Myriads of gods from all over Japan visit the Yuya.
The stink god comes to the Yuya to get refreshed.
Bulky refuse that the workers pull off the Stink God.
After getting rid of the refuse, the Stink God transforms itself back into its original form, the River God.
The boar god in Princess Mononoke surrounds itself with dark tentacles...
... representing its rage against humanity.
A cosplayer posing as an anime character.
Chihiro’s full name written on her employment contract. But parts of her name are stolen …
… by Yubaba’s magical power.
No-Face makes gold to tempt people, and…
… it grows as it eats greedy people at the Yuya.
Chihiro and No-Face on the train.
A shadowy man on the train.
No-Face finally enjoys knitting at Zeneba’s home.
Haku as a boy.
Haku in his dragon god form.
One of the problems taken up by the film is people’s disinterest in spiritual values in contemporary life. The way the film depicts spirits derives from an indigenous Japanese religion, Shintoism, which the film embodies in myriads of gods called Yaoyorozuno kamigami who are the consumer spirits who visit the Yuya. Shintoism posits that the human and spirit worlds exist in the same realm, and spirits inhabit every substance, including rocks, statues, food, and rivers. The origin of these spirits is explained in mythology, in the text, Manyo-shu:
Since spirits exist in the same realm as human beings do, Shintoism teaches people to have a faith in and respect for spirits that exist in material substances; thus people should have a concern for nature and the rest of the physical world.
Miyazaki, however, implies that in the modern age, the worlds of spirits and of humans have become separated because humans have neglected spiritual values. In Spirited Away, according to what Chihiro’s father explains, the Yuya is a ruined amusement park that was built in the time of the "bubble economy." That is, people built the amusement park, which symbolizes a post-industrial leisure-oriented mentality, when the economy was booming. In the beginning of the film, as Chihiro’s family is driving past the amusement park, they see stone shrines thrown to the side of the road. Traditionally Japanese people have believed that gods who protect the road dwell in those small shrines so the shrines should be respected. Here construction workers disregarded them to build the theme park and Chihiro’s own modern family does not care that these shrines are devalued. In other words, the environment around the theme park indicates that people cared more about creating another place for their own leisure than preserving a place for the spirits and also the spirits of the place. Those neglected divine spirits have become so injured and tired that they too now have to go to a leisure center like the Yuya, a leisure center where in an ironic reversal the presence of human beings is undesired. In one case of an abused sprit needing to recover, the spirit of river comes to the Yuya as a stink god because humans constantly throw refuse into the river. Once the spirit takes a bath and Chihiro removes the stinking refuse from it, it turns back into a noble river spirit. Such an incident within the Yuya imply that the Yuya’s business depends for its success on the neglect of spiritual value in post-modern Japan.
The incident with Chihiro and the stink god is not only about neglected spiritual values, however; it also creatively demonstrates one of the strengths of animated film —flexible visual expression. Miyazaki masterfully utilizes that strength to animate the imagination and to visualize unseen emotions. Previously, in Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997), when a boar god who was supposed to protect the forest and humans got injured by an arrow, it transformed itself into a cursing god raging against humans. Its rage was manifested as dark stringy tentacles around the boar that demonstrated both the rage's force and also the ugliness of human actions when considered from the perspective of nature. Likewise in Spirited Away, by making the noble river spirit into a filthy stink god, Miyazaki indicated that filth that the noble spirit had to wrap itself in was a manifestation of the stains upon nature caused by the human society's current way of life.
In Spirited Away Miyazaki also visually separates the worlds of spirits and humans. Stylistically he depicts the human world as realistically as possible and the world of spirits as fantastic. In the beginning of the film, before Chihiro’s family wanders into the world of spirits, Miyazaki utilizes cinematic moments that are unusual in animation but more often found in live-action films. Only after the family enters into the town of the Yuya does the mise-en scene become more fantastically animated. The shadowy spirits and buildings and everything that is in the amusement park take on life, but now a fantasmic life. Those visual cues that indicate a movement from verisimilitude to the fantasmic indicate the two worlds are now separated or at least that the spirits, neglected in the world of humans, no longer wish to coexist with humans in this highly industrialized world.
One of the origins of Shinto may have come in olden times when agriculture sustained human societies; people animated nature and believed that their care and respect for it pleased its spirits who protected the nation and provided prosperity. However, after the coming of Western industrialization, people’s faith was no longer in nature but in a successful economy. Applying this kind of thinking to his own art, once, in an interview, Miyazaki decried contemporary post-industrial society as a system that watered down anime's expressive possibilities. Anime, according to Miyazaki, could well represent love and justice. However, as he put it,
In other words, after Japan's industrial success since the Meiji restoration in 1890s and recovery from WWII cast out poverty from the nation, people still remain possessed by an illusion of gaining a wealthy everyday life and continue living with a gap between their ideal and real life. As a result, an endless and unsatisfying cycle of production and consumption has begun destroying harmony among family and community (Harootunian, 2000). Zizek (1989) points out that people of late capitalism are well aware that money is not magical. To obtain it, it has to be replaced through labor, and after you use it, it will just disappear, as will as any other material. Allison (1996) adds to this point:
So, as Miyazaki puts it, the concerns of the late-capitalist Japan are now not for love and justice, but for money and pleasure.
The film represents such a shift of values through the character of Yubaba. The one thing she cares about besides earning money is her baby, Bo, who is the only one character who receives her motherly affection. However, she cares more about money than her own baby. In an important development in the plotline, Yubaba has a twin sister, Zeneba, and the two have been rivals with different views of life. One day Zeneba sneaks in to Yubaba’s office to find the boy Haku who, under the command of Yubaba, stole a golden seal from Zeneba. Zeneba punishes Yubaba by transforming Bo into a fat rat and Yubaba’s henchman into Bo. After Zeneba left, Haku confronts Yubaba, who is not yet aware of Zeneba's doings. In this scene, Yubaba sits in her bathrobe in front of the fireplace, admiring a pile of gold brought by the workers. Haku walks up to her and says, “You still haven’t noticed that something precious to you has been replaced?” A close-up of Haku cuts in, then, a point-of-view shot of Haku looking directly at Yubaba’s eyes, then Yubaba’s eyes looking back to him. Wondering what he meant by “something precious,” Yubaba takes a piece of gold to check if it is fake or not. She looks back into Haku’s eyes, smiling slightly to indicate that he is wrong about the gold being replaced. A close-up of Haku cuts in again, his face appealing to her with strong emotion. Still Yubaba does not notice what he meant by precious. Only when the fake Bo makes a noise besides her, she notices that her replaced "precious" thing is her own baby. This sequence reveals the degree to which Yubaba, who has dedicated her life to managing the Yuya for profit, has lost her heart, her capacity to care for other living beings, including her own son. This scene strongly reinforces the theme that modernization has altered values and broken family ties.
In contrast to Yubaba, Zeneba is the only character aware of the vanity of money, pleasure, and materialism. When Haku is cursed by Zeneba, Chihiro visits Zeneba to ask if she can take the curse away from him. In contrast to the Yuya, which is a many storied building, Zeneba’s house is a simple small home. In a plain room, unlike Yubaba’s room, Zeneba lives by enjoying cooking, knitting, and other domestic skills. When Zeneba makes thread for sewing, she says, “I can do it by my magic, but it does not mean anything” (My translation: there is no English subtitle for this line). She says this after she made fun of her sister for being too greedy. Her words here indicate that the use of magic at the Yuya appears to be successful, fast to make a profit, yet costing the precious quality of humanity. In the film's symbolism, such magic is equated with machines that make mass-production possible in the contemporary world, so Zeneba's words and her whole characterization as a touchstone of value clearly critique a fordist production system. In other words, even though it is possible and sometimes necessary to use machines, too much of it can destroy spiritual values in society.
Related to its presentation of the loss of spiritual values, the film elaborates an extensive critique of another contemporary global issue: identity confusion. A symptom of identity loss is seen in the way that cultures today encourage people to constantly refashion their self-image, so that individuals construct their identity based on ideals presented in popular media. More and more, people become unsatisfied with their lives because of the gap they see between their real life and the ideal luxurious life promoted within late capitalist economy, which needs more and faster consumption to make more profit. Because of the gap between the real and the fantasy, people in late capitalist society become ever more unsatisfied with themselves. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why people are more and more attracted to anime, where transformation of identity are easily visually accomplished.
To illustrate, we may name a few examples from a popular daily life phenomenon among anime fans, called “cosplay.” The word, cosplay, is the combination of costume + play (or role-play.) Namely, it is the practice among anime fans that involves wearing their favorite anime characters’ costumes to enjoy daily life while in the role of the character. Under the umbrella of cosplay, there is also a practice called "cross play." In cross play, males wear female anime characters’ costume, and vice versa. As you might imagine, your body shape, gender, or age do not matter once you wear the costume because you are what the costume is. When you are cosplaying, your identity depends on what others know about the character, not on who you are. Cosplay, therefore, allows the players to change their identity. In other words, cosplay is about the interchange or transformation of identity across reality and fantasy. In this modern age when people are seeking to create and to own the latest products, a person’s identity becomes what the society produces and what they own. The products, after all, are produced for a mass audience, so that consumers become lost in the mass production of identity.
In Spirited Away, oblivion via loss of name is a major plot device; as the film's trailer emphasizes,
Miyazaki stresses the importance of having a proper name to warn us against the possibility of losing our identity in the post-modern world. When Chihiro first gets hired by Yubaba, Yubaba alters Chihiro’s name to Sen. Later Haku explains to Chihiro that Yubaba controls people by stealing their names. The plot operates on the premise that if Chihiro forgot her original name, she would forget about her past and never be able to go back to where she was from. This name change along with Chihiro's being forced to work in an assembly line type job in order to survive sets up the film's major theme: that entering into the capitalist system confuses people by changing what they identify themselves with. Before they identified themselves with who they were; but now they identify themselves with what they are in society according to what they own or produce. The film's plot echoes Marx's famous statement (1852),
In addition, in the way that the film references early capitalism of the Meiji era, Yubaba's taking away Chihiro’s family name has several other goals; Yubaba intends to distinguish the ruling class from the commoners and second to take away Chihiro’s dignity. In Japan, up until the beginning of Meiji era, people other than the ruling class were not allowed to publicly use their family name. When the feudal Edo system that recognized only the family name of samurai or ruling class began to fall, the new Meiji government allowed everyone of all classes to use their family name. Having the family name, hence, provides dignity to common individuals and their families. By showing her power to steal Chihiro’s family name, Yubaba claims membership in the upper class; she humiliates Chihiro by demoting her from being a member of a family to a mere employee, now a slave to her employer.
Besides Chihiro and Haku, a key character representing identity confusion is No-Face, who has only a shadow-like body and a mask. The mask does not hide his face for he has no face; rather, the mask constructs his outside identity. Since the mask symbolizes a product that people can buy with money, here it indicates an unoriginal identity that people can construct by giving into materialism.
No-Face appears to be the most greedy and uncontrollable of all the characters. He draws people to himself by producing gold and grows by eating them. When he eats those greedy men and women, he gains a pseudo-identity through them. Since his diet consists of greedy people, he just gets filled with more and more human greed, thus making him himself more and more greedy. As he gains his identity through materialist desire, he wants more material to satisfy himself. He eats up all the food at the Yuya, but still is never satisfied. No-Face represents capitalist production and consumption, a system that grows by feeding upon human greed. Finally he tries to eat Sen and rampages around the Yuya, crying, “I’m lonely, I’m lonely. I want Sen. I want Sen.” In the interview included in the DVD, producer Toshio Suzuki explains that No-Face wants to enter into somebody’s heart to quench his loneliness. Yet only the method he thinks of is tempting others with false wealth. He can gain attention from almost everyone except Sen, whose heart seeks the most valuable thing, not gold or money. No-Face thus wants to have that heart after unsuccessfully trying to satisfy himself with other material. He follows Chihiro when she leaves the Yuya to go to Zeneba’s house, and she knows that his problem has resided with his staying in the Yuya. In other words, she has learned that the problem is for one to stay in and be conformed to the capitalist system that continues feeding him/her a contentment based on delusion.
Both No-Face and Chihiro travel on a train to Zeneba's. Like No-Face, Miyazaki depicts all the passengers on the train as shadows. The difference is that they are not wearing a mask like No-Face. No-Face was eager to gain his identity through a product, but people outside the Yuya focus on a different goal. The train Chihiro and No-Face are on is the down train that takes them to the suburbs or rural areas. This train sequence produces a nostalgia of homecoming. Noises of preparing entertainments or of operating machines are not heard on the train. Rather people are getting further from the Yuya, the industrial metropolis. One shadow man takes two big traveling bags and exits; he does not look like a businessman carrying a small business case but may represent a man who finished his migrant work and is going to see his family. At a station, we see a mother and a little girl holding hands. This is in contrast to the Yuya, where the prominent relationships represented are those of co-workers or employer/employees, not of family bonds. Outside of the Yuya, i.e. a capitalist mentality, exists a sense of home, however neglected in modern late capitalist generations. No-Face finally settles down at Zeneba’s house where he can help Zeneba, who lives outside of a capitalist mentality. When Chihiro takes leave to go back to the Yuya from Zeneba’s house, Zeneba gives her blessing to Chihiro, “Do not let go of your own name” (my translation). That is, do not let your identity conform to what a capitalist ideology would force it to be.
On her way back to the Yuya, Chihiro meets Haku, who has forgotten his true name. Their conversation reveals that Haku is actually a noble spirit of river dammed up to build a mansion. Before this scene, Kamajii mentioned that Haku came to the Yuya both because he had nowhere else to go and because he wanted to become Yubaba’s apprentice to gain her magical power, which in the film is equated with her capital. Thus, as a character, Haku symbolizes the victim of industrialization who lost himself and tried to gain capital to survive. After a while at the Yuya, Haku forgot his name completely. Luckily, Chihiro, who once almost drowned in that river, remembers its name, and the moment she tells Haku his true name, he regains his true identity. After they arrive back at the Yuya, Chihiro successfully rescues her parents so now it is time for Chihiro to go back to the human world. For his farewell, Haku promises to quit being Yubaba’s apprentice, since regaining his true identity made him realize the folly of working under the system of the Yuya, which took away his memories of his true self.
In the very last scene, as Chihiro emerges from the spirits' world and is driving away with her parents, Disney added some English subtitles where there is no Japanese dialogue. The English subtitles go like this:
If one were only to see this film with the English subtitles, it would tempting to think this film mainly as a coming-of-age story. Moreover, other lines of dialogue omitted in the English subtitles function to add more layers to the film (some of them are mentioned in this essay with my translation). Yet, the main theme of the film remains a depiction of an evil that Miyazaki wants to destroy — the human greed that sustains a system of capitalist consumerism. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a masterpiece in the way that it shows both the goodness of simplicity and the purity of the youthful heart, as well as the way it allegorizes the evils of Japanese post-modern social and human conditions. Miyazaki has said that he does not produce films to promote hope, and that determining what is evil does not solve everything (Kanae, 1997). Through Haku and Chihiro, Miyazaki tells us what we should keep in our hearts. Through the Yuya, we learn about the kind of social condition we are living. This film, therefore, is an allegory of Japanese contemporary society, but also a magic mirror that reflects global capitalist social conditions in a fantastical fashion. The world of Miyazaki anime is a fantasy, but is not free from the issues we face in society today. With his poetic imagination and keen acumen, he presents our world as shaped by his wish that we could face the problems of capitalistic societies without losing our ethics and aspirations. He does so by letting a youthful character, who has not yet had her identity molded to mainstream society, question this society with cunning and high spirit.