‘Spirited Away’ and Japanese Culture

This post is an essay written by Erica Guo and Hsiao-hui Ho on the significance of traditional Japanese culture in the award-winning 2001 film Spirited Away.  

Spirited Away, a masterpiece by the famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, is undoubtedly one of the most popular animations in the twenty-first century. The story and the setting around the movie seem illusional and illogical, however, a lot of the elements and structures could trace back to Japanese cultures and religious traditions. Ranking among the greatest animated films and receiving awards all over the world, it was never any special effects but the meticulously articulated details of culture and the deep appreciation of nature and religion that linger on.

Emphasis on nature and symbols of Shintoism can be constantly observed throughout the movie. Starting from a close-up of the flower bouquet in Chihiro’s hand as the opening frame, the movie includes a great amount of nature dominated frames including references of mountains, trees, sky, and ocean. In a lot of the frames, the characters including the main one, Chihiro and Haku, were intentionally illustrated in a smaller size, subtly in contrast with elements of nature such as sky and water which dominates the rest of the space. With the entire story including Kami as a repeating central concept, traditions and symbols of Shinto tradition can be found throughout the stories.

A great number of spiritual creatures were introduced in the movie, emphasizing the idea that everything can have a spirit force embedded. According to Rarick, “Kami is an elusive concept and can be found not only in shrines but also in trees, mountains, water, and even people.”[1] Kami is one of the biggest elements throughout the movie, and those creatures are not ghosts because the viewers can recognize them through the hints such as the broken torigate, the Kami statues, and a group of little stone shrines when Chihiro and her family enter the woods at the beginning of the movie. Japanese believe that nature nourishes the island, and they have a lot of respect and appreciation toward nature. According to Shintoism of Japan, Kami is the spirit of nature, they are everywhere and could be in any form. For example, mountains, forests, rocks, and rivers all have spirits in them. The yellow duck-like creature is a kind of animal Kami and the giant white creature with the red hat is the radish and vegetable Kami. Thus, there are various types of Kami in the movie, and there is an old saying indicates that there are “eight million Kami”.

A Japanese ritual is an inspiration for the scenes of all the Kami gathering together for a bath in the Bathhouse. During the ceremony, the clergies usually dip bamboo leaves into the boiling water and then splatter the water onto the worshippers around. After that, people start singing with masks of Kami on their face. This ritual is usually held during the winter because the vitalities of all creatures are the weakest during the winter. So hot bath cleans all the evil spirit and brings back vitalities.[2] Just like nature such as river can be polluted, Kami’s physical form could get dirty. Consequently, they as customers would go to the Bathhouse and have themselves cleaned. As an example, the stinky creature in the form of mud was the river Kami in the polluted form. Exaggerated facial expressions of Chihiro and Yubaba indicated extreme disgust and strong smells when they first met the guest in mud, and the pollution was so severe that it even started polluting the Bathhouse. However, this significant pollution was caused by no others but human, as the things that Chihiro pulled out from his body included bicycles, water pipes and even a refrigerator and a toilet. Consequently, by getting rid of the evil forces, the river Kami were cleansed and went back to its original form.

Most of the building structures in the movie were in Japanese traditional and many religious structures can be observed. At the beginning of the movie, before family accidentally entered the spiritual realm, they lost their way in the woods and Chihiro, being the chosen character, accidentally spotted many signs of religious structures suggesting that they were approaching a spiritual place. According to Nadeau, “torii gate marks the division between sacred and profane space”[3] Right before they entered the woods and found themselves lost, a small torri gate can be observed right next to the old trees, indicating spiritual presences of Kami and marking the entrance to the spirit realm. (Figure 2) Surrounding the torri gate, many little shrines could be found placed on the ground around the trees and the gate, honoring the spirits that are believed to live there. (Figure 3) The tunnel that brought the family to the spirited realm, as well as the bridge in front of the Bathhouse, served as a mark and passage linking the human world and the spirit realm. At the beginning of the movie, when it was active and believed to possess power, it was painted in shades of red, dark green and dark brown, resembling the color scheme from a lot of the Shinto shrines. When it comes to the end of the movie, the tunnel turned into a dead end made out of rocks, reemphasizing the coexistence between nature and spiritual forces.

The Bathhouse, being the main stage of characters and the story, is the core setting of the movie.(Figure 4) The building is in traditional Japanese style and painted in a similar color scheme as the tunnel. The structure of the building, both interior, and exterior is really similar to the structure of a pagoda. As pagodas being a multileveled structure believed to unite heaven and earth, the Bathhouse, almost dividing characters into a social hierarchy, is constructed with multiple floors, and the higher the level, getting closer to heaven, the better and cleaner the rooms. The lower level of the building located the Boiler Room, where the Kamajii and the soot spirits live and work, providing herbs and water to the customers, and it is a dark hot place which can be only accessed through the steep side stairs that Chihiro used.[4] The Ji 地 floor, meaning ground floor, welcomes a great number of general customers and a lot of the baths, such as the one Chihiro was asked to clean, appeared to be dirty due to constant use. Kami that appeared to be poorer or in a lower class, such as the river Kami that was dirty and stinky before bath, were normally taken to the ground floor, and the experience is most likely self-serviced. For customers like No-face, which appeared to be more lavish or from an upper class, would be invited to the second heaven floor, Niten 二天, with more private and luxurious services. The top floor, ten , is Yubaba’s office with large open space and luxurious vases and ornaments.

In the movie, it shows that there are trains in this world. However, boats are still the main transit devices for Kami to travel through the secret land where the Bathhouse is located. (Figure 5) The reason for this is, which the viewers already know, the Bathhouse is in another world and is separated from the human world. In ancient tales from Japan and China, the lands where Shin神 or Kami live are usually in an island that is located on the other side of the sea, so they are not easy for ordinary people to access. Also, the land of death is also located on the other side of the sea, so the spirits of dead people need to take the boat to the underworld. As a result, the Kami in the movie use the boat to the Bathhouse is more convincing than taking a train.

In the movie, all the male servants in the bathhouse are in the form of frogs or similar to frogs. (Figure 6) According to ancient Japanese culture and Japanese art, the frog has a negative image and is usually considered as the partner of demons and ghosts. Frogs live in damp and dim areas, and they have unpleasant appearances that make people relate them with negative things. Moreover, there is another creature named Kappa, and it also lives in the water like the frogs. People worship Kappa like Kami, so they cannot be related to servant because it’s a lower-class job.[5]

Another important character in the movie is Kamaji, and he is in the form of a spider. (Figure 7) He looks different comparing to the other servants in the movie since he needs to handle multiple things in the bathhouse, so the feature of spider fits better than frog. Also, there was a group of native Japanese that refused to surrender to the king during ancient time, and society named those native people “dirt spider” (tsuchigumo). As a result, Kamaji represents tsuchigumo because he is constantly helping Chihiro and Haku in the movie, so he does not completely surrender to the owner of the bathhouse.[6]

In conclusion, Spirited Away is a masterpiece among anime throughout the world. It contains abundant amount Japanese culture elements and shows the unique side of Shintoism. The viewers can absorb knowledge while enjoying the movie.

[1] Rarick, Charles A. The philosophical impact of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism on Japanese management practices. International Journal of Value-Based Management.  Volume 7. Issue 3. Page 219-226 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00897784

[2] “霜月まつり−長野県最南端の秘湯と秘境の里・信州遠山郷.” 霜月まつり−長野県最南端の秘湯と秘境の里・信州遠山郷. Accessed May 1, 2015.     http://www.tohyamago.com/simotuki/index.php.

[3] Nadeau, Randall L. “Dimensions of Sacred Space in Japanese Popular Culture.” Intercultural Communication Studies 6 (1997): 109-114.

[4] “Spirited Away Wiki.” Spirited Away Wiki. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://spiritedaway.wikia.com/wiki/Spirited_Away_Wiki.

[5] “Kappa – River Imp (Kami) in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist Traditions.” Kappa – River Imp (Kami) in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist Traditions. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/kappa.shtml.

[6] “Tsuchi-gumo | Yokai.com.” Yokaicom RSS. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://yokai.com/tsuchigumo/.

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