Beneath the mesh of colours and imagery in the worlds that sprout from the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki is a subtle organic quality. There is an appeal to something truly fundamental within us; a nature that perhaps the viewer himself has drifted away from. The world of Spirited Away is whimsical and serene at times, as much as it is frantic and frightening at others. As we are swept away by the Spirit World alongside Chihiro, we too set on a journey through the laborious work of the bathhouse and the mysterious sea train in search of what it truly means to grow up.
At the start of her story, Chihiro is morose, she is moving away with her parents and she rejects this change that is ripping her away from her friends; she only has a fading bouquet to remember them by. As they enter a woodland path her gaze is attracted by the dilapidated shrines by the wayside; they too have been abandoned by the relentless cogs of change. There is a helplessness to our protagonist; as the family encounters the mysterious gate, she is anxious and wary of this path, but her father pays her no mind. Miyazaki echoes the eerie rhetoric of our society that hushes young people and especially young women.
Chihiro’s story is a journey, the train station-like room that separates the spirit world from the outside reminds us of that. Soon Chihiro’s parents are allured by the food of the spirit town and indulge in it, for not respecting the rules of this world they are punished and turned into hogs. Chihiro is frightened and in disbelief at the scene, she is alone, and soon she too starts fading as this world rejects her presence. In a blink of an eye, Chihiro is swallowed by this mysterious world populated by shadowy and bizarre spirits. As the stillness subsides and gives way to the bustling stalls and shops Chihiro learns from Haku that to survive in this world is to work. She has been stripped of the complacency of childhood and thrown into a world that ostracizes her; Chihiro teeters on the bridge of change to adulthood.
As she encounters the denizens of the bathhouse Chihiro feels out of place, the spidery Kamaji is engrossed in his work and Lin chastises her for her lack of manners. In Spirited Away every spirit, from the anthropomorphic frogs to the soot have a function, except Chihiro. The bathhouse runs like a well-oiled machine, and Chihiro feels hopelessly out of place within it. Yet, she strives to be employed and accepted by Yubaba, the witch at the head of the bathhouse. Miyazaki portrays this insecurity through her traverse of the bathhouse as she attempts to reach Yubaba’s office; she is bewildered by a variety of peculiar patrons, but she also learns to fear them less through her encounter with the well-mannered Radish Spirit.
“I m Kamaji, Slave To The Boiler That Heats The Baths” – Kamaji
Miyazaki posits a criticism of a society that quantifies the value of the people based on the work they can do, and a working culture that is out of touch and hostile to younger generations. The denizens of the bathhouse are frantic and single-minded in their tasks; they have become so enthralled in their work that they fail to show any human compassion to Chihiro. The buzz and frenzy of the bathhouse is a mirror to a modern work ethic that dehumanizes the individual; as Chihiro is stripped of her name and reduced to only being Sen, we too might come to think of the parts of ourselves that we had to give to fit in.
Names and identity are important in the portrait painted by Miyazaki, it is because she is reminded of her name by Haku that Sen cannot lose herself and her purpose to the cogs of the bathhouse. She works and strives as arduously as she can; it is not working that Miyazaki criticizes, it is an ethic that removes the purpose behind it and reduces it to a mere automated function. Although she may have lost her name Sen can remain true to herself. When the putrid River Spirit comes into the bathhouse, it is through Sen’s kindness and understanding that he can be cleansed of its pollution. Her attentiveness is the key to the situation; the detritus that the river spirit is freed from is Miyazaki’s reminder that responsibility is multifaceted. Realizing our responsibility to the environment, he tells us, is an integral part of growing up, even when it includes getting one’s hands dirty.
The bathhouse is the vehicle of Sen’s understanding of the adult world, the young girl that had failed to understand her parent’s reasons for moving away has learned of the importance of work. Yet, to Miyazaki, that is not where the world ends. The vast azure sea that stretches beyond the horizon of the bathhouse is a reminder of the immensity of the world. Life is more than a function we are told, there is a beauty to it. In his cinematography, Miyazaki draws onto the concept of “Ma”, a breath between every action; a pause of meditation that stands in gracious contrast with the busyness of the bathhouse. Spirited Away warns against closing oneself to that immensity.
Yubaba in her overprotectiveness keeps the comically oversized baby, Bō, secluded within his room. He is temperamental and warry of the outside. He is a contrast to Sen that has been stripped from her protected childhood and flung into the working world, He is trapped within his small pond and cannot learn to stand on his own.
Similarly, No-Face too is a contrast to the values posited by Miyazaki. It is a lost spirit that has no attachment and no function; it wanders in search of a place to belong. He is attracted to Sen’s kindness to him, but as he haunts the bathhouse, he takes on the characteristic of those around him, including their greed. No-Face is a blank canvas upon which the world around him is imprinted, he has no ‘self’ to call his own. As he devours the denizens of the bathhouse, he devolves into a grotesque mess of creatures that is moved by its own misconstrued sense of attachment. He attempts to feel the void of his existence by indulging in food and buying companionship; he is a warning against replacing what matters in life with encroaching materialism.
It is Sen that liberates him from his state of corruption, through the herbal ball that she was gifted by the River Spirit; there is permanence in the effect of Sen’s kindness. The compassion she shows others reverberates around her and is key to her overcoming the trials she faces; she now has a voice in the face of the world that hushed her. As he gushes away those that he had swallowed, No-Face returns to his original form and seeks out Sen. Together with her and Bō, now turned into a mouse, they adventure on the train to seek Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba.
In the swirling madness of Spirited Away it is again the comprehension of Sen that is the light at the end of the tunnel. The herbal ball is a metaphor for the curative powers of acceptance and understanding. But often it is not enough, like in resolving the situation she had caused with No-Face, Sen feels obligated to make well Haku’s wrong. In the way, the relationship between Sen and Haku is portrayed there is a wider implication. Haku is a River Spirit that has lost its identity as the river it inhabited fell prey to urbanization. Like Sen, he too has lost his identity and is desperately longing to find what he has lost. His desperate attempt to learn magic is a product of that longing. The obligation and love that Sen feels for him are a mirror of our whittling relationship with nature; the parks and rivers of our childhood too have given way to suburbs and skyscrapers; they have been forgotten. Miyazaki reminds us that even if a change is inescapable it is our responsibility to not forgot and to preserve, that too is part of growing up in this world.
“I’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place. Someday I’m Getting On That Train.” – Lin
On Sen’s train journey, the movie pauses in contemplation. The tracks that lead away from the bathhouse only go one way, there is no coming back from this journey it would appear. Time is dynamic Miyazaki seems to tell us, the passengers aboard the train are from an era long gone. The viewer is reminded of the wayside shrines of the start of our story, there is a melancholic yet ineluctable quality to the passage of time. There is a progression to the seafaring train’s journey; the isolated cottage gives way to a town and as the night sets neon lights brighten the sky; the train is drawing ever so close to modern times, it is a motion of change. As Sen observes those changing sceneries on the ocean’s horizon the viewer accompanies her in meditating the weight of changing eras and time. People and places have come and gone before us Miyazaki reminds us, the cogs of time cannot be stopped. Yet, we are urged to not forget the beauty and the value of what has passed. The person we are would not be without what came before us, to forget is to tarnish the past and the future alike and Haku and the River Spirit are reminders of the consequences of that.
In its resolution, Spirited Away reminds us that there is a plenitude to growing. To Miyazaki, allowing oneself to be lost within the machine of society to fit in is futile. The world is wide he tells, to meander in search of purpose is part of the human condition. But too often do we forget that we are a part of a whole; nature, society, and the individual complete each other. As Chihiro is laid bare to her most fragile and pure form at the start of her journey, she needs to learn of the aspects of the world she lives to understand what is truly important, but it is also by grasping who she really is that empowers her.
“Once You’ve Met Someone You Never Really Forget Them. It Just Takes A While For Your Memories To Return.” – Zeniba
Like her, No-Name too finds solace after his abandoned the futility of indulgence. In finding a place to belong alongside Zeniba he feels fulfilled. In turn, we would like to believe that the presence of No-Face is welcomed by the elderly and hermitic Zeniba; there is importance in supporting one another. Bō too, through his journey has come to realise the beauty of the world outside, at the end of his journey he has learned to stand on his own two feet. They have both come closer to understanding their identities.
In the end, it is because Chihiro remembers Haku’s identity that he is saved. Haku whose identity had faded to the relentless movement of human society becomes once more whole when Chihiro reminds him of his true name. Names and identities are at the core of what we are, but they are also how we remember the important things of our lives. Memories and Nature too brim with personality; in the growing penumbra of human development, it has become more important than ever to not lose our light and to remember the important things of life.
“Your Real Name Is Kohaku River” – Chihiro
There are wholeness and melancholy to the way Hayao Miyazaki describes growing up. He urges and screams for us to not allow ourselves to be swallowed by a modern society that disavows the human condition and our responsibilities to nature in favour of a cruel utilitarian worldview. Chihiro’s story has done a full circuit on the tracks, but through her journey, Chihiro has learned of the values of the world. Purpose, nature, and responsibility are all integral parts of what makes us who we are. As Chihiro returns to her world with her parents we would like to believe that she has found her voice and that she will hold her identity close to her heart as she makes her way through the world.