The witch Yubaba who owns the leisure center Yuya.

Chihiro, a ten year-old girl, working in the Yuya.

Other workers in the Yuya.

A boy with a magical power, Haku, and Chihiro running through the world of spirit.

Ukiyo-e: A Kabuki actor.

Ukiyo-e: A beautiful woman.

Kamajii, the boiler man. His six arms symbolizes new machinery to minimize the number of employees.

Yubaba’s office is decorated with Western materials.

Power dynamics, angle up on Yubaba and ...

... angle down on the powerless.



A nightmare of capitalist Japan:
Spirited Away

by Ayumi Suzuki

Hayao Miyazaki, who won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature in 2003, makes films for children. But he does not to turn them into princes or princesses in a fairy tale world; instead he makes them employed workers in a fantasized capitalistic world. In his Spirited Away (2001), Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl, wanders into the Yuya, the leisure center of a spirit world, an enterprise owned and managed by the witch, Yubaba. Chihiro becomes trapped in this spirit world, where she must use her only resource, physical labor, to survive. People who live in the Yuya must work to be recognized as valuable human beings worthy of life. As one of the workers tells the girl,

"If you don't get a job, Yubaba will turn you into an animal."

Dave Kehr of The New York Times described Spirited Away as "a masterpiece, pure and simple." However, the film is much more complicated than that. Not just a simple coming-of-age story, the child's survival story is intertwined with a denunciation of today's capitalist mindset. My goal in this essay is to illuminate Hayao Miyazaki’s use of animation and children as characters to criticize Japan's history of capitalism. I find Spirited Away the film that most firmly depicts Miyazaki’s denunciation of a capitalist mentality, especially in relation to issues we see in post-modern Japan, namely the loss of spiritual value and identity.

Hayao Miyazaki: master of anime

Miyazaki’s sophisticated art lies not in creating marketable child-friendly animation, but in presenting social criticism through child characters in his animated films. On this point, Miyazaki shares something with a cultural critic of a previous generation, Walter Benjamin (1936). Both Benjamin and Miyazaki have faith in two things, storytelling and children.

Stories can transmit knowledge by integrating that knowledge in a fantastical tale. In this way, listeners can learn not just through receiving information but also by internalizing knowledge as experience. Benjamin explains that there's a new form of communication made possible by new media, which in his time consisted of radio, photography and cinema. This new kind of communication transmits information, which has timeliness and does not leave room for listeners to expand their imagination or capacity for interpretation, because this transmission of information requires that explanations be given at the same time. In contrast, stories provide informational cues that trigger creative interpretations on the part of their listeners, and each different interpretation, as it's created, becomes a personal experience which lasts in the listener's mind. For that reason, Benjamin distinguished storytelling from information giving, and in this vein, Miyazaki is a storyteller who uses his films to bequeath his social knowledge.

Another common element between the two thinkers is their faith in children, and they admire the quality of youthful minds to be filled with curiosity and stay free from the task-minded business of modern day living. Miyazaki believes in the cunning and the high spirits in children; therefore, he utilizes adolescent characters in his films to explore a "mystical"world, which in fact is a fantasized version of social reality. In this way, his films echo thoughts of Benjamin (1936), who says, “The wisest thing – so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day – is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits” (p.11).

This concept of representing a reality through a veil of fantasy can also be found in a Japanese traditional art, Ukiyo-e. Japanese animators have inherited visual aesthetics from the style of the art of Ukiyo-e (Murakami, 2000; Looser, 2006). Cavallaro (2006) points out that Miyazaki, in particular, has an aesthetic similar to Ukiyo-e in terms of his use of two-dimensional drawing and water color. There may be a further philosophical connection between Miyazaki’s animation and Ukiyo-e. As a term, Ukiyo-e is usually translated as "images of the floating world"; literally [Uki: float]+[Yo: world]+[E: pictures].

Ukiyo refers to the world without Buddhist enlightenment; that is to say, the world filled with consciousness of mortality. Buddhist teachings warn against craving for anything that is ephemeral or not eternal. People suffer when they lose something they crave, and that moment of loss must come because nothing stays the same. Without enlightenment, people will continue to find this ever-changing world the very source of grief. Our world of grief is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo-e artists depict scenes from "pleasure quarters" (the floating world) such as Kabuki stars, beautiful women, or scenes from a play, namely as objects that people crave. As one desires those objects in Ukiyo-e, or as they experience that desire in Ukiyo itself, s/he must know that one day those objects will disappear, causing suffering. Ukiyo-e’s plays on dual senses where “fantasy is pleasure” and “reality is grief”; this is the kind of dual world that Miyazaki always establishes in his films. On the one hand, he elaborates an animated reality based on a contemporary postindustrial culture, complete with the latest technology and products, that eventually transforms into a nightmare. Second, he also establishes a world out of his own fantasy in which a child encounters the vanity of materialism and learns to balance materialism with a need for spirituality there. For him, animation inhabited by children as characters is a radical form that he can use to speak out against the dominant ideology of consumer capitalism — radical because animation is a by-product of modern technology and because children are a special target of capitalist marketing. By using narratives with child characters moving through an animated world, the director aims his vision at a more general audience immersed in a lifestyle of hedonistic consumption.

Spirited Away: entering the
capitalized spirit world

Spirited Away stages a modernizing Japan in the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Western influences overpowered the nation politically and ideologically and one of the most significant influences from the West to Japan was the reorganization of Japanese society into a capitalist one. During the Edo period (1603-1867), the autocratic Samurai class controlled the whole nation and Japan closed its door to most other nations in order to preserve itself. In 1853, Commodore Perry from the United States urged Japan to start trading with other nations. In the following year, Japan opened its door to other nations and the Meiji era, which is considered as the period of restoration, began. In this Meiji restoration, the influx of the Western culture brought to Japan both chaos and growth, represented by the mixing of Japanese identity with Western architecture, philosophy, fashion, and values.

Chihiro’s parents devour the food in the Yuya. As a result, they are turned into pigs by the curse.

Miyazaki takes us back to Meiji Japan by sending the protagonist, who was born in contemporary times, to a modernizing Japan. The story goes as follows: Chihiro, an apathetic ten year-old girl, is moving from the city to a rural area with her family. While they are driving to their new home, they wander into a closed theme park, now called the Yuya. It's actually is a leisure center built in the spiritual world by a greedy witch, Yubaba. This mystical town resembles Meiji Japan in terms of architecture, during which time the style was a mix of Western and Japanese. By the witch’s curse, Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro must serve as a laborer at the Yuya in order to rescue them. At the Yuya, she encounters a mysterious boy named Haku, and with his help, the meek girl now learns to meet the challenges of the distressing spirit world. By having Chihiro live in the era of a modernizing Japan, Miyazaki invites the audience to experience what we really were losing as a nation and personally during that period.

The Yuya: a capitalist society of the spirit world

To begin with, Miyazaki sets up the structure of the Yuya as very class-oriented and he use it to represent capitalist society in general. Chihiro first appears as a child within a nuclear family, which is the base of capitalist society, providing and reproducing the labor force via its children. While parents are usually responsible for maintaining the family by exchanging their labor for money for their needs, Chihiro’s parents are taken away by Yubaba’s curse in the film. Thus Chihiro now has to take the responsibility to bring her family back by working for the Yuya. By forcing Chihiro to exchange her labor for what she desires, the film represents her as a working-class worker, a child whose childhood has been stolen from her. In an example that makes explicit Miyazaki's equation of labor with wage slavery, in one scene Chihiro meets Kamajii, the boiler man, who introduces himself as a "slave to the boiler that heats the baths." Since the whole bathhouse is owned and managed by Yubaba, he means that he is a slave to his employer. In addition, Kamajii has six arms to operate the boiler that presents him as new machinery that enables minimization of paid employees - not unlike robotics one might see on a production line. While he is working, another female worker brings him food provided by the Yuya, and in another moment, we see Kamajii sleeping right there in his workplace. These cues indicate the Yuya provides him shelter and food only as he provides his labor force; by seizing his forces of production, the Yuya owns him as its property.

Soots bringing coals into the boiler. Kamajii receives food from Lin. He works, eats, and sleeps in the Yuya.

Moreover, just as the workers must have a job to survive, Yubaba needs their labor to survive. While Kamajii is talking to Chihiro, his helpers, called Susuwatari (soot), who bring coal into the boiler, get distracted. Kamajii then yells at them saying that if they do not work, Yubaba's magic will not work on them anymore and they will be turned back into mere soot. This means that Yubaba actually keeps them alive to work for her. Since she keeps the lower class spirits alive, her character symbolizes the bourgeoisie who own the capital to hire lower-class laborers. She is the only one who does paperwork, who lives in luxurious rooms and owns jewelry, and who dons a dress not suited for physical labor. Yubaba, hence, is positioned as bourgeois and other spirits as proletariat, and the Yuya’s functioning depends upon this capitalist system.

A street in the Yuya and .... ... a street from the Meiji era.
In both the animation and the actual construction, we can see ... ... a mixture of Western and Japanese style architecture typical of the Meiji.

Power dynamics between the West and Japan

Yubaba’s dominance over the Yuya also symbolizes the power dynamics between the West and Japan. Through the things that Yubaba owns, we can recognize that she represents the West. For example, in comparison with all the workers, who wear a uniform which looks like traditional Japanese clothing, Yubaba wears a Western dress. The whole building of the Yuya — its exterior and interior design — are Japanese except the highest floor where Yubaba works. There, the interior decore is more westernized, with carpets and doors. Everything Yubaba owns, and only that, is styled according to Western taste; this visual aspect of environment in the film is meant to represent the West’s dominance over Japan in the Meiji period.

A cultural studies scholar, Koichi Iwabuchi (2002), explains the power dynamics begun during the Meiji period by describing early industrialized Japan as a “faceless economic superpower” whose cultural influence on the globe is still so weak that no matter how strong its economy becomes, “Japan is culturally and psychologically dominated by the West” (2). More recently, in the 1980s, Japanese cultural products, represented by anime and manga, started gaining in cultural influence around the globe. Iwabuchi, however, points out that this kind of influence has happened because Japanese cultural products have become “culturally odor-less products,” that are already Westernized or appear neutral rather than being Japanese (Iwabuchi, 2001). Observing the flux of Japanese culture represented within U.S. media, such as Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, 2005) which uses English-speaking Chinese actresses to play Japanes geisha, a Japanese film scholar, Keisuke Kitano (2005), questions his own society: Since when has Japan started depending on other nations’ entertainment industries to create an image of Japan? (10) Iwabuchi emphasizes that no such pure Japanese culture that remains the same has ever existed. Rather, Japan certainly experienced a hybridization of civilizations as its national identity has become an amalgam of Japan and the West.

As these scholars observe, a power dynamics of the West over Japan is still alive. Spirited Away dramatizes such dynamics by using a powerful character, Yubaba, to symbolize the West. In order to show the consequences of Western economics and cultural values, the film enacts issues common to modernized Japan through what happens in the Yuya and to the main characters.

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