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Admittedly, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a very odd film, especially for us Westerners. I always feel a bit disoriented as I begin to watch it, especially since it makes substantial use of Japanese tradition in its characters and symbols. Consequently, it has the unfamiliarity of a different cultural language. There are commonalities between our cultural language and the film’s, of course—that’s why Disney was able to release it successfully in the United States—just enough commonality, in fact, for the unfamiliarity to register more as intriguing than as off-putting.
That being said, I feel the need to make a couple disclaimers before I go spouting off my speculations.
- I don’t have any education in Japanese cultural history. I have undertaken several fruitful Google and Wikipedia searches whose yieldings I have deemed trustworthy, but that is the extent of my research. There is a lot of intuition going on in my commentary, so take it with a grain of salt. And if you can correct me on any false claims, please do so.
- The logic of the film is based less in narrative than in symbolic layering. It unfolds not as a linear plot but as a series of parables, each with a somewhat wild yet incisive metaphorical meaning.
In this post I will give some context for the film and then lend my thoughts to two of its parables. First, context.
The world of Spirited Away is alluring and spooky. It deals with the treacherous interactions between two realms: the human realm of day-to-day commerce and the spirit realm of dislocation. These interactions unfold inside a bathhouse on the property of an abandoned theme park. The implication is that the land on which the theme park stands belongs in an eternal sense to the spirits that haunt it. Humans have desecrated these spirits by reducing their land and its long-standing culture to mere commercial pursuits, such as the theme park where the story is set. As a consequence of humanity’s industrial misbehavior, the spirits are now homeless. Where there was once a harmonious relationship of mutual exchange there is now a deep rift. The bathhouse and abandoned theme park embody this rift.
Let’s zoom out for a piece of Japanese cultural context: I keep speaking of the “spirit realm.” From my minimal research, it seems that Miyazaki is invoking the Shinto religion here, which is the ethnic religion of Japan. In this religion, all the earth is permeated by and intertwined with a sacred divine essence. This essence and the earth’s physicality are not fundamentally separated as in our Western tradition, but are rather inextricable. The Japanese language does not distinguish singular from plural, so the word “kami” refers both to this one unifying essence and to all the individual gods or spirits embodied in every living thing. In light of this bit of history, the rift between the human and spirit realms in Spirited Away suddenly becomes much more dire. There is of course plenty to be said here of the destructive effects of industrialism on local enchanted places. The underlying logic of this backstory is not unlike Wendell Berry’s lament of the desecration of rural landscapes or J. R. R. Tolkien’s apocalyptic vision of Mordor. Keep that in mind as you read.
Now, the spirits are not morally perfect or immutable. Far from it, they are easily tainted by the behavior of humans. They have taken up this bathhouse as their own capitalist exploit, charging money for traveling spirits to come in and receive a good bath. It’s a good business, too, because as a result of humans polluting the earth, the spirits are all very dirty. There have even been theories that the bathhouse acts as a euphemism for a brothel, as the majority of its employees are women and its operations have notably sinister undertones; perhaps more is being commodified here than meets the eye. This theory is complete speculation, however, and cannot be confirmed.
The story begins as our protagonist, a ten year-old girl named Chihiro, rides in the backseat of her parents’ car on their way to vacation. They come across the abandoned theme park and begin to explore. Chihiro’s parents find a mysterious, unattended table set with steaming food and begin to eat. When they do not stop eating, they promptly turn into pigs. Understandably frightened, Chihiro runs away, and as night falls, happens upon the spirit realm and the bathhouse. The (arguably evil) keeper of the bathhouse, Yubaba, discovers Chihiro. Haku, a good spirit who has become enslaved at the bathhouse, tells Chihiro that the only way to escape and free her parents is to work for Yubaba. Chihiro complies and Yubaba gives her a new name: Sen. It is worth noting that the name Chihiro means “a thousand searchings,” evoking the curious and adventurous spirit of a child. The name Sen merely means “one thousand,” which represents the stripping away of Chihiro’s identity to a mere numerical value. Throughout the movie, Chihiro, now registering her name as Sen, struggles to remember her old name, lest she forget and never escape the spirit realm.
Throughout her time working at the bathhouse, Chihiro encounters many spirits, fair and foul. Each of her encounters act as parables for the obscene ramifications of a commercialized spirituality. Here I will focus on her encounters with two spirits: the so-called Stink Spirit and No-Face. In each, keep in mind the theme of true versus false wealth.
The entire staff recoil as the Stink Spirit enters the bathhouse. It is the picture of repulsive: a gigantic, viscous trail of green-brown sludge with a vague, sullen face. Despite the putrid smell, Yubaba commands all the staff to act natural in the face of this monstrosity. Determined for Sen to fail, Yubaba gives her the task of bathing the Stink Spirit. With characteristic innocence and goodwill, Sen leads the Stink Spirit to its enormous bathtub.
The Stink Spirit splashes awkwardly into the tub. Sen attempts to get to work, but instead falls deep into the murky waters and becomes stuck inside the Spirit’s slime. Being a surprisingly kind Spirit, it scoops up Sen with its icky hand and shows her with great earnestness what appears to be a thorn stuck in its side. Still underwater, Sen tries to pull it out, but to no avail. She then swims to surface and tells the staff, which has become the audience of her performance, that she needs their help. Yubaba responds urgently, “This is no Stink Spirit,” gives Sen a long rope, and insists that this task will take the strength of the entire bathhouse. Sen dives underwater, ties the rope around the thorn in the Spirit’s side, and everyone lines up to pull the rope with all their might.
To the dismay of all, the supposed thorn is revealed to be the handle of a bicycle as it is removed in its entirety from the Spirit. After the bicycle comes heaps and heaps of all sorts of trash, from soda cans to kitchen sinks, enough to fill the entire room. Once Sen removes the final piece of litter, a fishing pole, the entire screen becomes submerged in clear water and all sound fades away. We see Sen’s awestruck face as she beholds the true face of the Spirit. We see him, too: ancient and wise, with a wide, contented smile. In a low, reverberating voice, he speaks two words: “Well done.” Sen looks down to find a mysterious piece of bread in her cupped hands.
The scene then returns to the room in which all the staff and Sen stand together, and it seems that the Spirit is gone. Among the heaps of trash, little pebbles of gold glimmer tantalizingly on the floor. Various staff members jump on the gold, but Yubaba knows the Spirit has not yet departed and commands them to stop. Suddenly and without warning, the Spirit, now transfigured as a hundred foot-long, cylindrical body of rushing water, bursts forcefully and jubilantly out of the bathhouse. Here we discover that he was a River Spirit who had been desecrated by human waste. Newly freed, he flies into the night sky accompanied only by the sound of his own laughter.
This story speaks for itself. I hardly want to comment because I’m eager to hear what you find in this story. For now, I will make two comments: first, note the baptismal imagery. The Spirit is wounded and suffering. After he is submerged in the water and his wound is fully addressed—which involves the dirty work of pulling out every last piece of garbage he has endured in his long life—it appears that he is dead and gone. He has disappeared. Only then is he raised and transfigured with a new body in fullness of life.
Second, why did the River Spirit give Sen a mysterious piece of bread? All I’ll say for now is to watch out for eucharistic undertones there. Spirited Away is constantly playing around with rival conceptions of consumption. Sen quietly and effortlessly receives the piece of bread moments before the bathhouse staff leaps on top of the glimmering gold left on the floor. This film suggests that you are what you eat. We will see more of this in our second parable.
No-Face makes many appearances in the film before he causes trouble. He is himself a void, a shadowy figure whose only distinguishing feature is his mask, which looks neither happy nor sad. He hardly ever speaks, but only groans, and he seems to be in a constant state of need. Late one night, a spirit in the form of a frog (there are lots of those in this film—kind of weird, honestly) creeps into the room where the River Spirit was bathed to snag some of the gold left on the floor. No-Face pops out from behind a corner and holds out a pile of gold, ever increasing, in his cupped hands. He offers it to the frog, who naively leaps out to grab it. No-Face then promptly eats the frog and grows larger in size. Creepy, right?
As the night goes on and into the morning of the next day, No-Face continues to repeat this behavior. He holds out mounds of gold to staff members, who greedily snatch it, only to be immediately devoured. With each repetition of this, No-Face grows bigger and his appetite stronger. He consumes insatiably and is never full.
Now here is where this gets interesting: the entire bathhouse begins to operate according to No-Face’s hunger. From their perspective, No-Face is impossibly wealthy. He produces gold in his hands at will and gives it freely to all who will take it. He appears generous and quickly takes on god-like status as his size increases. I once heard an acquaintance say something to this effect: “The pace of money is faster than the pace of life. When life tries to mimic the pace of money, the inevitable consequence is frenzy and chaos.” This insight plays out stunningly in this scene of Spirited Away as the bathhouse struggles to serve No-Face, constantly striving to return his payments with due efficiency. From outside looking through the windows, it seems that the bathhouse is “booming”—wealth is being produced at an alarming rate as staff hustles around, serving banquets upon banquets of food. From inside, however, we see that the staff has taken to worshiping No-Face. They surround him on bended knee, fearfully singing his praise as he offers gold and eats them one by one. Everyone tries to consume some gold for themselves without being consumed. It’s a chilling scene with an impressive depth of metaphor.
Sen is on another quest altogether, which takes her into this scene by mere happenstance. We get the idea throughout the film that No-Face wants Sen more than anyone else, so when she walks into the room, his attention shifts to her. He cups his hands and holds out a huge pile of gold, pleading Sen to take it. She simply says, “No thanks, I don’t need it,” and scurries away. No-Face looks dejected and chases her around the bathhouse. When he finally gets tired, they have a chance to talk. Sen asks him what he wants. He says he is lonely and that he wants her. She says, “If you’re going to eat me, eat this first,” and holds out to him the piece of bread the River Spirit gave her.
Despairing, No-Face eats the bread and begins to feel sick. Unable to escape his fate, he runs frantically around the bathhouse, vomiting up every spirit he has eaten up to this point, getting smaller and smaller along the way. He miserably cries out to Sen, “Why did you make me eat that?” Finally, he vomits up the very first frog he ate in the middle of the night and is back to his original size. His appetite seems to have been subdued. He is shy now, embarrassed almost, but Sen invites him to accompany her on the rest of her journey. He found a friend.
In this parable we see those rival conceptions of consumption juxtaposed directly. No-Face consumes out of unending lack—it’s all he knows—until he is given a different way to consume. He is cursed by his appetite, and yet he is ultimately healed and cleansed not by denying it, but by the very act of eating. In his encounter with Sen, his appearance of wealth is unmasked as poverty. Conversely, Sen’s seeming poverty in her unwillingness to accept No-Face’s gold is shown to be the true wealth of the parable. And what is the turning point? The piece of bread Sen received from the River Spirit. By eating it, No-Face undergoes an experience parallel to the River Spirit’s: a cleansing from poison, a form of death and rebirth, and redemption. After this breakthrough, No-Face becomes a restrained, good-natured companion to Sen on her journey to reclaim her own name and destiny.
Friends, this is rich stuff. All in a very strange and sometimes uncomfortable film. I hope you have enjoyed walking through these stories as much as I have enjoyed sharing and interpreting them. They contain gems of wisdom presented in startling images and symbols. It is precisely the weirdness and apparent irrationality of this film’s symbolism that reminds me of my own imagination, comprised as it is of all the memories, hopes, stories, and hauntings I have ever encountered in my own life. Our imaginations resemble dream-worlds in this way: a bit wacky, screaming to be interpreted and cultivated like a garden into a place of order and growth.
In my final post I will describe my own imagination as a place not unlike the bathhouse in Spirited Away, full of motifs and metaphors older than myself and wilder than I ever anticipate. I look forward to asking alongside you what Christ’s way is in these vast interior landscapes of ours: what does it mean to follow his path, to truly take every thought captive to him, to pursue a cruciform imagination? What encounters will we have, and with whom?
Until then, go watch Spirited Away and tell me what you think.