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A Study Of The Spiritual Transformation In Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away

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A Brief Analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

We all live to accomplish something within our lifetime. We all go through changes in order for such to happen. Spirited Away is an epic tale, produced by Hayao Miyazaki, about a young girl who enters a fantasy world that marks the spiritual transformation of her juvenile outlook to a life of humility and goodwill. Directed and produced by Hayao Miyazaki, cofounder of Studio Ghibli and director of a myriad of other anime films, Spirited Away was released in Japan on July 20th, 2001 and in the USA on April 20th, 2002 at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The story revolves around a young girl, Chihiro Ogino, and her parents are on a trip to move to a new city in modern-age japan. When her father decides to take an unexpected short cut, the family comes to an old torii on a path that led to an abandoned theme park. Little did they know they had entered a fantasy world called The Land of Spirits. When Chihiro’s parents discover a seemingly open food stand, they sit down to dine. Chihiro’s reluctance to eat saved her from being turned into a pig as her parents did after their meal. Chihiro was then taken into a bathhouse and her identity was signed over to Yubaba, the bath madame. She was put under a series of tests throughout the film and discovered the importance of humility and humbleness when she passed the test that transformed her parents back into humans and, after which, was able to go home.

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What I find incredible about this film is that it was all digitally made by one man’s vision. Miyazaki always had the say in the making of his anime[1]. After researching to look for the movie’s original cels, I quickly found that there were none. The whole movie was created through computer generation. I also found that Miyazaki didn’t have an original script for the film[2]. He never had a plan for the plot line when he was creating his story. He simply started drawing out a scene and went with the flow from wherever it left off on his last piece. The filmmaker stated in an interview with Midnight Eye, “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow[1].” Spirited Away was a film that was written on a whim with no plan, and it broke box office records.

It was released in Japan in mid-2001 and is still the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Surmounting James Cameron’s Titanic in Japanese box offices, Spirited Away brought in 30.4 billion yen — about 270 million US dollars[3]. The fact that most of Studio Ghibli’s films had made near this number in sales, Disney Studios had naturally been eyeing some ownership. In mid-1996, Tokuma Shoten Publishing made an agreement with Disney to allow Disney to distribute Studio Ghibli’s films internationally with a strict policy on not editing any of the films[4].

Ironically, however, the connection Studio Ghibli has with Disney has no connection with the voice actress used in the English dub. Daveigh Chase was casted as the voice of Chihiro after her performance in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. After she horrified viewers in The Ring as Samara, she was then casted to voice Lilo in Lilo and Stitch which may be why her voice is so recognizable when one watches Spirited Away[5]. I personally loved Chase’s performance in Spirited Away much better than her voice for Lilo. It was a much better fit. In Lilo and Stitch, Chase’s voice was cute, but not as suitable to the nature of the story as Chihiro in Spirited Away was. However, I discovered Spirited Away before I watched Lilo and Stitch, so that may be the reason why I lean more toward her work with Miyazaki, even though it was her first voice acting gig.

Miyazaki has always been a powerful filmmaker. Through his creativity and spontaneity he has created over 15 big-name anime films with Studio Ghibli — most of which have all ended happily. However, this sunny disposition isn’t exactly what Miyazaki believes in. In an interview with Midnight Eye, he expressed his deeply cynical view of world[1]. He likes to integrate optimism purely for his viewers. Yet, Miyazaki shows more compassion for his Japanese viewers more than anyone else. When Spirited Away was nominated (and elected) for “Best Animated Feature” at the 75th Academy Awards in America, he silently refused to make an appearance, but in later years admitted it was because he is against America’s involvement in the Afghan war[6]. He respects every culture and religion equally but shows favoritism towards his Japanese viewers in his film Spirited Away by integrating the important aspects of the Shinto religion and culture into the film.

There are several Shinto references throughout the film such as when Chihiro and her parents pass a torii in the beginning of the film. A torii is a gateway shrine in the Shinto religion to signify the passage from the sacrilegious to the divine[7]. It is a literal checkpoint in life, where a crucial spiritual advancement occurs. From a Shinto perspective, there is an imminent beauty throughout life, nature, and beings called kami. In order to experience and appreciate this beauty, one needs to have a clear and complete heart and mind. Shinto believers practice spiritual cleansing in order to achieve kami and be genuinely sincere to the world. In the film, Chihiro goes through a similar process. Having her parents taken away from her and being stripped of her identity and put through a series of difficult tests.

After reading up on the allusions Miyazaki made to Shinto perspectives in this film, watching it again was never the same. I felt as if Miyazaki had been speaking to the public as a whole and not just to younger audiences. There’s an underlying motif directed towards those who have knowledge of the basic parameters of the Shinto religion. And even for those who know of it, but don’t follow it, it gives them a peculiar desire to do good in the world and to be humble simply because it is the right thing to do. After this research, I was inspired by this film in a whole new way. Before, the goal was about escaping the trap of the bathhouse. Now the goal is about remembering the bathhouse and how it was a catalyst for good intentions, even though it was thought to be an insidious house of burdens.

There are several theories spoken on Reddit forums about how twisted the plot potentially could be interpreted as. In the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, a bathhouse was commonly known to be a brothel[8]. Prostitutes were known to sign over their names and identities to their brothel madame referred to as Yubaba — you guessed it, the name of the madame who owned the bathhouse in Spirited Away. It gets even worse when the one recalls the interactions between Chihiro and No-Face, a faceless spirit who took a liking to Chihiro. His act of giving her gold and bath tokens to be seemingly appreciative of her becomes perverse instead of thoughtful; one could infer he was trying to buy her virginity. Looking under a dull lens, Spirited Away could be interpreted as the tale of a 10 year old girl who was tricked into being prostituted, but since the story takes place in modern-day Japan, that theory is merely an observation.

Regardless of an attempt to possibly corrupt this movie the theme of this film still resonates within me today, just as it did when I first saw it as a young child. As I stray from the protection of my parents and start to live on my own, I find myself going through extreme wormholes and hoops set on fire in this world of stress. Throughout those adversities I’ve always learned something about myself, and I’ve always become more aware of the impact I have upon the world and those in it. I have always felt a connection with Chihiro in that sense. This film gave me courage to try and make it on my own, even before I knew my whole world was going to change. And for this, I feel as if my whole world is indebted to Hayao Miyazaki.

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