Miyazaki: Metaphors and Magic (Film review of “Spirited Away”)


Chihiro and her family are on their way to their new home when they stumble across an abandoned theme park. On further inspection the theme park turns out to be a magical bath house for “the spirits”. Chihiro is trapped there and forced to work in the bath house while her Mother and Father are turned into pigs. To save her parents and get back to her own world she must defeat the evil witch Yubaba. Spirited Away is a tale of trial, longing, friendship, love and magic. An utterly spell binding masterpiece of animation from Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli (Jiblee) Studios.

I love this film for its storyline, beautiful animation and music not because of its shinto overtones or demonology. As a christian I am instinctively drawn to the Kingdom values in things I see and read.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) is a typical Miyazaki creation. It stars a brave and sensible young female protagonist. This is unusual for Japan which is one of the last great bastions of chauvinism among developed countries. Japan’s birth rate has been below replacement level for 26 years straight. This is partly because Japanese women now have the same educational opportunities as men. They quite rightly don’t want to give up high flying careers to become submissive, child bearing house wives. Recently LDP Policy Minister Syoichi Nakagawa lamented this “Women have their proper place: they should be womanly. They have their own abilities and these should be fully exercised, for example in flower arranging, sewing, or cooking. It’s not a matter of good or bad, but we need to accept reality that men and women are genetically different.” This was in 2007!

Usually if a female takes the lead role in an anime she is ultra-feminine and naive with a voluptuous figure. But Miyazaki’s animes have a little more depth. As well as honouring women, he’s pro environment and anti-materialist. Not to mention his fathomless imagination and breathtakingly beautiful animation.

It’s a regular evening in Yubaba’s Bath House for the Spirits but she senses something strange approaching in the night. A wave of panic washes over her as she realises a stink spirit is on its way to the Bath House. Pandemonium breaks out, the Chichi yaku (bath house management) and Bandai gaeru (green frog workers) try desperately to persuade it not to enter. The stink spirit, a mass of sewage, takes no notice of the their protests and sludges on relentlessly. Unfortunately for Chihiro she’s bullied into dealing with this unpleasant customer, she does so reluctantly but dutifully. It’s only after the stink spirit begins to bathe that Chihiro realises there’s a thorn stuck in the its side. Yubaba begins to suspect that the spirit may not be all that it seems and instructs all the staff to help Chihiro remove the thorn. The thorn turns out to be a huge deluge of waste like something from a rubbish dump. The stink spirit is in fact a majestic river spirit who lavishes the staff with rewards for their help and gives Chihiro a special reward for her efforts.

There are consequences for our actions. If I throw an old bike in the river, I suspect that there won’t be a spiritual representative visiting a Bath House in another dimension because of my actions. But God placed Adam in the garden of Eden and instructed him to work it and take care of it (Gen 2:15). We also have a responsibility to work and take care of the earth.

Japan is notoriously materialistic. I was there over Christmas 2004 and albeit the streets of Japan had more Christmas lights and decorations than I’ve ever seen in the UK, it just didn’t feel like Christmas. It felt empty, shallow. The Japanese pursuit of money presents itself as a very strong work ethic, so strong that karoshi (death from over work) is more common in Japan than in any other developed country.

No Face is one of the more curious characters in Spirited Away, they are all curious! But No Face is particularly ominous. He appears to take an unhealthy fascination with Chihiro, attempting to lavish her with gifts and gold. For the most part she politely refuses his advances then he becomes quite sinister and begins eating members of the bath house staff. He appears to have the ability to materialise gold from thin air. He begins throwing money around and there’s nothing Yubaba and the bath house staff love more. They begin feeding his insatiable appetite with all kinds of food and celebrating his presence, you could even say that they begin to worship him. Singing songs and dancing before him.

No Face

What was the fate of those who worshipped No face? Their gold which they so cherished spontaneously turned to dirt. It seems it was all part of a powerful illusion. A wonderful allegory of life. A strong work ethic is good but I work to live, I don’t live to work. After all, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart” (Job 1:21).

You can tell a lot about a writer by the films he makes. In my opinion, Miyazaki is far better than Walt Disney. From the Freedom of Information Act it emerged that from 1941 until his death Walt Disney spied on and illegally intimidated union activists on behalf of the FBI. He believed Labour Unions organisers were communist activists. I don’t know much about Miyazaki’s personal life but he doesn’t strike me as a violent man, in fact many of his films Howls Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no takkyubin) have strong anti war messages. Miyazaki combines breathtaking animation with noble messages that appeal to the conscience, Spirited Away 9/10.

One thought on “Miyazaki: Metaphors and Magic (Film review of “Spirited Away”)

  1. As a christian. I love you however your guidence is misgiven. We always look for the theams in everyday life especially in childrens stories. To place our own culture and stoies on another is not wrong it is unchristian of us. Christ was so careful to make his stories about an unknown and encompass as many people as he could know as a human. When we diminish his words by picking and choosing what they mean as applyed to specific stories you are guessing at God’s words. God’s few words were reserved for a very specific few. We know his words by his Truth and the fruits of the spirit. If it brings or teaches; Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness , or Self-control than itisa worthy story. Your review needs to be based on these. This story; though extrapolated from centuries of culteral differences proves these Truths exist cross-culturally. Please, please , Do not add your modern concepts to the basic rules we follow. All reviews should be based in the truths we were given .

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