should not get into the tunnel. Once they crossed the tunnel, the parents were amazed at the abandoned theme park's beauty, especially when they smelled the delicious aroma and saw the food stall. Chihiro’s parents confidently indulged and devoured the food even without the sellers' presence and assistance. They seemed hypnotized or addicted that they continuously ate until they became pigs and dropped on the floor. This could be the end of their story or just an interesting start of it.
Closely looking at this scenario, it can reveal that the car could represent our lives – how we drive it is where it will go. Metaphorically speaking, life is a journey. In this journey, we are all guilty of being discontented; most of us complain a lot. We whine, and sometimes we get lost along the way; however, instead of pausing to contemplate, we become emotional and reckless to the point that we become deaf from our instinct or the wise advice of the people around us. Nevertheless, we find it bold, we are thrilled to be in such adventure, and we want more. Something new always smells good. We sense the risk, but we still go on and enjoy its lavishness until we make wrong decisions that either transform us into someone we are not or put other people or people we love in a compromising situation. This could be the end of our story or just an interesting start to it. It all depends on how we will handle it.
The Metaphorical Representation. The Dualism.
When the Ogino family left the car, we know that something is about to happen – the movie gave us the clues – the ominous sound effect together with the rustling movement of the leaves and the dark tunnel. Further, the film presented us with a common scenario in the family. The father is the bold one who made the stern decision; the mother is the diplomatic one who tries to appease the father and the offspring; the offspring who lacks experience is stubborn, hesitant, and scared. Chihiro’s parents were somehow directed by the thought that there was something worth looking for in the unknown place, even though that was not part of their plan. They were even decided to leave Chihiro behind because she was afraid. A typical scenario in every family, right?
The family car may appear to be just an ordinary vehicle, but the movie may tell us more than that. Similarly, the Ogino family can be more than just a normal group in society, as they may symbolize the person’s psychic apparatus - the id (the father), ego (the mother), and superego (Chihiro). These three mental agents are suggested to work together as one. The car can be the yin of the yang, and the family is the yang of the yin. The yin and yang represent the two complementary forces that embody every individual. The car is the heart; the family is the mind. One cannot live life by just following what the mind dictates and setting aside what the heart says, or vice versa, or else, there may be incongruency between the principle and passion in one’s life. If they are detached from each other, irrational decisions and actions may overrule the person, just like what happened in the movie.
The Mythology of Transformations. Abundance and Greediness.
We could easily notice the abundant life of the Ogino family – having able to transfer to a much better place, afford an imported Audi car, and the credit cards and cash that Akio bragged to Chihiro when he was getting food from the stall. Subtly, the movie showed us that money and earthly possessions can make anyone overbearing. When Akio's took food without permission because he can afford, his action shows an uberly confident attitude that can be interpreted as misaligned values. Adversely, he and Yuko ate food that is not meant for humans. Both of them then ended up over-consuming food that their bodies can take – a typical attribute that we see among pigs. Pigs can either symbolize abundance or greediness. Perhaps Miyazaki was trying to show us the thin line separating abundance and greediness from this mythological creature. At the same time, it allowed us to see how these two can transform us into different people. Therefore, this thin line may represent our vulnerability to forget who we were. Remember that pigsty scene when Chihiro asked, “What happened to them?” while staring at the two pigs. Haku answered,
“They’ve forgotten to be humans.”
Literally, many people have forgotten to be humane due to science, business, and technology advancement. We take things (money, fame, praise, position) that are not meant for us. We consciously and unconsciously take advantage of others because we want more. We all wish to have an abundant life – a lavish one. However, abundance and greediness can be both very deceiving. Abundance can make us easily forget our old selves. We have seen many people who ignored the promises they made (e.g., to help their family and their constituents) once they received the luxury, fame, and power in life. These earthly possessions can blind us. Most of us would even straightforwardly justify ill-wealth and abuse of power as the mere result of success from all the hard work. Hence, the balance of yin and yang was earlier presented because too much of one thing can lead to abuse.
Then again, Miyazaki abundantly gave us several scenes of greediness in the form of food and manner of eating when he brought us to the Bathhouse. He playfully showed us the dried newt being used as Kamaji’s bribe to Lin, Sootballs scampered and snatched Konpeito, the two bowls of breakfast that Lin was holding turned spoiled when the River spirit (who at first was called Stink spirit and looked like a Mud spirit) passed by, and many more. Simply put, greediness is muddy, and it stinks.
No-Face outstood all the eating manners as he astutely swallowed Blue frog - a subtle yet brilliant style of foreshadowing. In literature, the Frog symbolizes greed because of its natural desire to live in water and land at the same time. In consequence, this scene can be a giveaway to the viewers that they have more to see with No-Face’s greediness, especially when he said,
"I’m hungry! Starving!"
Hunger is another linguistic register to present the importance of appetite in the character development of every individual. Hunger leads us to the desire to eat - appetite. In literature, hunger may pertain to physical, spiritual, emotional, financial hunger, struggles, or any needs. We feel hungry because our appetite tells us so or vice versa. Appetite can symbolically refer to our passion. In short, when there is an intense need, passion kicks in!
Passion can be and can result in something good or bad. Crooked passion leads to greed, which we can see when No-Face started devouring food and creatures. His character changed from a timid, voiceless No-Face to outspoken, greedy giant No-Face – a monster as Lin’s description. This is rooted from his sadness and desire to be with Chihiro which he confessed in front of her.
Consequently, Haku also had the desire to remember his name and be his old self. Because of this, he insisted on being Yubaba’s apprentice and conspired with her against Zeniba. Part of the conspiracy is to steal Zeniba’s solid gold seal, which he swallowed - another Miyazaki’s way to highlight the lethal cause of greediness. As Zeniba told Chihiro,
"He is a greedy little thief."
The mouth is another ingenious use of symbolism by Miyazaki to show us greed. This human facial part is powerful as it is used for eating, breathing, speaking, and romancing. Our mouth, in literature, symbolizes a gateway. Anything that comes in and out from it can heal or kill someone or ourselves. Our mouth has the power to take sweet or bitter pills. In the movie, Haku took the bitter pill by swallowing the golden seal that almost killed him because of the curse Zeniba tied with it. This is best represented when Kamaji told Chihiro,
"It looks like he is bleeding from the inside."
Greed, more than anything else, is self-harm. In toto, desire is deadly. Greed resembles the solid gold seal with poison. It is bewitchingly destructive. Beautiful outside but rotten inside – in one word – druxy.
To some people, their greed did not happen overnight. This resulted from years of accumulation of bad experiences and wealth, just like what happened with River Spirit. On the other hand, it may happen overnight for some people, similar to No-Face’s case. Its effect may depend on the needs, passion, or desperation of the person. Discontentment and greed are the roots of corruption.
Although the movie bombarded us with characters who became bad, Miyazaki provided us their divergence in the characters of River Spirit, Kamaji, and Chihro. Their character developments helped make the story riveting and, at the same time, deep-rooted.
River Spirit came to the Bathhouse looking so heavy, filthy, stinky, and ugly. Despite the heaviness of his load and inclement weather, he still persevered to go to the Bathhouse to cleanse himself. With the help of the innocent Chihiro and the rest of the workers, they could unload all his crap and transformed him into his real persona - a magical, wealthy, and powerful spirit. He was also revealed to be a jovial and generous spirit as he gave Chihiro an herbal gift and left pieces of gold all over the floor while laughing.
This may tell us that greed or corruption is not our end; likewise, if people abuse us. There is hope. We can still change and stop the abuse and be better people. We need to humble ourselves and find the right people who can help us return to our pleasant and generous selves.
Moreover, a transformation also happened with Kamaji. An estimated 40-year old man who has six long hands and works at the boiler room may represent those who have been enslaved by the “live to work” lifestyle—those people who work so hard that they do not have time to stop and smell the flowers.
As seen, Kamaji was at first cold, unfriendly, and detached. But as the movie thrived, his caring and thoughtful nature transpired. He even unhesitatingly offered the four train tickets to Chihiro and her new friends even though he kept them for 40 years.
There are things in life that we need to detach from to be happier. These are not necessarily material things, but our workaholic attitude or our fixations. We often forget the importance of spending quality time with our family and friends because we are fixated with the thoughts of earning a higher salary and living in a bigger house. Sometimes, it is helpful to detach ourselves from this thought. By doing so, we get to prioritize what matters. As Kamaji answered Lin,
"That is Love!"
Chihiro, also had her share of transformation. We could also see in the movie how she was ungrateful, impolite, and scared at first. But as the film developed, her character also flourished into becoming a content, polite, brave, and loving person. She learned to say thank you, politely decline the offer because she did not need it, and save Haku because he saved her. Kamaji defined this as love.
During the starting scene, Chihiro was needy and ungrateful. She was whining that the first bouquet she received was for a farewell. However, she became a changed person in the Bathhouse. Contentment was one of the most prominent characteristics she developed. This was seen when No-Face offered her more herbal soap tokens and golds. She politely declined the offers and explained that she did not need them. In another act, she decided to give back the gold seal to Zeniba because she is its owner. Then, she willingly shared the medicine cake with Haku and No-Face; although, she knew her parents would need them soon. From here, let’s recall what Yubaba said to all the Bathhouse workers,
"Everyone, learn from Sen!"
Isn’t that Miyazaki’s implicit way of telling us that there are many things we can learn from kids? Can this also be Miyazaki’s implicit way to say that sometimes it is best to look at things from the eyes of a 10-year-old kid? The beauty of abundance is being contented. These character developments may imply that abundance is having contentment and not always having enough. Abundance is sharing. Truly, Miyazaki succeeded in wielding an excellent structural myth in his movie when he showed these two sides of transformations in the form of a river, a spider (Tsuchigumo), and a child.
The Two Different Worlds. The Good and The Bad.
As these transformations resonate with us, let’s delve into Miyazaki’s magical spell of creating a smooth transition of the movie's different settings. Again, Miyazaki generously gave us hints such as the torii gate, dosojin statue, bridge, and train to show us that there are two opposing yet similar worlds in his masterpiece. He undeniably crafted parallel worlds.
The torii gate, in Shinto religion, signifies the division between the earthly and the sacred realm. Further, Shinto is a faith that emphasizes the possibility of goodness to overpower evil. As everybody is inclined to both good and bad, in Shintoism, this bad must be cleansed through purification to allow our innate goodness to burgeon.
The Ogino family got lost and passed by the torii gate. This was the first hint that they were entering another world. This was the start of how Miyazaki would creatively unfold the good and the bad of his movie's characters.
Another literary technique employed by Miyazaki was the placement of Dosojin statue in front of the tunnel. The Dosojin statue, is a Japanese Shinto deity that is normally placed on the roads or streets to protect travelers and pedestrians as this is believed to ward off evil spirits.
This specific Dosojin statue in Spirited Away is a two-faced statue in front of the tunnel. This may suggest to the viewers how things should be looked at – front and back, up and down, left and right – always find the balance. For that reason, contentment may be achieved, and greediness can be eschewed.
Balance is seen through a bridge. This is another symbol to indicate two parallel ideas – heaven and earth, Gods and humans, beginning and end. Spiritually speaking, bridge constitutes the episode in one’s life where evaluation is necessary – the past and the present experiences.
Many scenes happened in the bridge, one of which, Haku and Chihiro, first crossed their path. No-Face was also shown here twice; probably Miyazaki’s clever style to tell us his character – unsettled. We can all relate to this type of character as it is innate among humans to be unsettled. We experience questioning or contemplating the next chapter of our lives.
Showing the bridge as part of the movie with greediness as the central theme is one way of telling us the crucial importance of assessing our wants, needs, dreams, and possessions. Greediness flourished because of the lack of correct assessment – asking oneself what matters and reminding oneself that life here on earth is temporal. In a nutshell, this could be a way to tell us that life, in general, entails transition and changes. Most importantly, that there is hope.
Hope is a wonderful feeling that something better will happen soon. It is a desire to be in a much better position. Hence, it was best shown in the movie when Lin told Chihiro,
"I gotta get out from this place someday.
I’ll ride that train."
The train is the last major hint that immediately connotes travel and may symbolize life’s journey, transition period, or impermanence. This train gives all the viewers the idea of two the same yet different worlds - the twin sisters and where they live. Yubaba and Zeniba may symbolize the two possible roads we may take in our lives – uptight or laid-back, greedy or contented, heartless or compassionate.
Yubaba and Zeniba are identical twins who are extremely powerful witches; however, their personalities and ways of living are disparate. Yubaba is a Bathhouse proprietor who stays on the commodious, luxurious, and highest floor of the Bathhouse, while her workers are cramped in bare quarters. She wants everything extravagant, but she is greedy. She is a corrupt and abusive businesswoman who forced her workers to sign a contract with their changed names and follow a strict schedule (e.g., eat, work, sleep). She mystically stole their names so that they can be forever slaves. She is covetous to the point that she commanded Haku to steal her twin sister's goldenseal. She could also be heartless – she commanded Kashira to dispose Haku because she knew he was wounded and would soon die.
Zeniba, on the other hand, appeared to be grounded and content who lives in a humble cottage at Swamp Bottom. She was considerate and forgiving – because she used Chihiro as the way to find Haku, she helped her get inside Yubaba’s window and did not want to harm her; ditto, she forgave Haku for stealing her seal. She was hospitable and kind – she welcomed Chihiro and her new friends in her humble abode; she made them comfortable by giving them some tea and telling Chihiro to call her Granny. She was generous – she praised No-Face for being good at spinning the thread and gave Chihiro a remembrance gift. She was as powerful as Yubaba in witchcraft, but she seemed to be wiser by using magic with expiration and good deeds.
Just like Yubaba and Zeniba, we are also powerful in our ways. We can make things happen with hard work, perseverance, and passion. However, we can also achieve our dreams by greed - corrupting the system and abusing others. The choice is all in our hands.
Magnifying glass and eyeglasses are symbolical instruments used by Miyazaki to differentiate Yubaba and Zeniba, respectively. Yubaba was seen using a magnifying glass to check the stones and golds she collected, while Zeniba used eyeglasses as she was crocheting. Yubaba keeps the gems to herself; on the other hand, Zeniba gives her crocheted items to her visitors. A magnifying glass can enlarge something (that, in reality, is) small. Eyeglasses help us see hazy things clearly. Additionally, eyeglasses represent another pair of eyes that could implicitly tell that someone has the foresight to know that simplicity will give us peace in life or wisdom to know that giving we become rich and abundant. Again, we always have choices in our lives – how do you want to see things – through magnifying glass or eyeglasses?
These two opposing characteristics of the twin witch sisters definitely resemble our reality – the good and the bad.
The Bathhouse. The Innate Goodness.
A cornucopia of good and bad is both present in Spirited Away’s central setting – the Bathhouse.
In this place, the use of herbs was predominantly presented. Herbs symbolize healing, peace, and energy. Specifically, in the boiler room, the walls have built-in drawers with different herbs. Apropos of their customers were bathed in water herb solutions. By which, the River Spirit gave Chihiro an herbal gift. This could be a strong message telling us that the best way to renew ourselves is to go back to our old tradition or be one with nature. As we return, this should also make us reflect how immensely we are abusing nature because of our advancement and greediness.
Further, Bathhouse is also the perfect location to show us the circus of life and the construction of today’s society. The two major groups – the workers and the spirits revealed the punished and cleansed, the abused and junkie. Like Chihiro’s parents, the workers were probably also contemptuous and greedy; thereby, they were punished and transformed into frogs (men) and slugs (women). If they do not change, they will forever be under Yubaba’s spell. Those who go to Bathhouse to be cleansed and replenished are said to be gods and spirits. However, they do not get this for free. These spirits paid before and after bathing (e.g., River Spirit). Although it is good to be replenished, looking deeply, Bathhouse is a business enterprise that significantly represents our society now – everything has a price tag; nothing is free! Our society turns out to be profit-oriented. Many people only do things to their fellows if they can gain something out of them. Many of us will only work if there is an equivalent monetary value. Similarly, people treat you kinder if you have money or can gain something from you.
Maybe this is also the reason why No-Face character was built up that way. No-Face was uncertain and wanted to feel belong; thus, he pleased the workers for him to be accepted. He imitated the River Spirit by giving them gold. In return, these workers gave what he wanted. He was pleased by the workers as he pleased them by giving golds. He mimicked anyone he interacted with. As these workers were greedy, he became greedy too and metamorphosed into a monster. Later, it was revealed that those golds he gave away turned into dust. This can tell us that we cannot be someone we are not; we cannot give something we do not have. Likewise, we have to be careful with the people we allow to surround us with and influence us. They have the power to alter us into a beauty or a beast.