Spirited Away promotional poster
Spirited Away
by Miyazaki's Fantasy

Spirited Away [Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi] Japan: 2001
(124 min) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki

reviewed by Mick Broderick

    There has never been a work of art created which didn't somehow reflect its own time'.[1]

    'Japanese today have nothing to rely on in their minds. They have alienated themselves from their own natural and spiritual environment.'[2]
    Hayao Miyazaki, Director
Coinciding with the the 50th anniversary of legendary Japanese anime creator Tezuko Osamu's Mighty Atom (Tetsuwan Atom, aka: Astro Boy), the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Oscar for Best Animated Feature to Miyazaki's 2001 production, Spirited Away (Sen to Chihrio no Kamikakushi). Just as Tezuko's groundbreaking television work of the early 1960s (Astro Boy, Kimba: the White Lion) found an international audience, a half-century later Miyazaki can arguably claim the title of King of Japanime.

Stylistically and thematically the two giants of anime may seem superficially to have little in common. However, both artists use(d) manga texts for the basis of their audio-visual projects and both use temporal dislocation to comment on their contemporary episteme. Where one looked to the future, the other dwells on the past. Whereas Tezuko concentrated on cooperation between dominant and marginalised communities (or species), Miyazaki is more preoccupied with the loss of Japanese 'spirit' and its corresponding mythologies. Yet both anime creators privilege the perspective of children as protagonist/heroes. With Tezuko it's boys, with Miyazaki it's girls.

Princess Mononoke promotional poster

The young female protagonists of Miyazaki's scenarios are bold, confident and adventurous (for all the right reasons). The elder women are often ambiguous and seemingly victims of being women in a man's world, or railing, if not overcompensating, against this. Miyazaki's universe is often populated by domineering female characters in opposition to the girls or adolescents shown 'becoming' women (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). In many ways, Miyazaki is chiefly interested in exploring the rites of passage of girls, a subject more frequently associated in western cinema as being the domain of male concerns. More generically Miyazaki's trajectory also charts the passage of child into adulthood, and like his famous predecessor, Tezuka-san, Miyazaki views his contemporary society through the skewing prism of emergence; the transformation from one state into the next. But for Spirited Away, Miyazaki modifies his approach:

    Until now, I made 'I wish there was such a person' leading characters. This time, however, I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize, someone about whom one can say, 'Yes, it's like that.' It's very important to make it plain and unexaggerated. Starting with that, it's not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances... I wanted to tell such a story in this movie. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too have such a wish.[3]
The post-industrial age for Miyazaki is tempered by a sense of loss, not so much of innocence, but of origin where the importance of space, place and context needs reinvigoration. To launch Spirited Away Miyazaki conducted an interview at an historical museum park of century-old (Meiji and Taisho era) shops and houses, where he professed a strong affinity with his film's imagined landscape:

    I feel nostalgic here, especially when I stand here alone in the evening, near closing time, and the sun is setting—tears well up in my eyes (laughs) .... I think we have forgotten the life, the buildings, and the streets we used to have not so long ago. I feel that we weren't so weak ... for example, a life in that house you see there (pointing at one of the buildings in the park) was a modest one. They ate a small amount of food, enough to fit on a small table in a tiny room. Everyone thinks our problems today are the big problems we have for the first time in the world. But I think we just aren't used to them, what with the recession and all.[4]
Japan, of course, is situated on and is subject to the capricious tectonic violence of the Pacific Rim, regularly facing earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and typhoons. Similarly, much modern and postmodern anime overtly or subtextually documents the mass trauma of World War II and the dislocations brought by surrender and occupation, as well rapid social, economic and political reconstruction. In the Japanime world, from the futuristic post-holocaust imaginings of Astro Boy and Akira, much manga/anime serves to recount age-old narratives of catastrophe and rebirth via a quasi-apocalyptic sensibility. Miyazaki's oeuvre often embraces the apocalyptic to recount epochal change, from the post-holocaust environment of NausicaĠ; the losing battle of Princes Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) between ancient gods and Muromachi Era proto-modern humans encroaching into Japan's forests, killing all before them; to Spirited Away's pantheon of animistic deities and their seemingly futile quest for relevance in the 21st century by baiting and entrapping ignorant po-mo Japanese to be used as food stock.

My Neighbour Totoro

Miyazaki's films are mostly quite literally journeys (Laputa: Castle of the Sky, Porco Rosso, Kiki, Totoro, Mononoke) which revel in depicting travel (particularly flight) yet simultaneously illustrate an internal, emotional voyage as much as the external exploration depicts familiar and alien terrains. As the following summary suggests many of the director's recurrent themes are apparent in this new work.

Chihiro and her parents in Spirited Away

Spirited Away is concerned with the adventures of a ten-year-old girl, Chihiro, who is despondent at having to leave the city and her friends to take up a new home in the countryside. Her parents seem oblivious of or dismissive towards her dismay at being uprooted. When they take a wrong turn and discover a tunnel, Chihiro and her parents encounter a mysterious abandoned theme park. The girl seems terrified by strange environs—a dark forest, dirt road, derelict miniature roadside shrines and a carved stone bollard smiling ambiguously. It is all very alien to her previously insulated worldview. She is reluctant to follow her parents into the gloomy tunnel, but they drag her along, regardless.

Chihiro's father transformed into a hog

Initially disorientated by a huge, archaic internal chamber, the adults deduce that the fake walls and period decor is actually a fašade. The building isn't an antique, but contemporary; an abandoned 'old world' amusement park that proliferated shortly before Japan's bubble economy burst. After crossing an incomplete, artificial river the family is drawn towards delicious aromas of food coming from the deserted theme village. Despite Chihiro's protests both parents stuff themselves with the abundant free food. Disgusted, the girl wanders off before meeting a boy not much older than herself who warns her to flee the village and cross the river before night falls and it's too late to escape. But the park suddenly comes to life with food stalls and amusements lighting up in the twilight and eerie, spectral figures emerge as the park's true patrons. A terrified Chihiro makes it back to her parents who have now been transformed into large bloated pigs, unable to communicate with their daughter. Worse still, Chihiro begins to disappear, becoming transparent. The mysterious boy (Master Haku) re-emerges and helps her by casting various spells to reanimate the child and make her temporarily invisible to the spirits inhabiting the park, but she is eventually discovered and pursued inside an enormous bath house which caters exclusively for spirits, demons and gods.

Chihiro with a Bath house Radish Spirit

At Haku's suggestion and in a bid to save her parents by remaining in this enchanted world, Chihiro strikes a deal with the witch Yububa, a greedy crone (reminiscent of a giant Victorian Punch 'n Judy doll) who runs the bath house. Yububa's powerful sorcery removes a number of kanji idiograms from the girl's signed contract, leaving only the name Sen, an identity Chihiro mesmerically adopts, forgetting her own name in the process. Sen is given the establishment's lowest job of cleaning out the filthiest baths, but proves her worth by unselfishly ministering to a putrid Stink God. After removing an impaled bicycle and other discarded junk from the malodorous creature, Sen is rewarded by the rejuvenated spirit, now transformed into an ancient and powerful River God who assumes the appearance of a serpent and flies off, grateful for the diligent child's cleansing.

Chihiro and the capricious No Face

Another, this time faceless, spirit tries to befriend Sen, offering her gold and other rewards, but she refuses. Her colleagues, however, line up to serve the creature in the hope of securing his gild. In a rage, No Face begins consuming all the resort's food and then some of the bath house staff. Yubaba compels Sen to placate the faceless, engorged spirit. But when Sen sights a distressed Haku, now a dragon, mortally wounded and fleeing a flock of paper birds, she sets out to help and rescue him. Without thought for her safety, the 10 year-old scales the outside of the towering building and helps nurse the dragon (Haku) back to sanctuary. Sen's early gift from the River God is fed to the unconscious Haku in the hope that it will prevent his demise.

On the magic train to visit Zeniba to break Haku's
No Face and Chihiro enjoy Zeniba's hospitality
In order to break the spell that threatens Haku's life, Sen undertakes an uncertain, magical train journey to meet Yububa's twin sister, Zeniba, who has poisoned the young dragon for stealing a charm. Unlike the mean and avaricious bath house witch, Zeniba is a kind and generous sorceress who helps Sen in her quest to save Haku and find an escape for her bewitched parent/pigs. Sen's gift cures Haku and the boy confronts Yububa before flying off, in dragon form, to meet the courageous girl. Reunited, Sen and Haku recognise each other from an earlier time when Chihiro nearly drowned but was miraculously saved. Both children recall each other's names and Yububa's spell over Haku is instantly broken when Chihiro recounts dragon Haku's true name—that of a river god.

Haku in his dragon state, mortally wounded

Back at the bath house, Yububa has one last trickster test for Sen/Chihiro in order for the girl to liberate her parents. But the crone's ploy fails and Chihiro leaves the park freely only to find her disoriented parents back at the tunnel through which their adventure began. Like the Old Testament Lot, the girl is warned by Haku not to look back when departing the spirit world, lest she remain there forever. Though tempted, it's advice that she heeds ...

Chihiro is farewelled by Haku

Miyazaki once again evokes a spiritual realm to counterpoint (post)modern Japanese society. Although the symbolism can at times be crude (Chihiro's corpulent credit card wielding father turning into an overindulgent hog), the specific market for this particular anime, it should be stressed, is pre-teen children. Nevertheless the film's allegory of contemporary Japan too far removed from its spiritual and mythological essence is both nostalgic and potentially reactionary but carries enormous potency for both domestic and international (western) audiences alike.

Fifty years ago Tezuka's optimistic mecha anime heralded tolerance and cooperation in a 'boys own' utopian future. However, the march towards consumerism, globalisation and the eradication of childhood innocence and agency, particularly for Japanese girls, spells collective social atrophy for director Mayazaki. The rediscovery of mythic origins, tradition, honour and self-sacrifice are all essential ingredients in this artist's life work. Yet this is an agenda that celebrates diversity over uniformity, complexity over simplicity, ambiguity over dogma. And all of this while formally crafting some of the most beautiful imagery to grace the cinema. But that's another story... .


[1] Hayao Miyazaki, 'Interview with Miyazaki', reprinted from Animerica Anime & Manga Monthly, 1997, site accessed 14 April 2003.

[2] Hayao Miyazaki,(1997). 'Miyazaki, Hayao', in The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, ed. Mark Schilling, New York: Wetherhill, p. 146.

[3] Hayao Miyazaki, 'Interview: Miyazaki on Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi', site accessed 14 April 2003.

[4] Hayao Miyazaki, 'Interview: Miyazaki on Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi', site accessed 14 April 2003.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/broderick_review.html.

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