Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols

By Reider, Noriko T. | Film Criticism, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols


Reider, Noriko T., Film Criticism


Released in 2001, Miyazaki Hayao's (1) (1941 -) animated film entitled Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) became the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. It won a number of awards, including a 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Festival in 2002. Derek Elley, a reviewer, writes, "It's almost impossible to do justice in words either to the visual richness of the movie, which melanges traditional Japanese clothes and architecture with both Victorian and modern-day artifacts, or to the character-filled storyline with human figures, harpies and grotesque creatures" (72). Many critics have compared Spirited Away with such western stories as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, or even Harry Potter. While the influence of western stories, art, and architecture is evident, as Miyazaki himself expressed, Spirited Away is replete with Japanese folklore, tradition, and symbolism. Indeed, the title itself, kamikakushi (hidden by kami/ deities), alludes to Japanese folk belief. Some of the film's principal characters such as Yubaba (a descendent of yamauba or mountain witch) and Kamaji (a tsuchigumo or earth spider) are reminiscent of characters found throughout Japanese folklore, their residence within the bathhouse offering a reflection of Japan's vertical society. To this point, situating the film as an exemplary work of the fantastic, I shall examine covert and overt Japanese folk beliefs, imagery, and symbolism of the film as a text, which resonates with voices of Japanese past and present.

Spirited Away as a Film of the Fantastic

Spirited Away is an adventure and coming-of-age film in which the main character, a young girl by the name of Chihiro, embarks on a quest to save her family from a supernatural spell. The film opens with Chihiro's family moving to a new town, leaving Chihiro uneasy and sulky. On their way to their new house, the family unwittingly enters into a supernatural realm, where Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs. While Chihiro is in a panic, a mysterious boy named Haku appears and offers his help. Chihiro learns that the only way to break the spell and re-enter the "human-world" is to find work at the bathhouse (of the supernatural). There, through various challenges and pitfalls, Chihiro finds friendship, she finds a way to help her family, and most importantly, she finds herself.

According to Todorov, "the fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event" (25). As many critics have noted, Todorov's definition of the fantastic is limited, marked by the duration of hesitation or uncertainty by the reader, and often the characters themselves. Spirited Away is an exemplary work of the fantastic in that the uncertainty is experienced both by the character and the audience. (2) For the protagonist, Chihiro, the uncertainty comes at the beginning of the film in the restaurant area of a strange town in the other world. Seeing her parents turned into pigs before her eyes, Chihiro talks to herself, "What? I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming. Come on, wake up. Wake up! It's just a dream. It's just a dream. Go away. Go away. Disappear..." Chihiro then realizes that her body is disappearing. Panicked, she cries out, "I'm see-through! It's just a bad dream!" Clearly Chihiro thinks what she has seen and what she is experiencing are against natural law. Luckily, Haku, the apprentice of Yubaba, who is the owner of the bathhouse, comes to the rescue and gives Chihiro some food from this strange realm in order to prevent her from disappearing. The motif of consuming food from the other world in order to stay alive in that realm may remind the audience of a famous Japanese mythological story of Izanagi and Izanimi. Izanimi, the female creator of Japan, dies while giving birth to a fire deity. Izanagi, her brother and husband as well as male counterpart, misses her so much that he goes to the nether land to retrieve her. …

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