copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

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.

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.

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.

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.

Devaluing spirituality and human relationships

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:

“Heaven was so near to earth that an arrow shot from the earth made a hole in the bottom of it through which objects fell which are still found upon the earth. Spirits, both good and evil, were supposed to exist everywhere and Shinto was an unorganized worship of these deities.” (Underwood, 1934, p. 16, cites 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,

"Our old enemy 'poverty' somehow disappeared, and we can no longer find an enemy to fight against" (Miyazaki, 1988).

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:

"They know money is no more than an image and yet engage in its economy where use-value has been increasingly replaced and displaced by images (one of the primary definitions of post-modernism) all the same” (p. xvi).

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.

Identity confusion

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,

“Will Chihiro get back her name? Will she find her way back to the world of human?”

“Chihiro, a ten year-old girl who got her name taken away…begins to work in a town unlike any other.”

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),

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (181)

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:

Chihiro's father: “A new house and a new school? It is a bit scary."
Chihiro: “I think I can handle it."

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.


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